Getting Organized: A History of Amateur Astronomy in the United States
During the twentieth century, American amateur astronomers attempted to form national organizations with structures and intents similar to the British Astronomical Association (BAA), an amateur organization dedicated to the advancement of astronomy and widely admired by American amateurs and professionals alike. The Society for Practical Astronomy (1910), the American Amateur Astronomers Association (1935), and the National Astronomical Association (1945) were each intended to facilitate amateur scientific contributions in BAA-like topical sections, but each o f these societies failed.
Founded in 1911, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and the American Meteor Society (AMS) provided an alternative for amateur astronomers who were interested in those specific topics. However, it was not until 1947, when the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) formed, that another large segment of amateur astronomers found a home for their interests.
A second mode of national organization succeeded at mid-century and grew to include most avocational astronomers. Founded in 1947, the Astronomical League consists of regional associations of local societies, and is oriented largely towards recreational astronomy. The League sponsors annual national and regional conventions, but contributes little to scientific programs.
This study concludes that avocational astronomy cannot simply be compared with professional astronomy, and instead must be viewed on its own terms as a complex and variegated field. Although the failure of American amateurs to form a BAA-like organization was at first disappointing, the specialized associations of observers, together with a separate and larger organization devoted to recreational astronomy, have served the American astronomical community well. Professional support for both types of activity was facilitated in this mode of organization. The style in which professional support is rendered appears to be important, with strong volunteer member leadership more effective than a benevolent dictatorship by professionals. A journal in which amateur astronomers may publish observations, discuss techniques and share insights is critical for scientifically oriented associations, and provided a driving force for organizing and maintaining such associations.
Type of Publication
Williams, Thomas R.
Nation(s) of Study
United States of America