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Session 28 - HAD II: Modern Astronomical History.
Oral session, Wednesday, January 07

[28.06] The Old Astronomy Meets the New at the U. S. Naval Observatory, 1893-1927

S. J. Dick (USNO)

As the sole national observatory for the United States during the first half of the 20th century, the Naval Observatory provides a unique opportunity to examine how an astronomical institution steeped in the old tradition of visual positional astronomy reacted to the new astronomy characterized by the techniques of photography and spectroscopy. Bound by a narrow mission, the Observatory nevertheless had some room to maneuver in terms of new techniques and directions for research, especially with its move to a new site in 1893.

There is no doubt that the Observatory continued to excel in classical astronomy, epitomized by the transit circle telescope and related instruments for determining precise celestial positions. The careers of W. S. Eichelberger, C. B. Watts and H. R. Morgan testify to this continued excellence. In attempting to implement new techniques, however, the Observatory was less successful. Despite having sent a representative to the International Astrophotographic Congress in Paris in 1887, the Observatory never participated in the famous Carte du Ciel project. Although in 1898 the Observatory began a long-term program of photographing the Sun using existing transit of Venus equipment, prior to the completion of the 40-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope in 1934, all photographic work was based on instruments constructed in-house. The name of G. H. Peters is associated with these latter efforts; with a pair of 10-inch photographic lenses Peters discovered asteroids 886 Washingtonia (1918) and 980 Anacostia (1921).

S. J. Brown attempted spectroscopy with the 26-inch equatorial as early as 1896, but the experiments were abandoned by 1900. Under the tenure of Asaph Hall, Jr. from 1908-1929, the 26-inch returned to its standard program of double star observations. Despite renewed attempts beginning in 1927, only in the second half of the century would the Naval Observatory take up the "new astronomy" in a serious way.

Program listing for Wednesday