A History in Handwriting: The Directors of the CfA

In the mid-19th century, the popular exchange of current scholarship between academic institutions led to the creation of Harvard College Observatory astronomical literature collection. At that time, the materials were housed in the Phillips Library, where they remained into the early 20th century. The collection continued to grow, and in 1971 the HCO moved their materials to the newly-constructed Perkin Building and founded the John G. Wolbach Library. Twelve years prior, the Smithsonian Institution founded their official astrophysical library when they moved materials from Washington D.C. to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1975, the two libraries merged.

Today, the John G. Wolbach Library contains a unique collection of contemporary and historical material, much of which is still available for circulation. While the library remains a place of present and future scholarship, the collection also offers a unique glimpse into the history of the field. Founded on the joint cooperation of two long-standing institutions, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has a long history.

In 1839, William Cranch Bond (1789 – 1859), a professional clockmaker with a grade-school education, founded the Harvard College Observatory. As an amateur astronomer, Bond was the first observer in the United States to spot the Great Comet of 1811, an accomplishment which attracted the attention of scholars at Harvard University. Four years later, Bond traveled to Europe on a Harvard commission to research European observatories. After returning to Boston, Bond transformed his living room into a makeshift observatory, even while he continued his career as a professional clock-maker. In 1839, Josiah Quincy, then the president of Harvard University, invited Bond to move his family and his private observatory to the Dana House (now Lamont Library). Thus, Bond’s front parlor became Harvard’s de facto observatory, though he himself worked without pay until 1846. Bond remained the director until his death in 1859. Today, Bond’s signature appears in the first volume of the Harvard Annals, as well as in later computational notebooks that were later catalogued and preserved by HCO library staff.

Figure 1: Signature of W.C.B. (William Cranch Bond) in Transit Circle, Project PHaEDRA.

Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834 – 1906), once an assistant at the HCO, became the first Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1890. As a young man, Langley pursued a career in civil engineering until an interest in astronomy led him to a position as an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory. He later worked as a professor of mathematics at the United States Naval Academy, a professor of astronomy at the Western University of Pennsylvania, and in 1867, Langley became the Director of the Allegheny Observatory. After twenty years in that position, Langley relocated to Washington D.C. to become the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1890, Langley founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in a small wooden building behind the Smithsonian “Castle.” Langley’s computations (and his initials) are visible in the HCO’s collection of historical notebooks, now known as Project PHaEDRA.

Figure 2: Signature of S.P.L. (Samuel Pierpont Langley) in Observations with East Equatorial, Project PHaEDRA .

Digital copies of the Project PHaEDRA notebooks are available online, and provide a wealth of information on early astronomical research. One volume, titled Errors of Circles, Miscellaneous Observations, West Equatorial, is dated to 1877, the year Edward C. Pickering became Director of the HCO. Appointed in 1877, Edward C. Pickering’s (1846 – 1919) tenure as Director of the Harvard College Observatory lasted forty-two years, a period longer than all three of his predecessors combined. Born and raised in Boston, Pickering attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, earning a B.S. in Science in 1865 when he was nineteen years old. At twenty-two, he began teaching classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He accepted the Directorship at the H.C.O. four years later. As Director, Pickering was well-known for recruiting over eighty women to work for the H.C.O. as computers, many of whom became accomplished scholars in their own right, including: Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Antonia Maury. Pickering’s handwritten notes are on view.

In the business of books, an ‘association copy’ of a resource refers to a copy which once belonged to someone especially significant to the book’s contents, or in some cases, with the wider collection. The Wolbach Library contains a rich collection of books that trace the history of the CfA in inscriptions and bookplates from our former directors.

Born in Red Oak, Iowa to a family of farmers, Fred L. Whipple (1906 – 2004) earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles before completing his Ph.D. in astronomy at Berkley. In 1931, Whipple accepted a position at the Harvard College Observatory. World War II interrupted Whipple’s work at the H.C.O., and he spent the war researching radar countermeasures. To that end, Whipple co-invented the chaff-cutter, a kind of miniature antennae dropped by Allied bombers during air raids that reflected the German radar signals guiding searchlights and anti-aircraft artillery to create false echoes. The American military still uses similar chaffs today. Whipple remained with the Harvard College Observatory until he was appointed Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1953 after Loyal B. Aldrich retired. He stayed in that position until 1973. Whipple signed a copy of the Introduction to Differential Equations of Physics, by Ludgwig Hopf, inside the front cover and on pg. 100 above an explanation of Green’s theorem and orthogonality. The book is currently on display, but is available in the library’s circulating collection.

Figure 3: Signature of Fred Whipple in Introduction to the Differential Equations of Physics by Ludgwig Hopf

In 1973, the HCO and the SAO merged under the leadership of a single director, George B. Field (1929 –  ). As a young man, Field was set on becoming a scientist, but enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a chemical engineering student at the urging of his father. Within his first year, Field switched his major to physics. After working for the US Naval Ordinance Laboratory evaluating weapons systems during the Korean War, he pursued a graduate education in astrophysics at Princeton University. Mechanics, a 1947 book by John C. Slater and Nathaniel H. Frank, contains a short inscription from Field just inside the front cover, likely dating back to his years as an undergraduate student at MIT .

Figure 4: Signature of George B. Field in Mechanics by John C. Slater and Nathaniel H. Frank

The history of the CfA is written, in the most literal sense, into the library collection. Solon Irving Bailey (1854 – 1931) was the acting Director of the Harvard College Observatory after Edward Pickering died in 1919 and until Harlow Shapley was appointed in 1921. A graduate of Boston University, Bailey spent much of his early career as a teacher and then headmaster at Tilton Academy in Concord. It’s unclear what might’ve led to Bailey’s eventual interest in astronomical scholarship, though some accounts suggest it was the Great Meteor Shower of 1866 that inspired him to move his family to Cambridge in pursuit of his second master’s degree at Harvard University. Soon afterwards, Bailey became a volunteer assistant at the observatory, and he eventually accepted a professorship in Harvard’s Astrophysics department. He wrote a brief history of the HCO in a 1909 notebook, also on display.

Figure 5: A History of the Harvard College Observatory by Solon Bailey in Notebook, 1909, Project PHaEDRA

Books contain and disseminate information, but they can also carry a history all their own. In a library with a collection that spans centuries, there are quite a few stories to tell.


Abbot, C.G. “Samuel Pierpont Langley.” Astrophyscial Journal 23 (May 1906): 271. doi: 10.1086/141342.

Baxter, William E. “Samuel P. Langley: Aviation Pioneer.” Smithsonian Libraries. Accessed February 19, 2020. https://www.sil.si.edu/ondisplay/langley/intro.htm.

Cannon, Annie J. “Solon Irving Bailey, 1854-1931.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 43, no. 255 (October 1931). doi:10.1086/124151.

“Dorchester Illustration of the Day, February 4, 2009.” Dorchester Atheneum, February 4, 2009. http://www.dorchesteratheneum.org/page.php?id=1417.

“George Field – Session I.” George Field – Session I | American Institute of Physics, May 26, 2015. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4602-1.

Hirshfeld, Alan. “William Cranch Bond.” Harvard Magazine, August 20, 2015. https://harvardmagazine.com/2015/08/william-cranch-bond.

King, Edward S. “Solon Irving Bailey (1854-1931).” Popular Astronomy 39 (1931): 456. http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1931PA…..39..456K.

Plotkin, Howard. “Edward Charles Pickering.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 21, no. 1 (February 1990): 47–58. doi:10.1177/002182869002100106.

Reddy, Francis. “Fred Lawrence Whipple (1906–2004).” Astronomy.com, August 31, 2004. http://www.astronomy.com/news/2004/08/fred-lawrence-whipple-1906and1502004.

Rubin, Louise. “John G. Wolbach Library.” Galactic Gazette, January 1, 2014. http://www.altbibl.io/gazette/john-g-wolbach-library.html.

“Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1834-1906.” Smithsonian Institution Archives, April 14, 2011. https://siarchives.si.edu/history/samual-pierpont-langley.

About Shealynn Hendry

Shea is the Collections Assistant at the John G. Wolbach Library.

1 Comment

  1. Would you be willing to publish a comment from me regarding Harlow Shapley’s handwriting? He was director for 32 years, 1921-1952, but is not mentioned in your informative and handsome exhibit. HS wrote in Gregg’s shorthand. He also dictated through wax cylinder day and night (literally). His secretary Arville D. Walker transcribed everything and sent/or hand-distributed his memos & letters. Thus did Shapley’s correspondence, memos, speeches, articles flow to others at HCO, Harvard and the rest of the world.
    HS’ normal handwriting was quite distinctive. His MO of administration, it was said, was leaving little notes on peoples’ desks with “suggestions.” It is a sign of his relentless activity and efficiency.

    I write you from my home office among some of Harlow’s, my grandmother’s Martha and my father Willis’ files. I have organized notes and photos taken of his work during my dives in the 167 boxes of Shapley’s papers in Harvard Archives. Is it too late to Comment? Can a Comment include images?

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