Chat Transcript - History of the AAVSO

The following is a chat transcript from May 9, 2011. The topic of the chat was the History of the AAVSO and variable star observing with guests Dr. Mike Saladyga and Dr. Tom Williams. Some footnotes are at the bottom.

<DocKQR> Hello Folks!

<TimCTX> have to wonder where folks are....

<DocKQR> Yea, it is about time to start.

<AaronPAH> one sec...

<DocKQR> OK, so, Mike. Tell us a bit about The Book. Should we have copies available for purchase at the AAS Meeting?

<AaronPAH> Tim: Can you do me a favor? Go to the AAVSO home page and click on the link/image for the book.

<AaronPAH> Tell me whether it takes you to the page or whether you get an error message?

<TimCTX> ok

<DocKQR> OK, something else, then.  happy What was the original thrust to have you and Tom write the book?

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<MikeSaladyga> The idea for the book was long in coming...of course it's for the 100th anniversary.

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<DocKQR> OK, Mike, something else then.  happy  What was the original thrust that got you and Tom to write the book?

<DocKQR> Sorry for the duplicate question.  happy

<MikeSaladyga> But aside from that, there was a real need to write a history to correct some misconceptions.

<DocKQR> So, this is the first comprehensive history for the AAVSO, correct?

<TimCTX> Aaron, takes me to Amazon

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<MikeSaladyga> Yes, the first

<AaronPAH> Thanks Tim!

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<DocKQR> The RASC has also written a book on its history some time ago. Was this a guide or inspiration in any way for the AAVSO book?

<MikeSaladyga> We used the RASC book for background checking, and so on, as we used many, many other works.

<MikeSaladyga> One book that I was personally inspired by during this project was *An introduction to the study of variable stars* by Caroline E. Furness (1915)

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<TimCTX> Still available in reprint

<MikeSaladyga> It is a remarkable, comprehensive history of variable star work up to that point, and a real first at that time

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<AaronPAH> Mike: You mentioned that one reason to write the book was to address some misconceptions. Can you give us an example of one?

<MikeSaladyga> I should add that Furness was one of the first to join the AAVSO

<MikeSaladyga> The major misconception centers on the question of who founded the AAVSO

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<MikeSaladyga> Many of the short articles that have been published over the years tended to repeat that it was Edward C. Pickering and William Tyler Olcott who "co-founded" the AAVSO.

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<AaronPAH> FYI: The book's URL is:

<MikeSaladyga> To further muddy the waters, others had earlier written that Popular Astronomy editor Wilson was a third "co-founder"

<DocKQR> That's certainly the story that I am familiar with, yes.

<DocKQR> Interesting. I'm not really familar with Wilson at all.

<MikeSaladyga> Tom Williams has done a great job in tracing all of the threads of how these "co-founder" stories got started

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<DocKQR> Didn't Olcott and Pickering put an ad in Popular Astronomy at the time to try to gain members for the new organization?

<TMT_Matthew> So who was the real founder? happy

<MikeSaladyga> The book, hopefully, once and for all puts those misguided theories to rest.

<MikeSaladyga> As I said, the real founder was W. T. Olcott himself, and him alone.

<DocKQR> Oh, come on, Matthew! We're gonna have to buy the book to the the real answer!  happy

<TimCTX> HQ will not be selling copies, then?

<MikeSaladyga> In one document we have in the archives, even WTO's own wife considered Wilson of PopAst, along with ECP to be co-founders

<DocKQR> Oh! So it was just Olcott. It'll be interesting to see how Pickering got himself so immersed in the "legend," then, as it were.

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<AaronPAH> I wonder if Wilson tried to propagate that urban legend himself?

<TMT_Matthew> Mike, can you give any background on whether there were other societies devoted to individual scientific topics like this at that time in the US?  Not just in astronomy but in any scientific field.

<MikeSaladyga> The reason these other "founders" were given life was partly due to Olcott's self-effacing nature--he truly respected Pickering and wished to honor him in that way, althought ECP had noting to do with the acutal founding of the AAVSO

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<MikeSaladyga> I wish Tom was here to answer that one.

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<ArneHQA> so Mike, what is going to be your next book?

<MikeSaladyga> At about the same time that the AAVSO was getting started, there was also the Society for Practical Astronomy

<MikeSaladyga> The SPA was founded in 1912 by a teenager, Frederick Leonard

<MikeSaladyga> Both Pickering and Wilson, as we mention in the book, wanted to keep Leonard at arms' length, because he was so young

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<MikeSaladyga> ECP and Wilson felt better about encouraging Olcott, once they knew that Olcott was serious about what he was doing.

<MikeSaladyga> Leonard was serious too, but he simply couldnt hold onto his members--they all gravitated towards the AAVSO because the knew that it had some vague ties to Pickering and HCO

<DocKQR> That's amazingly interesting because there was another organization along those lines - the American Radio Relay League for Amateur Radio Operators - one of whose founders was ateenager at the time.

<MikeSaladyga> That's right

<MikeSaladyga> This period was really something for the idea of "Association" had taken off in many directions like wildfire at the turn of the century

<AaronPAH> In those early days.. say<1920, what kind of feedback did observers get when they mailed in their reports? Did they confirmation? An annual report?

<MikeSaladyga> That has always been an on again, off again situation.

<MikeSaladyga> Pickering himself would send a sort of form letter to acknowledge observations, and at least he'd sign it

<MikeSaladyga> Then when Leon Campbell took an active role as Recorder after 1915, he wrote personal letters to acknowledge reports

<MikeSaladyga> Later he adopted the device of post card acknowledgements--again a form

<DocKQR> Test

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<RayTRE> ..

<AaronPAH> What would you consider the highest point of the AAVSO/VSO from 1900-2000? What was the lowest point?

<AaronPAH> Hi, Ray...

<RayTRE> hi

<MikeSaladyga> I think ther'es many ways to answer that

<MikeSaladyga> For me bot the highest and lowest points come with AAVSO having to leave HCO in 1954

<MikeSaladyga> It was, as Dorrit would say, "a blessing in disguise"

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<RayTRE> for me its the zenith and the horizen

<AaronPAH> good point...

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<AaronPAH> Can you give us an example of a unique/interesting source of information you used while researching the book?

<MikeSaladyga> The primary source for the book was our own AAVSO archives

<MikeSaladyga> Another important source has been the Harvard Archives

<MikeSaladyga> There are many others, but those are the two richest sources for us

<MikeSaladyga> We should be really grateful to Margaret Mayall who chose to hold onto so many letters and documents in 1954 when it would have been easy to just chuck it all in the rush to leave HCO

<MikeSaladyga> They did in fact have to throw out a lot, but they kept what they thought was important

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<AaronPAH> Did you have any people/sources deny you access or use of some material for the book?

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<MikeSaladyga> We've never had problems with any of the archives

<TMT_Matthew> What do you think is the most important event post 1954?

<MikeSaladyga> And all individuals we've had to contact to have our questions askec were most cooperative

<MikeSaladyga> I think one of the most important was the appearance of PEP observing in the AAVSO

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<MikeSaladyga> Actually, it was very slow to start, and even slower to progress during the 50s, 60s, and 70s

<AaronPAH> FYI: The page puts June 30 as the release date.

<Jordan> Hi, Mike, this is Jordan. I had a question about your research for the book - did you do any interviews with people, in addition to the archive research?

<MikeSaladyga> That June 30 date seems to be old. CUP says byt he end of May

<AaronPAH> I enjoyed reading about the development of the selenium detectors. Has anyone ever seen one in person?

<MikeSaladyga> Yes we did interview several people

<Jordan> Who did you interview? Did you get any interesting anecdotes from people?

<MikeSaladyga> Of course, many of the great names in the AAVSO have left us

<TMT_Matthew> Why the PEP program?

<AAVSOMember70> With regard to interviews, we actually interviewed several of Janet Mattei's family for exazmple to get a better handle on her family and background in Turkey.

<MikeSaladyga> Offhand, I can recall connecting with John Bortle, and Charles Scovil.

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<AaronPAH> Hey Tom! You can change you chat "name" by typing "/nick Tom"

<MikeSaladyga> Oh, yes, Tom did a lot of contact with the MAttei family

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<AAVSOMember70> "/nickTom"

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<AaronPAH> with a space between "nick" and "Tom" happy

<AaronPAH> and no quotations...

<AaronPAH>    /nick Tom

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<AaronPAH> yes!

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<AaronPAH> What was the biggest surprise either of you uncovered when writing the book?

<Tom> OK, now that I am identified properly, I don't see my previous remarks regarding interviews. In addition to Bortle, Scovil, we interviewed a number of others, most importanrt some of Janet Mattei's family.

<MikeSaladyga> There were lots of little surprises--rather than one big one

<MikeSaladyga> For instance, I was surprised to see how little support Margaret Mayall received from the Council during the initial phases of the uncertainty about whether the AAVSO would survive leaving HCO's shadow

<MikeSaladyga> For a while there, it seemd that only Mayall and Clint Ford were really shouldering the burden

<Tom> On most important developments since 1954, I would suggest several without prioritizing: Advent of the satellite astronomy and AAVSO support thereof; CCD photometry and AAVSO applicaition thereof; HIPPARCHOS project and AAVSO support thereof; etc. the list is really quite long.

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<Tom> One of the surprises for me was the story of how Harlow Shapley appropriated the AAVSO and used them as part of the justificaation for a large endowment from the Rockefeller Foundation that paid for the HCO move from Peru to South Africa and lots of other things as well. I think that may be the largesst surprise from the perspective of historians of astronomya nd science.

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<MikeSaladyga> One of the most satisfying things I learned during the course of the writing was to see how there was always a core of "true believers" in what the AAVSO was trying to do

<MikeSaladyga> Especially during the crisis years, but really all the way through the history

<Tom> Mayall had to be the strongest of the True Believers, i like that term in this case. Ford was as well, and i don't think you can fault the other council members for some initital uncertainty. One of the strong reasons many had for supporting the AAVSO was tied up in therelationship with HCO, so the divorce was not without its problems for many, at least inititallyh.

<MikeSaladyga> And a lot of that uncertainty also had to do with the changing directions of variable star reaearch

<AaronPAH> I enjoyed the story in the book about how Margaret gave a passionate speech at the IAU and getting an applause

<AaronPAH> and how that applause gave her some confidence and boosted her morale

<MikeSaladyga> Mee too--I put that under the sub-head "Vindication"

<Jordan> I've seen the story of how AAVSO made the transition after leaving HCO. It's an amzing story - lots of organizations would have just packed up the tent.

<Tom> If this is supposed to end at the hour, let me apologize to Aaron and Mike for not geting on earlier. I had it written in @ 2pm on my calendar, but assumed after I wrote that it was CDST nto EDST!

<MikeSaladyga> I was surprised to see how many naysayers there were during that crisis period

<DocKQR> I've often been amazed how much each Recorder or Director put their stamp on the AAVSO in their time. These stories just show more of that!

<AaronPAH> We will post a transcript so anyone who came late or was unable to join can catch up.

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<AaronPAH> The chat's officially end at the hour, but sometimes go on longer. It's up to Tom and Mike as to when they need to return to their real jobs. happy

<MikeSaladyga> I can hang around

<Tom> Let's face it, AAVSO is an organization of human beings, even if most other human beings regard people who work alone aned under conditions of absolute darkness if possible to be a little straange. So there will alwasyws be naysayers and doubters in any large and complex organizatigon. Don't forget, we didd not have the benefit of e-mail and chat rooms to discuss things in thsoe days.

<AaronPAH> How did the complainers survive without the ability to spam discussion groups from anonymous accounts? happy

<TimCTX>    Tom & Mike..really Looking forward to reading the book... thank you both for your hard work and effort

<MikeSaladyga> There was the device known as the "circular letter"

<MikeSaladyga> Thanks!

<Tom> Well, folks cared a lot less about anonymity when it was only a letter between two supposed friends. Then the circular letteer was a powerful tool as Mike suggests.

<Tom> I have no idea how many are logged in or interested but since I waas as late as I was I can't object to some additional time away from my regular job

<Tom> Are we done?

<AaronPAH> Mike earlier said you would be a good person to discuss the issue about how some people have receieved credit for being "cofounders" of the AAVSO, when in fact Olcott was the only founder.

<AaronPAH> For instance, we were wondering where the Wilson rumor started...

<Tom> Yes, if anyone is still around I would be happy to comement on that.

<Jordan> What's the Wilson rumor?

<Tom> OK, here goes on the Co-founders. The credits for founin

<AaronPAH> there are still some folks around.. plus this will be archived and placed online so you can answer "for the record" too happy

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<MikeSaladyga> Still there?

<AaronPAH> I see you Mike

<AaronPAH> Perhaps we lost Tom

<Tom> OK, here goes, the credits for founding AAVSO got aportiioned oout in phases. Pickering got assigned by Campbell, who was attempting to strengthen his own position in the HCO as he clearly felt it might be jeopardized with the death of Pickering. Wilson was the editor of Popular AStronomy and got added as an aferthought by Campbell as LC was speaking much laer at an anniversary event.

<AaronPAH> cool

<AaronPAH> so maybe LC referenced Wilson as a political move to curry favor/improve relations?

<Tom> LC's approach in his talks was to mention as many people by name as he could, he recognized that everyone likes to hear their name mentioned in speeches byrt he director.

<MikeSaladyga> Then there's the plaque in our library (Pickering Memorial) which states, cast in bronze, the ECP was a co-founder

<AaronPAH> ah yes.. I think you mention that in the book too.

<Tom> When you look at the correspondence between WTO and ECP itt is clear that ECP wasnted to hold the AAVSO at arms lenght until it was clear it would succeed. WTO jhad to prove that first.

<MikeSaladyga> Yes, but "it just aint true"

<MikeSaladyga> ECP as co-founder, I mean

<Tom> Thanks for clarifiying the aitnt true!

<Tom> One of the points we make is that ECP also had observations coming in from two other groups, and he had no reason to favor one over the other for quite a while. It was not until after he met with the AAVSO members at dinner and provided a tour of HCO during which he got better acquainted with all that he had confidence in the AAVSO. THat was in the fall of 1915

<Tom> You have to recognize too that WTO gave the appearece of a pretty weak personality in some respects in his represnetations to ECP, his letters whould not have inspired confidence in me in some cases.

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<KTOA> Is this about SN 2011by?

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<Tom> The two other groups were the Society for Practical Astronomy, and there was also a large contingent of amateur and professional astronoemrs we identify as the HCO Corps of Observers that had been providing observations to ECP since before 1900 in some cdases

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<AaronPAH> KTOA: Welcome! No, we're talking about general history of the AAVSO.

<Tom> So we felt it was natural for ECP to hold back and provide only technical support to WTO and his small band of AAVSO observers and let them prove themselves first. After 1915, HCO actually began to provide a bit of financial suport to WTO and the AAVSO.

<AaronPAH> Okay I am going to wrap up the transcript here. But if anyone wants to stay and continue chatting, feel free.

<AaronPAH> Thanks to Tom and Mike for stopping by.


The following post-chat footnotes were provided by Wolfgang Renz and Mike Saladyga:

A) <MikeSaladyga> One book that I was personally inspired by during
this project was *An introduction to the study of variable stars* by
Caroline E. Furness (1915)

This book is not available via ADS:
But there is a full scan of the book (51.0 MB PDF) online at:
org/25/items/introductiontost00furnrich/ (all versions of text)

Below is further information about the founding of the SPA, provided by Tom Williams:


"The "founding" of the Society for Practical Astronomy was, for
all practical purposes, in 1909 when Fred Leonard began publishing his
typewritten Monthly Register of the Leonard Observatory, and began
soliciting participation by others in his observing programs. The MRLO was
typewritten and presumably circulated in a limited number of copies. I have
only seen one edition, Volume 3, Number 3, published in March 1911. In
April, 1911, the name of the publication was changed to Monthly Register of
the SPA, but it is also identified as Volume 3, Number 4, in other words, a
simple continuation of the previous publication with modified name. Among
other things, the MRSPA contains a list of officers, including Leonard as
President, John E. Mellish as Secretary, Horace C. Levinson as Treasurer,
and Rev. Ruel W. Roberts as "Organizer and Lecturer."  Mellish and Roberts
were both from Wisconsin, while Levinson was a high school companion of
Leonard in Chicago. Also included in this issue is a letter from E. L.
Forsythe of Needles, California who expressed his gratitude for receiving a
copy of the MRLO. So it appears to me that Leonard was actively engaged in
recruiting members widely, not just in Chicago, and that he had been using
the MRLO as a calling card in that effort, with some success.

"So what are we to make of all this as far as a founding date is concerned.
Is the publication of a new newsletter to be taken as the founding date? I
think it is fairly obvious that Leonard was busy organizing things well
before that. He had recruited members from both nearby and from distant
states and appears to have been working in this direction from some time. If
we had Volume 1, Number 1, which may exist in the Leonard Papers, wherever
they are, we might have a better sense of exactly when Leonard decided to
found the SPA, but so far I have not been able to find those first two
Volumes and the two missing issues of Volume 3.

"From my perspective, it was more important to give some depth to Leonard's
activities in organizing, than it was to assign an exact date for the
founding. Therefore, in the face of this limited information, I chose to say
the idea of organizing the SPA existed for Leonard as early as 1909 when he
first began typing up his Monthly Register, and sending it out to other
astronomers. If we had those typescripts, and/or perhaps the letters by
which he transmitted them, we would surely have a more secure sense of
exactly when an organization could be said to exist, but still not what its
name was.  I think it likely that Leonard chose not to pick a name for the
organization until he had recruited some members, which process took place
over the following two years. So he chose to, in effect, legitimize his
efforts by choosing to make his first efforts those of an "established
observatory." It is a classic case of self-aggrandizement, which as it turns
out was a characteristic of Leonard that never changed.

"OK, that was my logic. I discussed all this on several occasions with Roy
Clarke, and he agreed with both the nature of the problem and with the
approach I had taken. Clearly, what we then have is a definitional problem.
When can an organization be said to have been founded? Is it when the
founder decides to found an organization? Or when officers are elected? Or
when a newsletter comes out bearing the name of the organization in its
banner? I believe this last choice is a poor one, and that would be 1911,
but obviously it is a matter of choice. If the SPA had ever been
incorporated, that might serve as a clarifying date, but in that regard, you
will want to consider the case of the AAVSO, which was not incorporated
until 1918, but we have always claimed to have  been founded in 1911. In our
case, there was not even a publication bearing the association's name for
some years after Olcott first began recruiting members.

"I hope all the above sheds more light on the issues involved, and does not
confuse the matter a great deal more. I would be happy to engage in further
discussion on this with you, let me know your thoughts on this messy matter."