Collections Highlight: The Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College

The Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College are an institutional research journal published in 120 volumes from 1855 until 1954. In the earliest years of the HCO, ongoing research vastly outpaced the financial requirements of publication. Founding Director William Cranch Bond and his son, George Phillips Bond, spent years preparing copy for an anticipated journal well before available funds could be procured to facilitate its printing. That changed in 1855 when former President of Harvard College, Josiah Quincy (known today for the eponymously named Quincy Market in downtown Boston) allocated a $10,000 endowment towards the printing of the HCO Annals. This provided a steady annual income of $600 for publication. The funds originated with a donation outlined in the will of Quincy’s father, who died eighty years earlier. Consequently, the title page of the forthcoming journal read, “Printed from Funds Resulting from the Will of Josiah Quincy, Jr., Who Died in April, 1775, Leaving a Name Inseparably Connected with the History of the American Revolution.” Later volumes removed this epitaph as Observatory finances evolved. 

The contents of the journal span a range of topics from ongoing astronomical discoveries to computations to historical accounts. The Wolbach Library houses a complete run of the HCO Annals, which remains a valuable record of astronomical research over the course of a century and institutional history. Examples this significance are numerous, from the publication of George Bond’s work on Donati’s Comet to the printing the Henry Draper Catalogue, or as a record of Harvard’s contributions to the revision of the Bonner Durchmusterung. As to the latter, the Observatory had lost both Bonds and had only one full-time staff member remaining at the conclusion of the Civil War. When their professional successor Joseph Winlock assumed the Directorship in 1866, the recent national crisis similarly forced the Observatory into a state of financial scarcity. Winlock’s achievements, though they would not become publicly available in print until after his death, are therefore all the more remarkable. His most substantial effort, a series of zone observations for the revision of the Bonner Durchmusterung, from which the stellar BD numbers are derived, first appeared in Volume 10 of the Annals, published in 1877.

German astronomer, Friedrich Argelander, and his assistants carried out the initial work on the Bonner Durchmusterung over the course of a decade from 1852 until 1862. The resulting catalogue recorded 325,037 stars by their declination and apparent magnitude. A series of associated charts plotting stellar positions formed the basis of the Astronomische Gesellschaft Katalog and then later the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Star Catalog. The enormity of the initial task meant that there were some limitations as far as accuracy. In 1865, the Astronomische Gesellschaft, also known as the German Astronomical Society, proposed a series of large-scale revisions to the BD to achieve a higher degree of precision in the angular measurements. Work was delayed until 1867 when partnering institutions all over Europe began to voluntarily collaborate on the complex undertaking.

Inadequacies in the Observatory’s outdated equipment delayed Joseph Winlock from offering the HCO’s support of the project. It wasn’t until 1870, when Winlock finally secured the purchase of a new meridian circle apparatus for the institution, that he was able to offer his resources towards what he called, “the greatest astronomical undertaking of modern times.” Once committed, Winlock assigned Harvard astronomers William A. Rogers, Edward Austin, and Arthur Searle to the task. Rogers later assumed almost exclusive responsibility for Harvard’s observations in their assigned northern zone. As Edward Pickering would later write although the HCO was “the last in the field” Winlock, Rogers, and their colleagues, had ensured “that no zone is farther along now than ours.” Following the initial publication of their work in Volume 10 of the Annals, continuing efforts on the HCO’s zone observations appear intermittently in Volumes 12, 15, 16, 25, 35, and 36. [1]

[1] Bessie Zaban Jones and Lyle Gifford Boyd. The Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839–1919 (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2013) 157-58.

About Shealynn Hendry

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

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