Frank K. Edmondson

13 09 2011
Frank K. Edmondson

Professor Edmondson at a telescope. Inset with Dr. Caty Pilachowski. Image credit: National Optical Astronomical Observatory News and Reports.

As you can tell from the last few posts, my book collection has grown a bit in the past few weeks, particularly in relation to the history of Harvard Observatory. My partner has been picking up observatory-related books from the local second-hand shop. As it turns out, the books she’s been sorting through were once part of the collection of Frank K. Edmondson, Professor and Chair of Astronomy at Indiana University. Prof. Edmondson did his undergraduate work at IU before earning his Ph.D. from Harvard University, so it’s not unexpected that his library would cover the history of astronomy at either location.

As an undergrad, Edmondson held an assistantship in astronomy, which meant he spent many hours working as a calculator to earn his 25 cents an hour. He was also responsible for opening and managing the Kirkwood Observatory during the weekly public sessions and nightly class meetings. This was on top of his coursework, which was mostly independent study because he was the only astronomy major at IU at the time. He studied almost exclusively under Prof. Wilbur A. Cogshall (see my discussion of the Knightridge Observatory and the Kirkwood Observatory) because, as he stated in an interview conducted in 1977,  “Cogshall was the astronomy department.”[1] The 1919 University Bulletin bears out this statement: all fourteen course offerings were taught by Cogshall.[2]

I’ve commented before on the tangled relationships between astronomers and observatories in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth-beginning of the twentieth century in the United States. University of Washington had close ties with Lick Observatory; Yerkes, Mount Wilson, Palomar, and Hale Solar observatories were tied together through George Ellery Hale; Alvan Clark & Sons designed refracting lenses for the Cincinnati Observatory Center, Yerkes,  and Lick Observatory; Warner & Swasey Company built the telescopes at the Lick, Kirkwood, Yerkes and University of Illinois observatories; and so on. Edmondson’s description of his student years at IU brings these interconnections to the forefront as well.

When John Miller (director of the Kirkwood Observatory from 1901-06) began to do double star work in Indiana, he brought on board Wilbur Cogshall, who had been working in Flagstaff as an assistant to T.J.J. See on his double star program. Soon after Cogshall’s arrival, V.M. Slipher (an astronomer originally from Mulberry, Indiana, who is credited with discovering rotational motion in spiral nebulae) graduated from IU. Cogshall used his contacts and got him a job at Flagstaff. The next year (1902), C.O. Lampland graduated from IU and headed off to Flagstaff as well, at Cogshall’s recommendation. E.C. Slipher, the astronomer noted for his observations of Mars and V.M.’s younger brother, followed the same pattern: graduate from IU, head to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Edmondson’s interviewer credited Lowell with bringing together a very “interesting” (and productive) group of scientists at Flagstaff, but Edmondson corrected that assumption, noting that “Yes, well, Cogshall — unless Cogshall had been there, Lowell would never have known about Indiana University, or Slipher or Lampland, if Cogshall had not come there.”

[Interviewer]: “I see, so in a way, it was Cogshall who built the observatory, as far as the staff was concerned.”

[Edmondson]: “That’s right. That’s right. — The three members of the staff, really, when I went out there — well, Arthur Adel was there, I guess, and Clyde Tombaugh — but the three senior members, the two Sliphers and Lampland, were all from Indiana. Then Arthur Adel had gone out there to work with Slipher on planetary spectra, and Tombaugh was there, of course. So your senior staff, for a long period of time, were 100 percent Indiana. As you say, Cogshall built the observatory staff, and that’s it.”

Go, Hoosiers!

The oral histories at the Niel Bohr Library and Archives are priceless. I’m looking forward to digging into Edmondson’s transcript more deeply, particularly for the year he was involved with the development of the NRAO and Green Bank as an NSF officer.


[1] Interview conducted with Edmondson by David DeVorkin in Edmondson’s Office, Swain Hall, Indiana University, 21 April, 1977.

[2] Cogshall had a little bit of help with the teaching. As Edmondson recalls, “K.P. Williams, who was in the mathematics department, taught orbit calculation. Agnes E. Wells, who was dean of women, who had a PhD in astronomy from Michigan, was in the mathematics department, her PhD was in astronomy from Michigan, and she taught history of astronomy. So history of astronomy was Agnes Wells, and orbit calculation was K.P. Williams, and all the rest of the astronomy was Cogshall.”

The Success and/or Failure of Bob Cameron, Astronomer

25 05 2013
Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Courtesy LPOD.

Taruntius Crater (with Cameron Crater). Image courtesy LPOD, December 3, 2008.

I wish I knew if this was a cautionary tale or a story of triumph.

Robert Curry Cameron, known to his friends and professors as Bob, matriculated at Indiana University in 1947. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he came from Ohio. His formal name seems to tie him to the Curry family from Wayne County, Ohio (the lumber firm Curry, Cameron & Son, comprised of James Willard Curry and Robert Cameron, formed in 1877); when he left Indiana University, he found work in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The astronomy profession of the mid-twentieth-century had at least this in common with the profession of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries:  success was partly about intelligence and dedication, and partly about who you knew. Letters of recommendation were more informal then than they are now, but a statement of support from a powerhouse astronomer could (can) do much to smooth over a bad patch in a student’s career. A less-than-enthusiastic letter could dog a graduate student for life, arriving in the hands of future employers before he (seldom, she) had a chance to speak for himself.

Astronomer Frank Edmondson depended heavily on the American academic network when filling positions in the Indiana University Astronomy Department and the associated Link Goethe Observatory in Brooklyn, Indiana. He took seriously the recommendations of his fellow astronomers. He consulted the various Directors off Lick Observatory whenever he had a vacancy to fill, whether it be for a postdoc, instructor, junior faculty, or full professor. He was also diligent in his recommendations to his colleagues, possibly to the detriment of poor Bob Cameron.

At the end of 1948, Cameron applied to study at Lick Observatory. Then director, C. Douglas Shane, asked Edmondson about Cameron’s work at IU. Edmondson replied as follows:

Robert C. Cameron was a beginning graduate student here during the academic year 1947-48. He did respectable work during the first semester. However, about the middle of the second semester something happened and he simply stopped working. As a result, he failed in some of his courses and made such low marks in the rest that it was equivalent to failure. He is an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory this year, and Dr. Herget could tell you how he is getting along now.

Personality and character are OK, and I think you would find him an acceptable member of a small community such as you have on Mount Hamilton. As for his ability and promise as a student, I hesitate to make any predictions. If he has overcome whatever was troubling him last spring, and if a repetition is unlikely, I would rank him a bit above average in ability and promise as a student.[1]

Not surprisingly, Shane didn’t extend a student position to Cameron. Just in case his caution had gone astray in the winter storms, however, Edmondson sent a second letter of dissuasion, noting that

…for the sake of the record I should say that I have talked to Herget recently and there is no reason to believe that Cameron has overcome his personal troubles, whatever they were. Hence, I could not recommend him to you as a student or an assistant.[2]

Try as I might, I have not been able to uncover the nature of Cameron’s “personal troubles.” In February 1949, Cameron was listed as a Student Member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.[3] He also attended the Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Bloomington, Indiana in June 1950.[4] He is listed as first or second author on a series of papers related to minor planet observations made at Goethe Link Observatory in 1949 and 1950 and is credited with the discovery of  1575 Winifred (1950 HH), a Main Belt Asteroid, on April 20, 1950 at Brooklyn, Indiana. Did Edmondson let him come back to IU after he proved he was over his “personal troubles”?

I’ve failed to track Cameron through the 1950s, but in the 1960s, he reappears as an expert on magnetic fields and stars. He shows up as first author of a paper on Babcocks’ star (HD 215441). From there, he advanced to editorial work on books about stellar evolution and magnetic fields. His last publication seems to have been a 1967 edited volume The Magnetic and Related Stars (Proceedings of a symposium, Greenbelt, Md., Nov. 1965), which received several favorable reviews the next year. He died in 1972, a successful enough astronomer that the IAU eventually renamed a small lunar crater (Taruntius C) in his honor.

I’d like to know: was Cameron satisfied in his career? Did he resolve his “personal troubles” to his own satisfaction? Was the discovery of an asteroid enough to make up for being asked to leave Indiana University? Do students ever recover from bad times if those happen to coincide with their years in graduate school? I’m sure many Ph.D. candidates would like to know the answer to that one.


[1] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 29 January 1949.

[2] Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California, Santa Cruz, UA 36 Lick Series 1, Box 83, Letter from Frank K. Edmondson to C. Douglas Shane, 13 March 1949.

[3] “Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, February 2, 1949,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 61, No. 359, p.114.

[4] Huffer, C. M., “The eighty-third meeting of the American Astronomical Society,” Popular Astronomy, Vol. 58, p.314 (Cameron is #67 in the photo)

S. A. Mitchell and the Leander McCormick Observatory

17 04 2013
S. A. Mitchell with 26-inch refractor. Image courtesy McCormick Museum, University of Virginia

S. A. Mitchell with 26-inch refractor. Image courtesy McCormick Museum, University of Virginia

I’ve written before about the dispersal of the book collection that once belonged to Frank K. Edmondson. My wife picked up a couple more of his books for me recently, one of which seems particularly appropriate to discuss at this point in my career.

Book cover, from the collection of Frank K. Edmondson.

Book cover, from the collection of Frank K. Edmondson.

This is a fascinating handbook written in 1947 by Samuel A. Mitchell, director emeritus of the McCormick Observatory at University of Virginia. It’s a modest little book but it makes clear the entangled nature of American astronomy at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Mitchell’s career as an astronomer opened at the Yerkes Observatory, where he “imbibed a small modicum of the research spirit that [he] found there…” [p. 8] He was inspired especially by E. E. Barnard, who had been on staff at Lick Observatory, and Frank Schleslinger, later of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh. He was impressed by Barnard’s dedication (“If  Barnard’s enthusiasm for research could keep him at the telescope with such bitter temperatures [-26 F], why should not I, at the age of 24, not take pattern from the older man?”), but his research trajectory followed that of Schlesinger. [p. 10] As he describes it:

The coming of the photographic plate to the aid of the astronomer and of the largest refractor in the world (dedicated in 1897) brought a great opportunity to ascertain what new information could be found regarding the difficult research of measuring stellar distances. The astronomical  world is under a great debt to Professor Frank Schlesinger when he demonstrated in masterful fashion that the parallaxes possibly by photography with the 40-inch Yerkes refractor gave stellar distances with a very great increase in accuracy over the earlier results from visual observations with much smaller telescopes.[p. 13]

Schlesinger’s departure for the Allegheny in 1905 left a gap in the Yerkes program. Mitchell took the opportunity to fill it, beginning his life’s pursuit of the measure of parallax through the use of photography.

The determination of stellar distances through observation and comparative photography formed the core of Mitchell’s research when he became the director of the McCormick Observatory in 1913. Similar efforts were underway at the Allegheny Observatory, where Schlesinger oversaw a 30-inch photographic refractor; at Mount Wilson, where Adriaan van Maanen worked with the 60-inch reflector; at Sproul Observatory (Swarthmore), under John A. Miller with a 24-inch visual refractor; and at Greenwich Royal Observatory with its 26-inch photographic refractor. Charles P. Olivier, native of Charlottesville and later founder of the American Meteor Society, and Harold Alden, arriving from the Yale Observatory in South Africa, joined Mitchell’s efforts at Virginia. [p. 15]

Mitchell arrived at McCormick while on soft money. That is, he “accepted the directorship with no promises from University of Virginia.” [p. 17] Luckily, he was the recipient of the Ernest Kempton Adams Research Fellowship from Columbia University. His fellowship period ended before Virginia decided to pony up some research money, but Edward Dean Adams (father of E. K. Adams, for whom the fellowship was named) decided—after consultation with George E. Hale, once of Yerkes, at the time of Mount Wilson—to give Mitchell a special financial award given the potential significance of his work.

I’m tempted here to start “following the money.” Edward Dean Adams was the president of the Cataract Construction Company, “a new organization of capitalists which ha[d] been formed to furnish electricity and electric power upon a scale of tremendous magnitude by employing the Falls of Niagara to generate the electric fluid.” [see original NYT article here, examine the Edward D. Adams Station Power plant here] Any of you who have driven an International Harvester have used a piece of the Leander McCormick legacy—IH came out of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, founded by Leander and his brother, William. McCormick’s planned donation was interrupted by a downturn in his finances after the Great Chicago Fire. So tempting, but I’ll leave the analysis of capital to another time.

For now, let me just jump forward in time to highlight a few more connections between American astronomers. Mitchell died on February 22, 1960, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was the father of Allan C. G. Mitchell, the chair of IU’s Physics Department, director of the university’s cyclotron program between 1942-44, and colleague of Frank Edmondson. Sadly, Allan Mitchell died young, outliving his father by fewer than the three years (read his obituary here). My question is: did Edmondson acquire this book directly from Samuel Mitchell, perhaps when he moved to Bloomington after his retirement? Or did Allan give it to him? Did he pick it up because he knew and worked with Allan? How did he end up with No. 114 out of a run of 200?

S. A. Mitchell's signature, back page of handbook.

S. A. Mitchell’s signature, back page of handbook

Oh, and why is this appropriate to discuss at this point in my career? I recently accepted a two-year appointment at University of Virginia, which means this little book is making the return trip from Bloomington to Charlottesville via Edison, NJ. I hope someone is keeping track of the movement.

A. I. Eremeeva (А. И. Еремеева)

18 10 2011

So, yes, I’m in the process of slowly acquiring the remainder of Frank K. Edmondson’s library, or at least the parts of that library that are relevant to my work in the history of astronomy and instruments. Many of the books are dated, of course, but still serve as good reminders of the extensive intellectual network required to support a global discipline like astronomy. Really, all you need is the name of a single individual working as an institutional astronomer or academic—an observatory, a university—and you have an entry point into the entire history of astronomy, not just in the United States, but in the world.

The most recent bit of proof of this assertion is Prof. Edmondson’s copy of A. I. Eremeeva’s Herschel’s Universe: Cosmological and Cosmogonic Ideas and Discoveries [Вселенная Гершеля: космологические и космогонические идеи и открытия] (Moscow: Science [Наук] Press, 1966). Inside the front cover of the book is a short, handwritten note from the author:



Reading between the (few) lines, it would appear that Drs. Eremeeva and Edmondson met in Washington, D.C., sometime after the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a token of collegiality and possibly friendship, Dr. Eremeeva offered a copy of what must have been her first book, probably based on her doctoral work.[1]

Title Page

Title page from A. I. Eremeeva, Herschel's Universe: Cosmological and Cosmogonic Ideas and Discoveries, 1966

It took a little more work than this kind of thing usually does, but I finally tracked down a few other examples of Dr. Eremeeva’s historical research. Most of it seems akin to what I’m doing here, although much more professional and thoroughly researched: writing the history of astronomy through a series of biographical essays. Her publications cover a long list of astronomers and their discoveries, many not well known to the average American (thanks, Cold War). It seems that many of her subjects had ties to Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory outside Saint Petersburg.[2] I’ve appended to the end of this post a few examples of her essays. One of them is English, so there’s something for everyone, particularly if everyone is in the mood to read about political purges of scientific communities. I should stress, this is only a partial list. If you run “Eremeeva, A. I.” or “Eremeeva, Alina Iosifovna” through the search query at the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Database, you’ll get at least 61 hits related to her work.

I haven’t been able to figure out Dr. Eremeeva’s precise connection to Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory. It’s her research interest, certainly, but her institutional affiliations all seem to be associated with Moscow, so I’m not sure how she connects up with the history of the St. Petersburg institution. I mention this because tucked inside the book she gave Prof. Edmondson was a souvenir card from Pulkovo.

Pulkovo Card

Cover: "150 Years of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Soviet Academy of Science in Pulkovo"

Pulkovo Observatory

Inside: Image of Pulkovo Observatory, St. Petersburg, Russia

Clearly, I have more research to do. Look for another post on the topic one day soon.


Works by A. I. Eremeeva, Ph.D. in Physics and Mathematics, Shternberg State Astronomical Institute, Moscow (А. И. Еремеева, кандидат физико-математических наук, Государственный астрономический институт им. П.К. Штернберга, Москва), listed in chronological order:

[Russian] “The Life and Work of Boris Petrovich Gerasimovich, on his 100th Birthday.” In Historical and Astronomical Research (Историко-астрономические исследования), Vol. 21 (1989): 253-301.

[English] “Political Repression and Personality: The History of Political Repression Against Soviet Astronomers.” Journal for the History of Astronomy. Vol. 26 (1995): 297-324.

[Russian] Astronomy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Pulkovo-Dubna: Phoenix Publishing Center, 1997.

[Russian] “Meteors, ‘Thunder Stones’ and the Paris Academy of Sciences before ‘The Court of History.’Nature, No. 8 (2000).

[Russian] “Pioneer of National Physics, on the 150th birthday of academician A. A. Belopol’sky.” Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Vol. 74, No. 6 (2004): 534-543.

[Russian] “175 years of the State Astronomical Institute of P. K. Shternberg, Moscow.” Nature, N0. 10 (2006).

[Russian] “The Troubled Genius of Ernst Chladni.” Nature, N0. 12 (2006).

[Russian] Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), On the his 175th Birthday and 100th Anniversary of his Death. Astronet (online) (2010).


[1] This assumption might not be true, since she published a second book that same year, Outstanding Astronomers of the World [Выдающиеся астрономы мира], also with Science Press. These are the earliest volumes I could find, so possibly both grew from her doctoral work.

[2] Did you know that at one time, Pulkovo had the largest refracting telescope (30″) in the world? It was built by Alvan Clark & Sons, who also built the telescope at Lick Observatory that displaced Pulkovo as “world’s largest” in the 1880s.

McDonald Observatory

5 10 2011
Cover, Big and Bright

Cover, Big and Bright

So, to pick up from where I left off in the story of Frank K. Edmondson’s career, I’d like to share a few thoughts on McDonald Observatory.

My last post reported the intellectual and labor connections between Lowell Observatory and the Department of Astronomy at Indiana University (established via W. A. Cogshall). Edmondson did the work for his Master’s thesis on the motions of the globular clusters and galactic rotation at Lowell. After finishing his thesis, he stayed on for another year at the observatory, taking plates for Clyde Tombaugh, before matriculating at Harvard University. He went to Harvard with the understanding that if he finished his Ph.D., there would be a place waiting for him at Indiana University, and that’s just how it worked out. He apparently had to choose between the new  position at Indiana and a more established position at UVa. Howard Shapley counseled him to take the place that had been created for him at IU, because he felt it was more important to expand the number of astronomy posts across the academy than to settle into an established spot at UVa.

At the time, it must have seemed like a strange decision. Edmondson had been working on stellar kinematics (study of the movement of stars), so it would’ve made more sense for him to go work with Alexander Vyssotksy, who was focusing on galactic kinematics and proper motion, at Virginia. But, as we know, Edmondson had many successes at Indiana, including his role in founding a cooperative project between IU, Texas (McDonald Observatory) and Chicago. Actually, Edmondson credited Otto Struve for the start of the project, noting that Struve had published a paper calling for more cooperation in the profession.

From Edmondson’s oral history:

[Edmondson]: “If my memory’s right, Struve’s paper is to be found in the SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY. In the neighborhood of somewhere around 1938, ’39, somewhere along in there. Struve had an article called “Cooperation in Astronomy.” And his basic thesis was — “Look,” he said, “we’re training young astronomers, and then they’re going to schools where they have no telescopes at all, and something has to be done to provide them with the means to continue their scientific careers.”

“So his proposal at that time was to get some university interested in this sort of thing, and go to a foundation to get money for a second telescope at the McDonald Observatory.

“So I wrote to Struve, and asked him for two or three reprints of his article. I said, “I would like to have our President and some of the deans here read what you have written.

“So Struve sent me the reprints, and he said, “I’m also interested in getting going as fast as we can, so here’s my proposal.”

“He said that Vyssotsky had been in communication with him about doing this K star work at McDonald, and Virginia had not been able to raise the funds to pay for the telescope time that would be used for this.”

[Interviewer]: “Is this how you got into the K star work?”

[Edmondson]: “And so he said he was sure Vyssotsky would be willing to cooperate with me. So I got in touch with Vyssotsky. He said, “Oh, yes.” He said, “If you can get the telescope time, I’ll send you charts and everything.”

“So I got back to Struve. Then I got busy here — and the money was provided from here.”

[Interviewer]: “Did you start on the 82-inch at McDonald?”

[Edmondson]: “So we started paying, what was it, $600 a year for 15 nights — it’s a lot more expensive than that now!”

As the interviewer points out, this collaborative effort was “the kernel of what we may now call the National Observatory.”

At the time of the interview (1977), Indiana University was still purchasing time at McDonald. These days, IU works jointly with Wisconsin and Yale at the WIYN 3.5m Observatory on Kitt Peak, but I notice that an astronomer from Texas Christian University is using the 2.1m Otto Struve Telescope at McDonald to study open clusters from the WIYN Open Cluster Study. Astronomy—still a team sport.

So, this is a very long introduction to the book I’ve been reading this week, Big and Bright: A History of the McDonald Observatory by David S. Evans and J. Derral Mulholland (1986). It’s interesting enough on its own, as a history book, but this copy is made even more so by the inscription inside the front cover and a letter that was left tucked inside:

Signature, David S. Evans

Author's signature, David S. Evans

The inscription reads: “For Frank Edmondson with many thanks for your help and hoping we got it right—David S. Evans—8th September 1987”

Letter to Frank Edmondson

Letter to Frank Edmondson from Harlan J. Smith

You can click on the image to see a full-size image of the letter. It reads as follows: “Dear Frank:  As you’ve probably heard by now, the long job of researching, writing, editing, rewriting—even a bit of dissention [sic] now and then—finally came to an end with the UT Press publication of the history of McDonald by David Evans and Derral Mulholland. Your long association with the Observatory more than warrants your receiving a copy of this fine book, and you’ll find many friends and memories in it. David has agreed to inscribe a few copies, including yours, making it a bit of collector’s item as well as plain good fun to read. I think you’ll enjoy it. Sincerely, Harlan J. Smith.”

I hope Prof. Edmondson enjoyed the read. I know I will.