History of the BAS by Frank Cecil
100 YEARS OF AMATEUR ASTRONOMY
by Frank Cecil
(Reprinted from the program book of the 100th Anniversary Celebration of
the Baltimore Astronomical Society, November, 1981).
A hundred years is a long time but come November 30, 1981, the
Baltimore Astronomical Society will observe the one hundredth anniversary
of its founding. The first President was a Mr. George Gildersleeve but
Dr. John R. Hooper, the Secretary, apparently, was the principal leader in
the Society's formation.
In the early days of its existence, the Society met in the homes
of various members, most of whom had telescopes and were interested in one
or more phases of astronomy.
In May,1900, the BAS - as it is now called - joined the Maryland
Academy of Sciences and became the Academy's Department of Astronomy. The
decision to join was reached when it became known that the Academy could
obtain a reduced railroad fare to observe a total eclipse of the sun on
May 28, 1900 at Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Several members of the BAS
went on this expedition and saw the eclipse under ideal weather
For many years the Academy was located at 105 West Franklin
Street, the present site of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. There the BAS
had not only an observatory but also an observatory deck. On one occasion
several of its members were looking down upon a party in the courtyard
below. It was July 14th - Bastille Day - and the French Section of the
Academy was celebrating the occasion with a gala party. Japanese lanterns
were hung from the trees, the men and ladies were dressed in formal attire
and there was a wide assortment of food and drink. At the height of the
party the astronomers noticed a large freezer of ice cream blocks sitting
against the courtyard wall directly below them. The sight of all that ice
cream was mouth watering. Why couldn't they - the astronomers - have some
of it? Suddenly, they had a mischievous idea and, according to the story
told to me, someone carefully lowered a rope and grappling hook down the
side of the wall and just as carefully pulled the freezer up to the
observatory deck. After helping themselves to the ice cream they lowered
the freezer back down to the courtyard and no one was the wiser. No one,
that is, except a French waiter, who noticed it was missing and reported
it to Dr. Nicholas, director of the Academy. After a fruitless search of
the premises, the two came back to the courtyard and to their amazement
and confusion, found the freezer back in its original place.
In the fall of 1927 the Academy moved to 2724 North Charles Street
where it served the public for the next sixteen years. The most active
section in those years was the BAS, which opened its doors to the public
every Thursday night. President of the Society and Director of the
Observatory was Dr. Carleton Wolf, a pharmacist by profession and an
amateur astronomer by avocation. Dr. Wolf often gave talks on astronomy
in the Academy's lecture hall. Afterward, he would direct his listeners
to the observatory, which by now had an 8 inch Alvan Clark refracting
telescope. It was largely through Dr. Wolf's efforts that this instrument
The Thursday night observing sessions were staffed by Paul Watson,
Carroll Merriam, Joe Field, Meredith Reese, and the writer. These
sessions were well attended by people from virtually all walks of life.
They were not disappointed. The moon with its craters, Jupiter with its
belts and Great Red Spot and Saturn with its rings were good objects for
the viewing public. When it was cloudy, invariably Mr. Merriam would
direct the telescope to the "constellation of the dead bull," which was a
neon sign that read "ESSKAY QUALITY MEATS."
On special occasions the public came in large numbers, due for the
most part, to the good publicity in the Baltimore newspapers. Such an
occasion was the first Thursday in July, 1939, when the planet Mars made
one of its close approaches to the earth - 34,000,000 miles.
Nevertheless, according to Lee McCardell, a reporter from the Evening Sun,
777 people took a look at the red planet. They could see the south polar
cap and the dark Syrtis Major. But mostly Mars was found to be "boiling."
Finally, disgusted by all this attention, it "ducked behind a cloud,"
according to McCardell, and was seen no more.
Thursday September 18, 1941 began like any other Thursday but it
ended with the most spectacular display of northern lights I have ever
seen. Shortly after my arrival at the observatory, I was called out to
the deck to see a bright glow in the north. For the next half hour the
glow became more intense. Then came streamers of light that changed from
their original milky whiteness to red, gold and green. Great waves of
light, like reflections from a big fire, rolled up into the sky and
flickered across the zenith, where the converging streamers formed a
"coronal burst." By this time the observatory deck was crowded with
visitors who began arriving shortly after the display began. Finally, a
curtain of light descended almost to the southern horizon. Constantly
changing and shifting, the display would subside for a while and then
resurge. It lasted far into the night and left us earthlings with a sense
of awe and wonderment.
The observatory was used also for private observing by the
astronomers and their friends on nights other than Thursday. I remember
one such night when seeing conditions were excellent. The sun set that
evening almost as brightly as it shines at mid-day and the atmosphere was
so still, that, looking to the top of a tall tree back of my home, I could
not detect the slightest movement of a leaf. I knew this was going to be
a rare night. So off to the observatory I went, there to find several of
my colleagues who had come, as I did, to observe objects that normally
were poor and difficult to see. But this night was different. Everywhere
the seeing was excellent and we made the most of this rare opportunity.
One object in particular I will not forget. It was M-13, the globular
cluster of stars in the constellation of Hercules. Ordinarily, even
through our fine telescope, it appeared as a hazy patch of light. That is
what city lights and a murky atmosphere do to astronomical observing. But
on this night I could see many of M-13's individual stars. Like jewels
against the sky, they stood out in such a manner and in such numbers as I
had not seen before.
Another date I will remember was August 26, 1942. Several of us
had gathered at the observatory to watch a total eclipse of the moon. It
happened that a war time blackout had been ordered for that evening and it
came at the height of totality.
It was an impressive sight to look across where even the fainter
stars are visible. During totality the moon, a dull, copper color, was
dimly visible. I have often referred to this eclipse as a blackout within
Not only did the public come to the BAS, the BAS went to the
public by holding star parties in the parks, such as Druid Hill, Clifton
and Herring Run. There, batteries of telescopes, each telescope manned by
BAS astronomers, were placed in appropriate locations. The public came in
large numbers to see the wonders of the heavens. Many were seeing them
for the first time.
As I look back, I feel that the BAS has served a useful purpose in
bringing a knowledge of astronomy to the public. When I remember the
thousands of people who looked through our telescopes and listened to our
words of explanation, I believe we added a dimension to their lives which
made them more aware, not just of the sun and its family of planets but of
the vast universe that lies beyond.
Yes, a hundred years is a long time, but against the background of
time that has gone before us, it is just the twinkling of an eye. Come
November we will celebrate that twinkle in an appropriate manner. And
after that, some of us, at least, will be thinking of those who come after
us and the part they will play in the next 100 years of amateur astronomy.