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Category Archives: CfA History

“A New Method of Finding a Ship’s Position at Sea” by Capt. Thomas H. Sumner

On November 25, 1837, American sea captain, Thomas H. Sumner, departed Charleston, South Carolina on a ship bound for Greenlock, Scotland. While en route, he discovered a new methodology in celestial navigation, later eponymously titled, the “Sumner line” or the circle of equal altitude. On December 17th, after days of…

CfA Special Collections: A Blog Series

The John G. Wolbach Library at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is a research library with large historical collections documenting the history of the Harvard College Observatory, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and the history of astronomical study in the United States more broadly. Included in the library are…

Cultural Astronomy Series: Dismantling the Fathers of Invention

This essay is part of our on-going series on Cultural Astronomy, which will address cultural and historical themes in science and astronomy with the hope of developing open and informed discussion on the complex, historically-rooted challenges facing our community. History loves its fathers. I do not mean biological fathers, but rather…

Frank Kameny: Cold War Astronomy and the Lavender Scare

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us. Franklin Edward Kameny decided at four-years-old that he was going to be a scientist. It was another year or two…

James Baker: WW2 and The Observatory Optical Project

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us. In the summer of 1938, James Baker and his wife Elizabeth traveled to Stockholm for the annual meeting of the…

The Sinking of the S.S. Robin Goodfellow

On July 25, 1944, German submarine U-862 torpedoed and sunk the S.S. Robin Goodfellow, a U.S. freighter en route from Cape Town, South Africa to New York. A nearby British motor merchant received the distress signal, but was unable to intervene. None of the eight officers, thirty-three crewmen, or twenty-eight…

Dorrit Hoffleit: Harvard Astronomers in the Second World War

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us. Dorrit Hoffleit moved to Cambridge, MA as a young teenager. Her older brother, then only fourteen himself, was a new…

George Ellery Hale, Mount Wilson, and the Griffith Observatory

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us. George Ellery Hale was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 29, 1868. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, his…

Amateur Telescope-Making: Popular Astronomy and the Great Depression

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us. The highly publicized return of Halley’s Comet in 1910 remains one of the most high-profile events of modern astronomy. Stories…

1920: Harvard Astronomy in the Aftermath of WW1

*With this blog series, we also hope to instigate meaningful conversations about our institution’s history. We therefore invite you to comment on our posts and share your thoughts with us. Jazz Age America, also known as the “Roaring Twenties” or the “Golden Age Twenties” in Europe, was born from the…