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Ian R. Bartky (1934 - 2007)

Ian Bartky died on Tuesday the 18th of December 2007.

Ian Robertson Bartky, a physical chemist who turned to history for his second career, died 18 December 2007 of complications from lung cancer. He was 73. In addition to his scientific career, he will be remembered for his meticulous research on the evolution of time systems, especially for his two books Selling the True Time: Nineteenth Century Timekeeping in America (Stanford University Press, 2000), and One Time Fits All: The Campaigns for Global Uniformity (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Ian was born on 15 March 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the son of Walter Bartky, a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Chicago, and eventually its Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences. The elder Bartky's astronomy textbook, Highlights of Astronomy, published in 1935 and reprinted as late as 1964, includes a considerable discussion of time and standard meridians, which may have influenced Ian, even though his father died in 1958 at the age of 57 when Ian would have been only in his early 20s.

Imbued with the love of science from his father, Ian graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology, and went on to obtain his doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of California Berkeley. He mentor was Nobelist William F. Giauque, and Ian always spoke fondly of Giauque's influence in setting rigorous standards that Ian followed when he joined the National Bureau of Standards [NBS] in 1961. Ian spent most of his career there, and it was there that he acquired his professional interest in time, notably when the House Commerce Committee asked him in the mid-1970s to determine whether the dates of Daylight Saving Time should be extended. This resulted in an NBS report in 1976, which concluded that any energy savings would be miniscule. With his usual attention to detail, Ian researched the entire history of the problem, and thus acquired his second great love after science--history. With Elizabeth Harrison he published a well-known article on the issues involved with Daylight Saving Time in Scientific American for 1979.

My first interaction with Ian was leading up to the 150th anniversary of the United States Naval Observatory [USNO] in December 1980. While working on an article for Sky and Telescope on the early history of the Naval Observatory, I ran across documents in the National Archives from England proposing that the Navy's new Depot of Charts and Instruments--forerunner of the Observatory--erect a time ball as had been done in Portsmouth England in 1829. Ian had been in the National Archives working on the history of time. When I mentioned this 1829 document, he said it was impossible, because the first time ball in the world was in 1833 at Greenwich, England. But the documents told the story, and this Eureka moment led to our article in the Journal for the History of Astronomy (volume 12, October 1981), on the world's first time ball. This was to the considerable chagrin of the staff at Greenwich, who thought they had the world's first time ball, and who still ceremonially drop one at 1 PM local time. Ian went on to write the history of time balls for the Naval Observatory's sesquicentennial symposium at the end of 1980, as published in Sky with Ocean Joined. We then collaborated on another article for JHA (volume 13, February 1982) on the history of the first North American time ball, dropped at the USNO beginning in 1845.

Time balls and Daylight Saving Time were only a small part of Ian's interest in time as he began to untangle the many issues involved in the history of timekeeping and time dissemination. His book Selling the True Time is a model of scholarship, and with it Ian proved to have that rare combination--a scientist with deep technical knowledge who could also ask and answer profound historical questions. He also had a keen appreciation of the role of human nature in history, always looking for the motivations for particular historical actions. Ian was proud to have the book published by Stanford University Press. When Stanford also published his final book One Time Fits All: The Campaigns for Global Uniformity, he was very proud of the glowing endorsement from Peter Galison, one of the country's foremost historians of science. With this book Ian also became the world's expert on the International Date Line, time zones, and standard time, among other aspects of time.

Ian's historical work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Dudley Observatory, and the National Maritime Museum of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, where his work was highly regarded. He was active in many professional organizations, including the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

On 29 March 2008 almost exactly 50 years after the death of his father, a memorial service was held in the library of the U. S. Naval Observatory, which had become Ian's second home during his researches, often accompanied by his wife Betty, to whom he dedicated his last book, calling her his "steadfast partner in this endeavor." The service, entitled "The Time of His Life: A Celebration of Research in the Development of Standard Timekeeping," included remarks by numerous colleagues and friends, surrounded by the books he so loved. Ian is survived by his wife of 47 years, Elizabeth Hodgins Bartky of Bethesda, Maryland, a son David J. Bartky, and a daughter Anne B. Goldberg.

Affiliations: 

National Bureau of Standards

Obituary Written By: 
Steven J. Dick (NASA)
BAAS: BAAS, 2009, 41, 565
DOI: 
BAASOBIT2009001