AAS Meeting #194 - Chicago, Illinois, May/June 1999
Session 1. HAD I: Exhibiting the History of Astronomy
Historical, Oral, Sunday, May 30, 1999, 1:00-5:30pm, Adler Planetarium

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[1.04] Amateur Astronomy at Planetaria and Public Observatories in the United States in the 1930s

T. R. Williams (Rice University)

The 1930s saw an efflorescence of planetaria and public observatories in the largest US cities. These installations were justified as a means of bringing astronomy, or more broadly science, to the public. They were valued for public education and entertainment, and possibly as an attractant for potential young new scientists.

But could it also be said that scientific research was actually promoted among the large assemblages of amateur astronomers which met at, and in some cases were organized to support, these installations? An examination of the amateur societies connected with the Adler Planetarium, Buhl Planetarium, Chabot Observatory, Griffith Observatory and Hayden Planetarium and suggests that doing science was less important than talking about it at these institutions.

The above cases will be compared with three organizations of amateurs that did attempt to mount sustained scientific observing programs in the same period. Located in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Fort Worth, and without access to a major planetarium or public observatory, these amateur societies conducted useful astronomical observing programs. The Milwaukee group also formed a national organization, the American Amateur Astronomical Association or AAAA, to promote scientific work by amateurs. Although some of the planetarium-based societies joined the AAAA, their participation was never substantive in a scientific sense. Unfortunately, the AAAA collapsed when its financial support was withdrawn after less than five years of effort.

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