Astro Echoes – Sky and Telescope, 1941

Picture of a boy looking through a telescope to represent astronomy

As part of my education on all things astronomy, I try to read a variety of modern sources of information including discussion forums on Facebook and Cloudy Nights, helpful tips from blogs, the big name astro books like Nightwatch, and the various monthly magazines like Astronomy, Sky News, and Sky and Telescope.

A couple of years ago, one of the members of our astronomy club, Paul, passed away and another member, Attilla, was helping his widow clean out some of the astronomy collection that he had accumulated. He had a collection of Sky and Telescope materials going back to 1966 to get rid of, and while some people might see that as merely an opportunity for hoarding, I saw it as an opportunity for learning. Could I read through some 50 years of astronomy articles aimed at backyard astronomers rather than scientists, and if I did read them, what would I glean? What sort of astronomy echoes would I hear from the old issues?

I took all of the magazines that they had, and I also decided to add to my paper collection and see what was available online for even farther back. The first thing to jump out at me was the starting year of the magazine. 1941. I confess, the idea that anyone would start a magazine devoted to amateur astronomy during World War II seems astounding. Of course, at the time, the U.S. wasn’t formally in the war.

Plus, to be fair, life didn’t stand still outside of the war theatre. People were still making movies, writing books, recording music, producing Broadway shows, and airing radio programs. While the history books like to suggest every aspect of home life was geared towards supporting the war effort, some leisurely pursuits were just that…pursuits of leisure and hobbies during difficult times. Distractions for some, occupations even for others.

The second thing that hit me was that I had also never given much thought to the name. Sky and Telescope seems an odd conjunction of two nouns out of context. The first issue of 1941 clears up any grammatical issues with the naming convention…since it was not exactly the first issue of a new magazine. Instead, it was the combination of two other magazines…one named The Sky (a small bulletin started in 1929 with 10 issues per year to 1941, under the auspices of the Amateur Astronomers Association) and another named The Telescope (a quarterly magazine from March 1931-1941, linked to the Perkins Observatory at Ohio Weslyean University). They merged together and, well, you know the result.

November 1941

Sky and Telescope 1941-01 Cover

As I read through the first issue dated November of that year, I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the same elements that continue to appear in modern issues. While it is easy to believe that the last 80 years has produced vastly superior tools, techniques, and equipment for the amateur backyard astronomer, the first issue of Sky and Telescope had:

  • A star map, along with a list of occultations and plotting Jupiter’s Galilean moons throughout the month, as well as an ecliptic chart;
  • An overview + pictures of a planet (Mars);
  • A technical discussion of an interesting physics topic (calculating the exact distance to the sun);
  • International developments, including possible coverage of an eclipse;
  • Photographs from amateur astronomers;
  • A special section on related phenomena, such as aurorae;
  • Tips for users on collimation;
  • An article for beginners, with a good overview of the moon, including the same circular diagram we see today of the phases of the moon being lit up by the sun as the moon circles the Earth (see below);
  • Recent books about astronomy, the sky, or the science of stars; and,
  • A list of amateur astronomy societies for members to join around the world.
Sky and Telescope 1941-01 diagram

(Sky and Telescope, volume 1, issue 1, November 1941: p.17)

Our present-day issues might be more sophisticated with their content, or simply more easily produced for graphs, data, and colour photographs, but the first issue contained all of it in 28 short pages. There is even an extended report on a viewing of the Leonid meteor shower with amateurs taking very detailed observation counts of how many they saw in various parts of the sky.

I was expecting more mention of the war somewhere in the pages. Even perhaps in the opening editorial area, perhaps mentioning the challenge of issuing it during the war, or trying to maintain the hobby, etc. But it doesn’t, at least not directly. However, there is mention of one of the societies reaching out around the world to various astronomy organizations and asking if any of them had anything planned for an eclipse that happened in the fall of that year. In the replies, there are two fascinating letters.

The first was from J.L. Thomsen of the New Zealand Astronomical Society who noted that they had not been able to do anything for the eclipse:

The present world situation has prevented anyone in New Zealand from considering an expedition to observe the eclipse, and indeed, up to the present, I have not heard of any expedition at all that is setting out to observe it. I should imagine, however, that there will be considerable work done in Russia, and I would not be surprised if the Chinese Academy of Sciences made some observations in their territory.

(Sky and Telescope, volume 1, issue 1, November 1941: p.13)

I feel the first sentence to be the politest way of saying, “You know there’s a war on, right?” but I’m equally impressed that in 1941, one would be aware and giving credit to the work of the Russians and Chinese, or suggesting that they would be willing to share their results. Not exactly the view most people would have of either country for the timeframe. Fascinating.

More dramatic though is perhaps a letter from Jaakko Tuominen from the Astronomical Observatory in Helsinki, Finland. The letter, dated from August, notes:

I was wounded in a battle a month ago and came a few days ago home for convalescence furlough. An open hole and a shell splinter are still in my back. We are all in Helsinki, and I try to do astronomical work. We can only wish that the war would be soon over.

In the spring, I succeeded to finish a paper about the drift of sunspots in latitude. It is going to be printed in Zeitshrift fur Astrophysik.

(Sky and Telescope, volume 1, issue 1, November 1941: p.13)

So the guy is wounded, still has an open wound in his back along with shell splinters, and he’s doing astronomy? And I complain about lugging my gear around to the back yard or out to a darker sky site.

There are some other items in the short 28-page issue that are interesting, if not as newsworthy:

  • A report of a noted astronomer giving speeches to debunk astrology (a debate that still surfaces in 2020 and is often quickly shut down in astronomy fora);
  • The number of comets discovered in the previous year (12) making it the most ever, in then-modern times, with pictures of two of them that rival NEOWISE imaging of late;
  • A theoretical consideration of the possibility of life on Mars, and if so, what form it would or could take (spoiler alert: they thought plants were possible, but not likely sentient lifeforms, even if they weren’t positive yet);
  • A report of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), a group that continues today in varying forms and subsidiaries, but which also notes certain individual observers in the group had recorded over 60K observations in their lifetime (and sent in the records), with one member the previous year having recorded over 3K themselves. Others were only at a measly 30K or 50K submitted reports in their lifetime.
  • A biography of the late Canadian J.S. Plunkett, first Director (and major proponent) of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, B.C.
  • Announcements of various radio broadcasts on related science topics.
  • A technical list of auroral forms to aid those in recording what they saw.
  • Tips and tricks / lessons learned for amateur telescope makers.
  • Trivia questions, with a mix of basic and more advanced astro knowledge questions.

Again, did I mention it is only 28 short pages, and packs all of that in? It’s a great issue and even by modern times would be considered money well-spent to receive.

December 1941

Sky and Telescope 1941-02 Cover

The December issue of course went to print long before there would have been the day of infamy in Pearl Harbor, and reading it seems a little surreal. Everything changed for the U.S. during that month, and perhaps changed for the world too. I’m reminded in part of a friend who was in NYC on 9/11, and the night before was at the World Trade Centre past midnight. So their receipt says 9/11 on it. And the next morning, the world’s paradigm shifted.

Yet the issue was already set and has all the standard stuff from the first issue again. There is more about the moon for beginners, observing reports from amateurs including a blackout observing report from a military base in Texas after a hurricane, tips for making your own scope, an observer’s page for the location of the planets / list of occultations / ecliptic chart, and the list of centers/societies, etc. Classified ads were added to the magazine, such as an advertisement for a used 6″ reflector with cell, tube and eyepiece holder for sale, with the mirror guaranteed, and the seller noting he was selling it because he had a larger scope now. But you could write to him in Arizona about the 6″ reflector (alas, it is probably sold by now).

Special articles for the month focused on the new National Observatory in Mexico at Tonanzintla (which is still operational today, although in different forms and not the only one in Mexico), an eclipse report from Guam (written by a member of RASC, Foster Brunton), an overview of Neptune and Uranus (with a shout out to Mercury, Saturn and Pluto) as forgotten planets that don’t get enough attention, a special discussion of possible explanations for the Star of Bethlehem in light of upcoming Christmas festivities, a historical article about a legal dispute from the 1830s regarding building a telescope using a flawed mounting technique, and a detailed account of Harvard-led research to count all the galaxies visible to given magnitudes.

However, the article I found the most reminiscent of modern-day discussions was about an amateur, Herbert M. Harris, who had been introduced to astronomy by a friend in Maine who was trying to form a local club. He wasn’t particularly interested in astronomy at first but he was intrigued by the technique the friend was using to grind his own mirror. Nevertheless, he was hooked enough to buy some books. Then some binoculars. Then a small 3″ telescope. And then, after observing enough variable stars to join the AAVSO, he decided he needed a better setup for his hobby.

A year later, Harris sold his Bardou [refractor] and bought what he calls “a real telescope,” which is housed in the new observatory. This compact, cleverly designed building is situated on a ledge back of his new home and bolted to eight concrete piers. The roof opens in the center, each half sliding back on tracks over extending arms at the corners of the structure. A 50-year old railroad lantern atop a pyramidal post, wired for electricity, and a flight of concrete steps mark the approach, and a blue spruce indicates the beginning of landscaping. This place is fully electrified, with controls on a switchboard, and remote control from his home.

Of course, the center of interest is the impressive 6-inch Clark refractor, with a lens ground by Carl Lundin himself, who figured the famous Yerkes 40-inch glass. The steel pier is bolted and cemented to a 5-foot concrete block based in the ledge. There are friction clutches for quick motion, and slow-motion controls as well. The dew-cap is heated by electricity so the glass remains free of moisture.

The various gadgets necessary for observation are stored in a small corner closet which is heated slightly by an electric warmer. His illuminated star-chart box has two small red electric lights — the red light does not affect the eye adversely during observing.

Together with his friend, Dr. L.W. Hadley, Mr. Harris built a driving machine which he says transgresses mechanical principles in minor ways but has the merit that it works. It consists of a variable-speed motor with worm gears, successfully reducing the speed 40, 52 and five times. A long, vertical shaft and miter gears carry the motion to a worm gear on the telescope’s polar axis, and this cuts the speed 207 times more — completing the reduction from 15,000 revolutions per minute to one revolution in about 24 hours. A patiometer does the final adjusting.

(Sky and Telescope, “A Stargazer’s Workshop” by Adeline Dunton, volume 2, issue 2, December 1941: p.18)

The article includes both a picture of the homemade driving mechanism (I’m not sure the math accurately describes what he did) as well as of the roll-off roof (RoR) observatory. The refractor is shown as elevated above the roof when it is open, and I would love to know what he had inside to stand on for his visual viewing. But the RoR itself? It could probably match any modern designs in a head-to-head consideration.

Both issues are awesome to read, and a fascinating insight into a modern issue vs. the stalwart inclusions in any monthly astronomy magazine.

One year down, another 79 to go.