Hippolyte Fizeau & Leon Foucault

by catcher Sunday, July 22, 2012 7:15 AM

'The 'c' Men'

Armand Hippolyte Fizeau
Born: 23rd September 1819, Paris, France
Died: 18th September 1896, Ferte-sous-Jouarre, Seine-et-Marne, France

Jean Bernhard Leon Foucault
Born 18th September 1819, Paris, France
Died 11th February 1868, Paris, France

Armand Hippolyte Fizeau and Jean Bernhard Leon Foucault were two of the greatest physicists of the nineteenth century. Their improvements to the photographic process and the development of terrestrial methods for the determination of a more accurate value for the speed of light, paved the wave for many advances in all branches of science. Together they obtained the first successful images of the Sun’s surface showing clearly the presence of sunspots.

Although it was to America that the spoils of victory went in the race to take the first successful astronomical photograph, it was to France and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787-1851), that John William Draper (1811-1882) owed the technical means by which he obtained his famous 1840 image of the Moon. It was also to France that we owe the next major advance in Astrophotography, and the Solar Photography of Armand Hippolyte Louis Fizeau (1819-1896) and Jean Bernhard Leon Foucault (1819-1868).

The Moon and the Sun are by far the two brightest objects in the sky, with Sunlight dominating the daylight hours and Moonlight ruling over the hours of darkness. As John W. Draper had captured the image of the Moon, it was only natural that the Sun should be the next focus of attention in the new field of celestial photography. So it was to the Sun that Fizeau and Foucault applied their combined photographic expertise during the period 1843 to 1845.

According to the then Director of the Paris Observatory, Francois Jean Dominique Arago (1786-1853), the two Physicists took during this period a series of Daguerreotype images of the Sun, which were the first to successfully capture the face of our star. Fortunately, one of these images has survived, dated the 2nd of April 1845 and shows clearly the presence of sunspots on its surface; and as such is one of the most important astronomical photographs ever taken.

Today the names of Fizeau and Foucault are not known for their photographic achievements, but as two of the greatest physicists of the nineteenth century. In particular, they were the first scientists to measure the speed of light by terrestrially based measurements and not through astronomical observation. Although they began working together at Arago’s suggestion in 1845, they parted company after a few years and began to work independently of each other.

In 1849 Fizeau obtain a value for the speed of light ‘c’, of 195,615 miles (315,000 km) per second - a number slightly higher (by about five percent) than that obtained by astronomical means, but certainly far more accurate than any previous terrestrial method had yielded. The modern figure for the speed of light is approximately 186,000 miles (299,700 km) per second.

A year later in the April of 1850 his former partner, Foucault had developed his own means of measurement and showed that light travels slower in water than in air. This was in accordance with what the wave theory of light predicted, but contradicted the predictions of Newton’s corpuscular theory. Foucault is also better known today for his ‘Pendulum’ experiment which demonstrated the daily rotation of the Earth on its axis; and as a telescope maker of some note.

The lives and careers of Fizeau and Foucault are so entwined that it is impossible to tell the story of one without telling that of the other. After all, they were born within five days of each other in Paris; they attended the same school; they both had intended to follow a career in medicine; they were experts in the use of the newly invented Daguerreotype photographic process; and they also worked together at the Paris Observatory.

They were for many years like twin brothers, until they fell out over the matter of ‘c’, but not before they had written themselves into history as two of the great pioneers of Astrophotography.

To read more on their life and work read the eBook chapter on Hippolyte Fizeau & Leon Foucault or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'. 

The Sun, 2nd of April 1845, Hippolyte Fizeau & Leon Foucault, Paris Observatory

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

William Henry Pickering

by catcher Sunday, July 22, 2012 5:20 AM

'The Lunatic'

Born: the 15th February 1858, Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Died: 16th January 1938, Mandeville, Jamaica

William Henry Pickering was the younger brother of Edward Charles Pickering and a great pioneer of Astrophotography in his own right; producing in 1903 the first ever complete Photographic Atlas of the Moon, seven years before Loewy and Puiseux completed the publication of their ‘Atlas Photographique de la Lune’ in its entirety.

William Henry Pickering (1858-1938) followed in the footsteps of his elder brother, Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919), and became a great astronomer. It was in fact William Henry who introduced his more famous sibling to astronomical photography and set him on his path which led to some of the most important work ever carried out in the new science of Astrophysics.

In contrast, William Henry’s work led him to nearer and more traditional areas of study – the Sun, Moon and Planets; and not the distant stars; about which man knew so very little, a situation Edward Charles Pickering was determined to alter. Although, he lived in the shadow of his illustrious brother, William Henry made his own mark in Astrophotography.

In 1903 he published 'The Moon', which contained images of the whole of the visible portion of our nearest astronomical neighbour of a quality somewhat short of the great heights reached by Maurice Loewy (1833-1907) and Pierre Henri Puiseux (1855-1928); who not only had the resources of the Paris Observatory to call upon, but a telescope which far surpassed anything available to Pickering.

However, Pickering’s Atlas includes the same areas, photographed under different illuminations according to the phase of the Moon, something which is of great benefit to the observer; as is also the four quadrant maps and overlays to be found in its pages.

To read more on his life and work read the eBook chapter on William Henry Pickering or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

The Mare Imbrium, Appenine Mountain, Mare Frigoris Region of the Moon, William Henry Pickering

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd

by catcher Saturday, July 21, 2012 5:02 AM

'The Lawyer'

Born: 25th November 1816, Morrisania, Bronx, New York, USA
Died: 30th May 1892, ‘Tranquility’, Allamuchy, Warren, New Jersey, USA

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd although coming from an unlikely legal background and having received no formal scientific education, made contributions to Astronomical Spectroscopy that were truly ground breaking; and which were the envy of many professional scientists. He was also the first person to build a telescope suitable for photographic use only. With this instrument he took photographs of the Moon, which were for over twenty years unequalled in their quality.

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd  (1816-1892) was at first sight an unlikely candidate for a great amateur scientist and even less so as one of the pioneers of Astrophotography, yet that is exactly what he became. Born into a family whose male members had been lawyers for as long as America had been a Nation, it seemed that he too would be another Rutherfurd destined for a life at the Bar.

Then something happened which changed his life – he found science. He realized much to the horror of his parents, that micrometers, telescopes and diffraction gratings  were infinitely more interesting than serving affidavits and drawing up deeds.

Sometime around 1850 he broke the family tradition which had lasted for three generations; and gave up the law to devote all of his effort, time and money to science. It was not long before he and others realized that not only did he enjoy it but he was also rather good at it.

In the January of 1863 Rutherfurd published a paper in the American Journal of Science on the spectra of the Moon, Planets and Stars. This was the first paper published on the subject of spectral analysis since that of Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff, written some four years previously. It included the very first attempt at classifying stars based on their spectra.

The paper was a milestone in the new science of Astrophysics, and greatly extended the work of Joseph Von Fraunhofer done nearly half a century earlier; and even went beyond the more recent findings of Kirchhoff and Bunsen. Rutherfurd’s stellar classification work was later expanded upon by the Jesuit priest Pietro Angelo Secchi in 1867, and further advanced by others including Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury and Annie Jump Cannon during the 1890s.

A year later In 1864, he made one of the greatest technical advances in the entire history of Astrophotography when he succeeded in constructing an 11.25-inch objective lens suitable for photographic use. This event marked the birth of the ‘Photographic Refractor’ or Astrograph.

With his new Astrograph the very first of its kind, Rutherfurd was able to take images of the Moon whose quality was not to be surpassed for over twenty years; but more importantly for Deep Space Astrophotography – he was able to image stars as faint as the ninth magnitude.

In the 1860s, Rutherfurd took a series of Photographs of a number of the most well known open clusters in the heavens. This was the first time that this had been done and was in fact the logical continuation of the work done on Stellar Photography by the Bonds of Harvard and the Boston Photographers, John Adams Whipple and James Wallace Black during the 1850s.

However, the work of Rutherfurd in which he was later assisted by Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-1896), was particularly important in that not only the images of the stars were captured on the Photographic Plate, but their positions in the sky were also measured directly from the plates. This was the beginning of Photographic Astrometry.

Let us now tell the story of Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, the onetime lawyer who changed his life by catching the light of the moon, planets and stars.

To read more on his life and work read the eBook chapter on Lewis Morris Rutherfurd or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

 The Moon at 'First Quarter', Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, 4th of March 1865

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

Benjamin Apthorp Gould

by catcher Saturday, July 21, 2012 4:20 AM

'Our Man in Cordoba'


Born: 27th September 1824, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, USA
Died: 26th November 1896 Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, USA

Benjamin Apthorp Gould was an Astronomer of the ‘old school’ who believed in the importance of measurement and position, preferring it to the then new science of Astrophysics. He along with his mentor Lewis Morris Rutherfurd pioneered the development of Photographic Astrometry. In the years 1872 to 1882, during his time as the first Director of the Observatorio Astronómico de Córdoba, Argentina, Gould and his assistants photographed and measured the brightest stars in many of the most well known Open Clusters in the Southern Hemisphere.

Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-1896) was an astronomer who believed in the old ways. He wished to measure the positions of stars and thus continue with the work begun by the great pioneers of stellar cartography; amongst whose ranks is included the likes of Johann Bayer (1572-1625), John Flamsteed (1646-1719) and Nicolas Lacaille (1713-1762). Although he was of the old school Gould did not dwell in the past by using antiquated methods and equipment. He was keen to make use of photography to measure stellar positions and together with his mentor Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, founded the branch of astronomy now known as Photographic Astrometry.

Like the modern astronomer, Gould was prepared to travel to the ends of the Earth to carry out his observations. As a young PhD student I was always envious of my postgraduate friends who were observational astronomers. They would go off to exotic locations on mountain tops or in deserts in far off lands to use some great telescope of the world, while I would find myself in library or a computer room, peering at some paper containing what my friends jokingly called ‘nasty sums’.

So it was in 1870 that Benjamin Apthorp Gould left the familiarity and safety of Cambridge, Massachusetts for the Argentine to become the first Director of the Observatorio Astronómico de Córdoba, Argentina:

“…Gould sailed for the Argentine, via Europe, to execute, the projects which had been taking shape in his mind since 1865. Narrowly escaping entanglement in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he arrived at Buenos Aires as the southern winter was changing into spring and found his destination still far away. Proceeding by boat up the La Plata to Rosario, and thence northwestward by a newly constructed railway across the pampas, he found in Cordoba, the site chosen for his work, a mediaeval Spanish city of 30,000 people, set down in the new world but perpetuating in it the life and ideas of a bygone time. Capable of supporting life in a primitive but fairly comfortable fashion, the place was almost wholly devoid of accessories for a scientific establishment. Mechanical facilities of every kind, light, power, machinery, and skilled labor were almost unknown, and local assistance was of small avail save for the aid given by one or two Cordobans who had been educated in Europe.”

During a ten year period at Cordoba, from the summer of 1872 until the winter of 1882, Gould and his assistants took hundreds of photographs of 35 of the most well known Open Star Clusters visible from the Southern hemisphere; including ‘Ptolemy’s Cluster’ (M6), the ‘Butterfly Cluster' (M7) and the ‘Jewel Box’ Cluster (Kappa Crucis). The two famous Northern Hemisphere Clusters the ‘Pleiades’ (M45) and the ‘Praesepe’ (M44), were also photographed.

Using these photographs Gould obtained accurate measurements of the positions of their brightest members, down to about magnitude 10.5. This mammoth effort marked the true beginning of Photographic Astrometry, and paved the way for the even greater challenge of using photography to map the entire sky, but that as they say is another story.

He was also responsible for the production of the Great Star Catalogue, known as the Uranometria Argentina, for which he was ultimately awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1883, some four years after its completion. In it Gould assigned ‘numerical designations’ to the brightest stars within 100 degrees of the South Celestial Pole (i.e. from Declinations of +10o to -90o), in a manner similar to which John Flamsteed had done earlier for the Northern Hemisphere.

Benjamin Apthorp Gould’s journey to the Argentine was from a professional viewpoint one of great achievements and a tremendous pride gained from the many honours bestowed upon him by his peers; but personally it was to be full of tragedies from which he would never recover and which haunted him even until the very day he died.

To read more on his life and work read the eBook chapter on Benjamin Apthorp Gould or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

 Cordoba Observatory, Argentina, 1871: image courtesy of Museo Astronómico, National University of Cordoba

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

Eugen (Jeno) Von Gothard

by catcher Saturday, July 21, 2012 4:03 AM

'The First Amateur Astrophotographer'

Born 31st May 1857, Herény, Vas, Hungary  
Died 29th May 1909, Herény, Vas, Hungary

Eugen ‘Jeno’ Von Gothard was born on the 31st of May 1857 in the village of Hereny, near Steinamanger, Hungary, the eldest son of the wealthy land owner Stephan Von Gothard. From an early age Jeno exhibited a great interest in physics, which he inherited from his father; who had been in turn inspired by his father Francis von Gothard. Jeno’s grandfather was a lifelong devotee of scientific experiments, which he conducted avidly for some fifty years from 1780 to 1830. It was therefore, no surprise that through the enthusiastic encouragement of their father, Jeno and his younger brothers Alexander (1859-1939) and Stephen (1869-1948) would devote their lives to scientific research.

After completing his studies in 1879 he travelled abroad for a year or so before returning to his estate at Hereny, with the intention of setting up his own Physics Laboratory. However he changed his plans, partly because of his now awakened interest in Astronomy and also because of the influence of his friend, the astronomer, Dr. Nicolaus Von Konkoly (1842-1916). Jeno decided instead to add an Astronomical slant to his proposed Physics Laboratory and so it came about that on the 20th of October 1881, the first observations were made at the newly inaugurated Hereny Astrophysical Observatory.

By 1885, Von Gothard had abandoned almost entirely visual observations and began concentrating all his efforts on the direct imaging Deep Space Objects (DSOs) and obtaining photographic spectra of stars, clusters, nebulae and comets. On the night of the 1st of September 1886, Von Gothard took the first photograph of the famous ‘Ring’ Nebula, a planetary nebula in the constellation of Lyra; an object which has been likened to a ‘smoke ring’ in Space. In doing so he became the first true amateur Astrophotographer.

To read more on his life and work and the other early pioneers of amateur Astrophotography, read the eBook chapter on Eugen (Jeno) Von Gothard or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'

 The 'Ring Nebula', (M57), Eugen Von Gothard, 10-inch reflector, 1886: image courtesy of the Archives of the Gothard Astrophysical Observatory of Eötvös University

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

Wilhelm Oswald Lohse

by catcher Saturday, July 21, 2012 1:52 AM

'The Rainbow Man'

Born: : 13th February 1845, Leipzig, Germany
Died:14th May 1915, Potsdam, Germany

Wilhelm Oswald Lohse, along with his colleagues Hermann Carl Vogel and Julius Scheiner at the Potsdam Observatory were three of the great pioneers of Photographic Astronomical Spectroscopy. Together they made significant contributions to the then new science of Astrophysics. Lohse was the  Chemist who worked with Vogel all his life, providing his friend with the technology to photograph the ‘rainbows of the stars'.

Very little is known about the early life of Wilhelm Oswald Lohse except that he was born on the 13th of February 1845 in the city of Leipzig, the son of a master tailor. He received his elementary education in Leipzig but like Vogel, continued with his secondary education at the Dresden Polytechnic School and then went onto study the University of Leipzig.

Lohse’s most important contribution to Astrophotography was the design and construction of an Astronomical Photographic Camera, which on its completion in 1879 was one of the very earliest of its kind. It was special in that it was a detachable camera and not one permanently fixed to a telescope as for example in the case of a Photoheliograph. Lohse’s camera became one of the best known Astronomical Photographic devices; being described and cited in many works of his time, and proved to be a crucial tool in the development of many new photographic techniques used at the Observatory and elsewhere.

During a ten year period from 1879 to 1889 it is known from his observational notebooks that Lohse took 217 ‘dry’ photographic plates of a variety of astronomical subjects including the Sun, Moon, Planets (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), comets, stars, star clusters and nebulae. Lohse plates were taken with the Potsdam Observatory’s then largest telescope, the 12-inch (30-cm) ‘Grosse Rerfraktor’ of Schroder and Repsold; not to be confused with ‘Great Potsdam Double Refractor' which was completed in 1899. 

To read more on his life and work and those of Vogel and Scheiner read the eBook chapter on 'The Rainbow Men' or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

'Great Orion Nebula' (M42), Wilhelm Oswald Lohse, 12-inch refractor, 1889

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

Hermann Carl Vogel

by catcher Saturday, July 21, 2012 12:29 AM

'The Rainbow Man'


Born: 3rd April 1841, Leipzig, Germany
Died: 13th August 1907, Potsdam, Germany

Hermann Carl Vogel was one of the great pioneers of Photographic Astronomical Spectroscopy. He made significant contributions to the then new science of Astrophysics. It was Vogel who first realized that photographs taken with modest telescopes were the equal of visual observations made with even the largest of telescopes.

Germany can be considered to be the fatherland of the ‘New Astronomy’ now known as Astrophysics, and Hermann Vogel was one of its finest sons. Throughout the whole of the nineteenth century there was a gradual shift away from the ‘Old Astronomy’ of measurement and position towards one based on understanding the nature, structure, composition and origin of the Universe. Such a change was slow at first, but as the century progressed it gradually accelerated until it became the principal area of research in a number of institutions, most notably in Germany and later in America.

Hermann Carl Vogel (1841-1907) and his great friend Wilhelm Oswald Lohse (1845-1915) worked together all their lives. They became master and assistant at the Bothkamp Observatory, a private institution, near Kiel - the very first set up specifically to study the physics of the universe. It was here that they learned their trade as astronomers of the new school; and from there they would eventually become two of the greatest disciples of the emerging science of Astrophysics during their time at the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory, as Director and Hauptobservator.

Their efforts in the field of Photographic Astronomical Spectroscopy led to some of the most significant contributions ever made to the development Astrophysics during the age in which they lived.

To read more on his life and work read the eBook chapter on Hermann Carl Vogel or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'. 

Photographic Spectra of Bright Stars, Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory, c1890

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

William Cranch Bond & George Phillips Bond

by catcher Friday, July 20, 2012 10:58 PM

'The Bonds of Harvard'

William Cranch Bond
Born: 9th September 1789; Cumberland, Portland, Maine, USA
Died: 29th January 1859; Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, USA

George Phillips Bond
Born: 20th May, 1825; Dorchester, Suffolk, Massachusetts, USA
Died: 17th February, 1865; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

William Cranch Bond and his son George Phillips Bond were the first two Directors of the Harvard College Observatory, who with the help of John Adams Whipple and his partner James Wallace Black, took the first photographs of stars; work which marked the beginnings of Deep Space Astrophotography; and which helped pave the way for others like Henry Draper to follow. It was at Harvard under the Bonds’ direction that the first systematic experiments were carried out into the then new field of celestial photography.

William Cranch Bond (1789-1859) and his son George Phillips Bond (1825-1865) were the first two Directors of the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. It was at this venerable institution that the very first extended investigations into astronomical photography were carried out by the Bonds in the years 1847 to 1857. During this period with the assistance of the Boston Photographers, John Adams Whipple and James Wallace Black, the Bonds obtained a series of remarkable images of the Moon, the Sun and some of the brighter stars.

Whipple’s Daguerreotypes of the Moon were in every respect superior to John William Draper’s first lunar image of ten years previous. For the very first time the features of the Moon – its craters, seas, mountains and valleys could be seen in great detail, other than through the eyepiece of a telescope. Not only that, they were a permanent record of something which could be marveled at by the public at large – the likes of which very few had seen. In 1851 Whipple’s images of the Moon were taken by G.P. Bond to Europe and displayed at the ‘Great Exhibition’ held that year in the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London for all to see.

However, it was their work in early stellar photography which captured the imagination of the scientific world, as reported by G. P Bond to the ‘Annual of Scientific Discovery’ for 1851:

“Mr. Bond of the Cambridge Observatory has recently succeeded in obtaining a Daguerreotype picture of the star alpha Lyra in the space of about 30 seconds, the image being transmitted through the great refractor, used without the eye-glass. …Yet such are the facts, and it follows that the ray of light which made the first impression on our Daguerreotype plates took its departure from the star more than twenty years ago, long before Daguerre had conceived his invention’...”

Although, J. W. Draper took the first known photograph of an astronomical object when he imaged the Moon in 1840, it is the Bonds who can be considered to be the father and son of Astrophotography. It was they who realized the importance that photography held as a vital tool for astronomical research, and did everything in their power to advance its development. Let us now tell the story of the Bonds of Harvard in their own words and in those of their family and friends.

To read more on his life and work read the eBook chapter on William Cranch Bond & George Phillips Bond or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

Mizar-Alcor System, Ursa Major, George Phillips Bond, John Adams Whipple, James Wallace Black, 1857

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

John Adams Whipple

by catcher Friday, July 20, 2012 10:14 PM

'The American Pioneer'

Born: 10th September 1822; Grafton, Massachusetts, USA
Died: 10th April 1891; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

John Adams Whipple not only made significant contributions to the development of early photography, he was also one of the great pioneers of Astrophotography. It is likely that he was the first person to successfully image a planet, when he obtained Daguerreotype images of Jupiter in 1851. His planetary images preceded those of the Henry Brothers by over thirty years. Sadly the photographic plates have not survived.

Today the name of John Adams Whipple (1822-1891) is largely forgotten; his work is confined to the past like that of so many other early pioneers of photography. Yet in his day he was celebrated for his achievements not only in being one of the first Americans to practice Photography, but to use this new ‘art form’ for scientific purposes:

“In looking back upon this early period in the history of photography, we find it claiming the attention of our most learned scientists as an aid to the study of the sciences, particularly in astronomy and terrestrial phenomena, anatomy and diseases, and proved of great aid in their study. The most notable practical Daguerreians, who devoted most of their time in investigating photography as an aid to science and the fine arts, and gave the most practically valuable results, were Messrs. Whipple and Black, of Boston, who spent much time and money in their experiments. They accomplished feats in telescopic photography that were a marvel at that time, and which gained for them a high reputation throughout the scientific world. We are indebted to them largely for the position that photography took in its application to scientific investigation, particularly after the discovery of the collodion film.”

The work of John Adams Whipple was seen by the general public at the very first ‘World’s Fair’ held in 1851 at the Crystal Palace, London; where he exhibited prize winning Daguerreotype photographs of the Moon. He was one of only a small number of Americans to exhibit photographs at the Exhibition and one of the three to be awarded a medal.

Over a ten year period, John Adams Whipple collaborated with William Cranch Bond and his son George Phillips Bond, the first two Directors of the Harvard College Observatory in the earliest investigations into Stellar Astrophotography:

“About seven years since (July 17, 1850,) Mr. WHIPPLE obtained daguerreotype impressions from the image of alpha Lyrae formed in the focus of the great equatorial …”

In 1851, he took some Daguerreotype images of the planet Jupiter which purportedly showed its famous ‘belts’. If this is so then he was the first person to photograph a planet.

He was one of the truly great pioneers of Astrophotography.

To read more on his life and work read the eBook chapter on John Adams Whipple or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

 Daguerreotype Photograph of the Moon at 'First Quarter', John Adams Whipple, 26th of February 1852

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

Maximilian Franz Joseph Cornelius Wolf

by catcher Friday, July 20, 2012 7:53 AM

'The Verminator'

Born: 21st June 1863; Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Died: 3rd October 1932; Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany

Max Wolf was the first person to discover an Asteroid by means of Photography when in 1891, he imaged No. 323 Brucia; which he named after Catherine Wolfe Bruce who later funded the construction of the 16-inch Double Astrograph at the Landessternwarte Heidelberg-Königstuhl. Later, Wolf helped Carl Pulfrich of the optical firm of Carl Zeiss Jena in the development of the Stereo Comparator, a device used as an aid to the discovery of asteroids and supernovae.

Max Wolf (1863-1932) was given a name so German, it told everyone who met him, that this was a person who would make something of himself. Although, Maximilian Franz Joseph Cornelius Wolf was his birth name, he preferred wisely from an early age, to be called just Max Wolf. Despite spending nearly all of his life in his native town of Heidelberg, he grew up to be one of the great pioneers of Astrophotography and a respected Astronomers of his time.

It was in the field of ‘vermin’ that Max Wolf first made his name known to astronomers, not the creatures with long tails and fleas which plagued Europe, during the ‘Black Death’, but the lumps of rock and iron that litter the space between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter.

On the 1st of January 1801, the Italian astronomer and Catholic priest, Guiseppe Piazzi (1746-1826) discovered the first ‘vermin’ when he observed the asteroid or minor planet Ceres, an event which was greeted with great interest by the popular press of the time:

“An important circumstance in Astronomy has just occurred, no less than the Discovery of ANOTHER NEW PLANET!!! This celestial phenomenon moves between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter, and is an intermediate Planet between them. It was discovered by M. PIAZZI, an Italian Astronomer, on the 1st of January, 1801. He concealed the discovery, to preserve all the honour and observations to himself, till after six weeks close watching, he fell ill. 

It will not be in a situation, with regard to the Sun, to be observed again, till a month or two hence. It is but a small Planet, ranking only as a star of the eighth magnitude, and therefore not visible to the naked eye. Its motion is nearly parallel to the ecliptic, at present about 4½ to the north of it, and nearly entering the sign Leo. The distance from the Sun is about 2½ times that of the earth, and the periodical time nearly four years and two months.—other particulars shall be given in our next...”

A second asteroid Pallas was discovered on the 28th of March 1802 by Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758-1840). In the years that followed more and more of these bodies had been discovered. By 1850 there were ten and by 1891 their numbers had risen to over three hundred. They had become the ‘Vermin of the Sky’, a somewhat derogatory and unfair phrase first used by the Austrian astronomer, Edmund Weiss (1837-1917). 

On the 22nd of December 1891 Maximilian Franz Joseph Cornelius Wolf had lived up to his name and discovered Vermin No. 323 which he called ‘Brucia’. What was so remarkable about this discovery was that Wolf had found it on a Photographic Plate and not through the eyepiece of a telescope. More photographic discoveries followed and during the period 1891 to 1894 he had discovered a total of 21. 

A new age of ‘Vermin’ study had been begun by Wolf, in which these bodies once seen as ‘pests’ became more like ‘pets’ to astronomers, who now realized that asteroids could hold vital clues to man’s understanding of the origin of our Solar System and the Earth itself.

However, it was his work on the development of the Stereo-comparator, a device that allowed the operator to view two photographic plates simultaneously, and to determine if any objects had moved in the two images, was perhaps his greatest legacy to astronomy. It was a device which revolutionized the discovery of not only asteroids by photographic means, but virtually automated the detection of supernovae. Today, software has largely replaced the need for optical stereo-comparators, and their successor the blink-comparator.

In the field of Astrophotography, Max Wolf, took images of many of the most well known ‘nebulae’ in the heavens, Even to this day his images are amongst the finest ever seen. He also used photography to discover over 1100 Deep Space Objects (DSOs) now included in Dreyer’s Index catalogue (IC). The modern Astrophotographer owes Wolf a great debt, for it was he who first imaged a number of the more challenging targets including the ‘Cocoon’ Nebula (Sh2-125) and its associated open cluster IC 5146, in Cygnus and the ‘Cave’ Nebula (VdB 152) in Cepheus.

To read more on their life and work read the eBook chapter on Maximilian Franz Joseph Cornelius Wolf or buy the Book 'Catchers of the Light'.

The Milky Way in the Constellation of Cassiopeiae, Max Wolf, 1901

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Pioneers of Astrophotography

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Stefan Hughes began his career as a professional astronomer, gaining a 1st Class Honours degree in Astronomy from the University of Leicester in 1974 and his PhD four years later on the 'Resonance Orbits of Artificial Satellites due to Lunisolar Perturbations', which was published as a series of papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. After graduating he became a Research fellow in Astronomy, followed by a spell as a lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Queen Mary College, London. Then came a ten year long career as an IT Consultant. In 'mid life' he spent several years retraining as a Genealogist, Record Agent and Architectural Historian, which he practiced for a number of years before moving to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where for the past ten years he has been imaging the heavens, as well as researching and writing the 'Catchers of the Light' - A History of Astrophotography.