A Plan for Securing Observations of the Variable Stars

I've spent some time recently preparing a presentation about the AAVSO Centennial that I'll be giving to a number of amateur meetings. My angle on the centennial covers how changes in professional astronomy over the last 100 years have been reflected in the amateur community - using the history of VSO in the AAVSO as the narrative. In doing my research on the early days of "citizen astronomy" I wanted to get a screen shot of the famous "A Plan for Securing Observations of the Variable Stars" article written by Harvard College Observatory Director Edward C. Pickering in 1882. Below is a summary of the pamphlet reprinted from the upcoming book on the history of the AAVSO by Tom Williams and Michael Saladyga.

This plan was directed toward other scientific institutions like HCO and proposed the enlistment of volunteers to make observations of variable stars. Pickering’s plan simply involved soliciting help from amateur astronomers, providing instruction, and collecting their observations. The data collected would be reduced and analyzed by the professional astronomers. Pickering did not propose the establishment of a formal organization of amateur observers but only suggested that amateur observers were a resource that professional astronomers ought to take advantage of in the name of efficiency.


The Pickering Plan was noted by The Sidereal Messenger in 1882, the only astronomy publication in the United States at the time. The editor, William Wallace Payne (1837–1928), also the director of Carleton Col- lege Observatory in Northfield, Minnesota, published excerpts in 1883 and offered to send the complete pam- phlet to anyone interested. Pickering’s proposal was also reprinted in The Observatory in Great Britain. At the same time, Pickering published a “First circular of instructions for observers of variable stars,” which he made available along with his “Plan” to anyone interested.

So I wanted to get a screen shot of this document to include in the talk. I hit Google Scholar, but quickly realized that I didn't need to. A complete transcript of the document is available for free via the awesome Project Gutenberg public domain e-book service. Read it for a direct glimpse into history. And notice who contributed this work to the repository? None other than member and observer Walter MacDonald II (MDW).

Great work, Walter!