Posts Tagged ‘history of astronomy’

History of Astronomy under the auspices of International Astronomical Union

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 2nd, 2014 by Rajesh Kochhar – 1 Comment

Rajesh Kochhar

President IAU Commission 41: History of Astronomy

International Astronomical Union was formed after the First World War although it became truly international only after the Second World War. Its Commission 41 on History of Astronomy (C41) was set up in 1948 and in a few years established itself as an active and influential unit. It has the distinction of being a joint Commission, the other partner being International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPS). Since IAU is an internationally respected body of professional astronomers, its support for history of enhances the credibility of the discipline in the eyes of science establishments of individual countries. C41 is committed to advancing objective and rigorous world history of astronomy taking into account all its aspects.

International cooperation

Collaboration and cooperation are inbuilt into astronomy. It is remarkable that to know our position on the Earth, we must take the help of the sky. While an observer can determine their location, north or south of equator, through a personal arrangement with the sky, the east-west coordinate must be defined with respect to a terrestrial collaborator located elsewhere. An astronomical event is unrepeatable and each observation of it is unique. No observatory, no matter how well equipped or capably staffed, can have access to the whole celestial sphere nor can it replicate what others are doing.

An early systematic initiative in international cooperation in the 19th century was the establishment of a central bureau for astronomical telegrams at Kiel, in 1882, put in place in time for the great comet of that year.[1]  ‘The development of photographic methods had led a number of astronomers to think that the time had come for securing as complete a map as possible of the whole heavens’.[2] Accordingly, at a meeting held in Paris in 1887, a Permanent Commission was set up to carry forward the project of a Carte du Ciel (of which USA was not a part). George Ellery Hale in USA in 1904, working under the auspices of US Academy of Sciences, took the lead in establishing the International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research.[3] In a more focused manner, in 1906, Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn launched an enormous project, involving 40 different observatories, for studying the distribution of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which at the time was presumed to be the whole Universe.[4]

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put a stop to these international initiatives. ‘[E]ven when the war was over, the bitter feelings it left behind precluded in many cases easy co-operation for some years between those of the opposing sides.’[5]


Immediately after the First World War, three meetings of the leading men of science of the allied countries were held at London, Paris and Brussels during 1918-1919 to ‘set in motion, so far as they could, the wheels of international co-operation’ 5, the word international being used in a restrictive sense because the original membership was meant only for allied countries. An International Research Council[6] along with its various constituent unions including International Astronomical Union (IAU) was formed at Brussels in July 1919 .5,[7],[8]

Neutral countries were invited to join the Union which they did at the first General Assembly held at Rome in 1922. (Table 1 lists all the General Assemblies held or scheduled so far.)


Table 1. Date and Place of  IAU General Assemblies, 1922-2019

 No. Year Place of General Assembly
1 1922 Rome, Italy
2 1925 Cambridge, UK
3 1928 Leiden, Netherlands
4 1932 Cambridge, USA
5 1935 Paris, France
6 1938 Stockholm, Sweden
7 1948 Zurich, Switzerland
8 1952 Rome, Italy
9 1955 Dublin, Ireland
10 1958 Moscow. USSR
11 1961 Berkeley, USA
12 1964 Hamburg, West Germany
13 1967 Prague, Czech Republic
14 1970 Brighton, UK
15* 1973 Sydney, Australia
Year Place of General Assembly
16 1976 Grenoble, France
17 1979 Montreal, Canada
18 1982 Patras. Greece
19 1985 New Delhi, India
20 1988 Baltimore, USA
21 1991 Buenos Aires, Argentina
22 1994 The Hague, Netherlands
23 1997 Kyoto, Japan
24 2000 Manchester, UK
25 2003 Sydney, Australia
26 2006 Prague, Czech Republic
27 2009 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
28 2012 Beijing, China
29 2015 Honolulu, USA
30 2018 Vienna, Austria

* An Extraordinary General Assembly was held in Warsaw, Poland, in commemoration of Copernicus’ 500th birth anniversary

‘After some years of hesitation, limitations to the membership were removed in 1926 and invitations for co-operation were addressed to Germany, Austria, and Hungary. 8 However it was only in 1947 that Hungary became a member while Germany and Austria joined five years later, in 1952. With a view to accommodating astronomers from what were officially dubbed enemy countries, IAU introduced the concept of individual members as distinct from country members. IAU remains unique among international bodies on this count.

After the Second World War, the Cold War weighed heavily on everybody’s mind as can be seen from Harlow Shapley’s account of the 1948 Zürich Assembly published in the American journal Science.[9] Shapley began by mentioning ‘the difficulties of communication and cooperation’ between the Soviet Bloc on the one hand and Western Europe and North America on the other.  Shapley assured the readers that though the Soviet and East European astronomers took an ‘active’ part in the week-long activities, it was ‘by no means dominating’. Self-consciously and laboriously, Shapley emphasized the role assigned to Soviet Bloc astronomers even at the Commission and Working Group level. Of course, a true highlight at Zurich was the election of the Russian astrophysicist, Viktor AmazaspovichAmbartsumian, as one of the Vice-Presidents. He would serve as Vice-President for two terms, from 1948 till 1955, and take over as President in 1961 for a three-year term.

The next Assembly got caught up in Cold War. It was decided to hold it in Leningrad at the invitation of the USSR Academy of Sciences, but the meeting was cancelled because of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The 8th Assembly was finally held in 1952 at Rome. It goes to the credit of Soviet astronomers that, taking an extended view of things, they decided not to over-react to the cancellation.  Moscow came to host the 10th General Assembly in 1958. This well-organized meeting was diplomatically significant also. It came ‘at the start of the replacement of an era of confrontation with an era of cooperation known as Khrushchev’s Thaw’.As Adriaan Blaauw later put it, astronomers’ hospitality prevailed over political hostility. [10]

History of Astronomy: Early years

IAU took note of history of astronomy three decades after its formation. As early as 1927 an International Academy of the History of Science had come into existence. It was however a rather elitist group ‘whose members were mostly scholars focused on history’.[11] In 1947, UNESCO set up International Union of History of Science and affiliated it  to International Council of Scientific Union (ICSU). (IUHS was merged into an enlarged IUHPS in 1955). Commission 41 for History of Science was formed in 1948. The IUHS and C41 played a major role in establishing the credentials of history of science (including astronomy) as science rather than as history. C41 was the first international entity devoted exclusively to the history of astronomical sciences. In a divisive world marred by confrontations and suspicions, joint European astronomical heritage would provide a welcome refuge to all.

The nascent Commission did face a threat, but curiously it came from within. Otto Neugebauer who was elected the first President was of the strong and repeatedly articulated opinion that an organized international forum like Commission 41 had ‘no positive function’. He finally resigned and the IAU Executive Committee appointed Herbert Dingle as the Acting President in preparation for the 1922 Rome General Assembly. Dingle went on to lead the Commission as its regular President for two consecutive terms from 1952 to 1958. Dingle was succeeded by the Soviet astronomer, P. G. Kulikovsky, who also served for two terms, 1958-1964. Kulikovsky was an internationalist and a capable organizer. He played a leading role in organizing the 1958 Moscow General Assembly, and before that set up a national Commission for History of Science within USSR Academy of Sciences of which he remained the chairman. Table 2 lists all Commission 41 Presidents from 1948 till 2015.


Table 2. Presidents of IAU Commission 41: History of Astronomy, 1948-2015

Period C41 President Country
1948-1952 Otto Neugebauer USA
1952-1955 Herbert Dingle UK
1955-1958 Herbert Dingle UK
1958-1961 Piotr Grigorevich Kulikovsky USSR
1961-1964 Piotr Grigorevich Kulikovsky USSR
1964-1967 Eugeniusz Rybka Poland
1967-1970 Eugeniusz Rybka Poland
1970-1973 Owen Gingerich USA
1973-1976 Owen Gingerich USA
1976-1979 Jerzy Dobrzycki Poland
1976-1982 Michael  Hoskin UK
1982-1985 Olaf  Pedersen Denmark
1985-1988 John A. Eddy USA
1988-1991 John North UK
1991-1994 Suzanne Debarbat France
1994-1997 S. M. Razaullah Ansari India
1997-2000 Steven J. Dick USA
2000-2003 F. Richard Stephenson UK
2003-2006 Alexander Gurshtein Russia
2006-2009 Nha Il-Seong South Korea
2009-2012 Clive Ruggles UK
2012-2015 Rajesh Kochhar India

Neugebauer’s persistent opposition served a useful purpose. It compelled astronomers and historians ‘to define the scope of the Commission and to determine the nature of its activities’.[12] There was complete unanimity in rejecting his contentions. Every one recognized the special nature of C41 and spoke in favour of its continuance. After the first four years of uncertainty, C41 stabilized itself and would go from strength to strength in the years to come.

Commission members were conscious of the fact that there were many historians of astronomy and other interested scholars who not being practising astronomers were not members of IAU and therefore of C41. They were co-opted as consulting members. In 1976, for example, the Commission comprised 65 regular members and 35 consulting members.  In 1973, two historians (Eric Gray Forbes, UK, and Olaf Pedersen, Denmark) were made members of IAU on the basis of their attainments in history of astronomy.[13] Throughout its existence C41 maintained very close relationship with IUHS/IUHPS. ICSU Year book for 1994 (p. 104) mistakenly refers to C41 as a joint IAU- IUHPS Commission.[14]  C41 acquired this formal status only in 2001.

C41, which really began working at the 1952 General Assembly, had its priorities defined from day one. Overcoming language barriers, contemporary Western scholarship should be integrated and the archival material (including correspondence between astronomers) residing in Russia made accessible to all.  Carrying out translations and the preparation of bibliographies were taken up in right earnest. Indeed, in the early years, the activities of C41 were summarized through bibliographies.

It was not merely pooling of resources but also integration of frameworks. Because of its Communist ideology, USSR emphasized social history of science. It was interested ‘ in the problems of the development of science in connection with the evolution of human society’.[15] Also since the Soviet Union comprised a vast spread in geography, ethnicity and culture, its histories of astronomies were broad-based. In contrast, Western Europe for its own reasons was at the time primarily concerned with modern astronomy and its European antecedents.

It would have come as a surprise to many that even during the troubled war time, USSR found time to commemorate in 1942-1943 the 300th/400th birth/death anniversaries of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton in a scholarly manner and bring out publications. In 1948, Naum Ilich Idelson edited letters from Laplace, Gauss and Bessel to I. Shubert, member of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences, in the first volume of a work titled Scientific Inheritance. [16] The same year saw the publication of a study on ancient Armenian calendar.

In 1955, an editorial board led by Kulikovskii initiated an ambitious and eminently successful programme for bringing out an annual issue of collection of papers titled Istorico-astronomitcheskie Issledonavia [IAI]. The collection included original papers and investigations as well as archives, documents, correspondence of scientists and memoirs. Each issue ended with an annotated bibliography of selected sources of world literature. Starting with the forth issue (1958), English version of contents and editorial preface was also included. The first eight annual issues covering the period 1955-1962 ran into as many as 3786 pages. IAI contents formed an important part of  the bibliography included in the  proceedings of C41. Their importance  can be gauged from the fact that the newly started British Journal of History of Science, in its first two volumes (1963 and 1964),  asked Kulikovsky to summarize the contents of all issues of IAI published to date. [17],[18]

Much of the work on history of astronomy done in the Soviet Bloc falls in three broad categories. (i) First, there was the new interpretation of the works of such well-known names as Copernicus and Humboldt. When Dingle’s 1956 lecture on Edmond Halley was translated into Russian, some editorial remarks were added. (ii) Secondly, the area of history of European astronomy was broadened and deepened. Interaction of instrument makers like James Short and J. Bird and of W. Herschel with Russia was discussed on the basis of primary source material not taken into account so far and their correspondence with Russians brought to the notice of scholars for the first time. Anniversaries associated with individuals and institutions provided a pretext for initiating or intensifying historical researches. The 350th birth anniversary of Jan Hevelious, 200th birth anniversary of the Polish scientist Jan Sniadetski, 150th anniversary of Tartu Observatory, and 125th anniversary of Pulkovo Observatory all resulted in publication of useful material.

(iii) Because of the presence of Central Asian Republics in USSR and for other reasons, attention was paid to astronomy in the Muslim culture zone. Star catalogues of al-Biruni (973-1048), Omar Hajam(1040-1123) and al-Tusi (1201-1274) were published in Russian for the first time under the guidance of Professor B. A. Rosenfeld. G. At the same time notice was taken of the state of astronomical knowledge and cosmological ideas in medieval India as contained in al-Biruni’s  book Indica.[19]

It was not sufficient to make Russian-language archival material available in English. Even English material had to be made more easily accessible. C41 and IUHPS took the initiative in asking the Royal Greenwich Observatory to permit the microfilming  of its records of the past three centuries. The 500th birth anniversary of Copernicus was celebrated in 1973 at various levels throughout the world. As Own Gingerich, President C41 explained, it ‘provided an unprecedented opportunity for the recognition of the history of astronomy as a serious discipline’.[20]

Earlier, at the 13th General Assembly held at Prague in 1967, a resolution was passed recognizing ‘the importance and usefulness of preparing an international history of astronomy, based on original research’. The general editorship of the proposed General History of Astronomy, to be brought out under the auspices of IAU (through C41) and IUHPS was entrusted to Michael Hoskin, who founded the Journal for the History of Astronomy in 1970. The project hoped to cover the period from antiquity till 1950 in four volumes. Eventually only three monographs seem to have been published between 1984-1995. Volume 4A, Astrophysics and Twentieth-Century Astrophysics (edited by Own Gingerich),  came out in 1984. Volumes  2A  and 2B,  Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics (edited by Rene Taton and  Curtis Wilson), came out in 1989 and 1995. These works have stood the test of time as can be seen from the fact that they have recently been reprinted.


In the early decades, astronomy was perceived as an entirely intellectual discipline whose history had to be extracted from an examination of archives, instruments and buildings. There is now greater appreciation of the civilizational role astronomy has played at different times in different cultures and societies. In the 1970s, a new interdisciplinary research area was emerging to which terms like archaeo-astronomy, ethno-astronomy and cultural astronomy have been applied. In December 1972, the Royal Society and British Academy organized a joint symposium in London on The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World.[21] For USA, ancient astronomies of the Americas were of more than academic interest. In 1973, a joint USA-Mexico special session was held in Mexico on Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America. It proved out to be so successful that a second conference on this topic took place, in 1975 in USA, at Colgate University, New York.   In the meantime, John Eddy, spurred by a ‘one-column inch’ report in the Denver Post Sunday Magazine, carried out personal field work on the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming. In 1974, he published an epoch-making paper suggesting that the original purpose of the Wheel was astronomical and that it showed solar and stellar alignments. [22] Whhel was  In 1975 summer, thanks to a research grant provided by the National Geographic Society, John A. Eddy led a small team including an archaeologist which carried out an aerial and ground survey of 20 rock structures on the plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. [23]

IAU took notice of this emerging new field in 1976. At the General Assembly held that year in Grenoble, the C41 organized a session on ‘Megalithic Astronomy: Fact or Speculation’. Not surprisingly, it attracted a large audience from other Commissions as well.[24] Scholarship on the subject has developed to such an extent as to be assigned an IAU Symposium (No. 278) in 2011 for a full-length rigorous discussion. Alive to the role astronomy has played in human affairs, IAU and UNESCO jointly organized a Symposium (No. 260) on ‘The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture’ at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris in January 2009. This was the first time, IAU included in its prestigious Symposium series a scientific meeting that lay outside hard science.

The history of IAU Commission on History of Astronomy covers its first three decades. As we get closer to the present epoch, history becomes more complex. May be the later period will also be covered.

Astronomy is a symbol of the collectivity and continuity of humankind’s cultural heritage. As Goethe put it, ‘The history of science is science itself’. This is certainly true of astronomy.




[1] Sperling, N. (1991) The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams: A case study in astronomical internationalism.  Griffith Observer, June, pp. 2-17.

[2] Stratton, F. J. M. (1934) Monthly Notices of Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Feb.),  pp. 361-372; see p. 365.

[3] Hale, G. E. and Perrine, C. D. (1904) International cooperation in solar research, Science, Vol. 20, pp. 930-931.

[4] Trimble, V. (1997) What, and Why, is the International Astronomical Union? Beam Line, Winter , pp. 44-45.

[5] Ref. 2, p. 367.

[6] The Research Council was renamed International Council of Scientific Unions in 1931. In 1998, the name was shortened to International Council for Science, even though the old acronym ICSU was retained.

[7] Adams, W. S. (1949) Publications of the Astronomical Society of the pacific, Vol. 61, No. 358 (Feb.) , pp. 5-12; see p. 8.

[8] Minnaert, M. (1955) Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 5-11: see p. 9.

[9] Shapley, H. (1946) Science, Vol. 108, p. 558.

[10] Gurshtein, A. (2004) Journal for the   History of Astronomy, Vol. 35, No.118, pp. 120-121; see p. 120..

[11] Petitjean, P. (2006)  UNESCO and the creation of the International Union of History of Science. In: Sixty Years of Sciences at UNESCO, 1945-2005 (eds: Petitjean, P. et al), UNESCO, p. 81.

[12] Transactions of IAU (1952) Vol. 8, p. 623.

[13] Transactions of IAU (1976) Vol. 16, p. 199.

[14] Culture and Cosmos (2002) Vol. 5,  No. 2.

[15] Kulikovsky, P. G. (1963/1964) British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 1, p. 391; Vol. 2, pp. 84-89.

[16] Transactions of IAU (1952) Vol. 8, p. 628.

[17] Kulikovsky, P. G. (1963) British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 391.

[18] Kulikovsky, P. G. (1964) British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 84-89.

[19] Ref. 18, p.88.

[20]  Transactions of IAU (1976) Vol. 16, p. 199.

[21] Philosophical Transactions (1974) Vol. A 276, No. 1257

[22] Eddy, John A. (1974) Science, Vol. 184, No. 4141, pp. 1035-1043


[24] Douglas, A. Vibert (1977) J. Roy. Astr. Soc. Canada, Vol. 71, p. 57.

Kodaikanal Observatory as a potential world astronomy heritage site

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on September 29th, 2012 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Colloquium given at Indian  Institute of Astrophysics Bangalore, 25 September 2012

Rajesh Kochhar

President IAU Commission 41: History of Astronomy

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali

[email protected]

As is well known, Unesco has a mission to safeguard and preserve world heritage sites. Towards this end, it prepares a World Heritage List, in which cultural properties from all over are inscribed (that is included) . Additionally, Unesco encourages international cooperation in heritage conservation. Unesco has now undertaken a Thematic Initiative on ‘Astronomy and World Heritage’. It has enlisted technical assistance from International Astronomical Union for this purpose. Within IAU, the responsibility has been entrusted to Commission 41: History of Astronomy. Phase I of this Initiative aims at ‘acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the outstanding properties connected with astronomy in all geographical regions through their identification, study and inclusion of the most representative of these properties on the national tentative lists. Phase II aims at promoting the most outstanding of these properties which recognize and celebrate achievements in science through their inscription on the World Heritage List.

In simpler words, an astronomical property must first enter its nation’s tentative list and then campaign for inscription in the World List. Note that Unesco does not deal with individuals, only with member countries.


You are all familiar with the rust-free iron pillar near Qutub Minar at Mehrauli in Delhi. It is famous the world over for its metallurgy. What is not so well known is its astronomical significance. It was brought to Delhi in relatively recent times, that is 1233 CE. It was originally installed in  about 400CE in Udaigiri, Central India, on Tropic of Cancer, as a gnomon. If this pillar had remained at its original location, it would have been an obvious choice as a world astronomical heritage property.


As things stand, I think the only candidate for astronomical world heritage list from India would be the Solar Physics Observatory Kodaikanal ( est 1899 ), which now has solar picture data with the same instrument for the longest period in the world (since 1912), except for some short interruptions due to maintenance/ upgradation.


Since you are all practitioners of science ( and not merely historians), I will try to place Kodaikanal in the larger context of development of  solar physics as a scientific discipline.

By the middle of the 19th century, physical astronomy, as distinct from positional astronomy, had already taken some shape, thanks to the advent of  solar spectroscopy and photography. There were a number of solar eclipses in quick succession and visible from India : 1868, 1871 and 1872. These eclipses brought observers from Europe into India, and gave a fillip to solar instrumentation and studies the world over. In 1868, the French astrophysicist Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen discovered helium from Guntur . During his post-eclipse stay at Simla, Janssen created the first spectro-helioscope, which facilitated daily examination of the sun.

Then came the 1874 Transit of Venus. The scientists’ agenda for it ran deep. What was advertised was the brief passage of Venus in front of the solar disc; what was planned was a long-term study of the disc itself.

British (and European) solar physicists wanted photograph of the sun for each day of the year. Since this was impossible in Europe’s weather conditions, data was needed from the colonies.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science passed a resolution asking the Government of India to make arrangements for observing the event and to provide instruments which were afterwards to be transferred to a solar observatory. Such was the prestige enjoyed by science and scientists in Europe at the time that the British Empire, as the owner of the most of the world’s sunshine, agreed to help, though partially.


The 1874 transit eventually led to regular solar physics studies in India, even though the exercise took 25 years. The initiative came from the influential British  scientist of the time , Sir Norman Lockyer.To sum up in advance, the step-wise developments were as follows. First, express arrangements were made for the observation of the 1874 event from Roorkee. Next, interim facilities were created at Dehra Dun and Poona for collection of data and its transmission to Europe. Finally, a permanent solar physics research facility was set up at Kodaikanal.


The 1874 event

 It is noteworthy that Survey of India ( and not Madras Observatory) was asked to make transit  observations. More than 100 photos of the sun were taken at Roorkee  and sent to the Astronomer Royal Sir George Biddell  Airy. Photos from all over were reduced by Captain G. L. Tupman who wrote: ‘There is only one really sharp image in the whole collection, including the Indian and Australian contingents, and that is one of Captain Waterhouse’s wet plates taken at Roorkee’.


Dehra Dun Observatory (1878-1925)

 Lockyer used his equation with Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India, for making arrangement for solar photography in India. Salisbury wrote to the Viceroy on 28 September 1877: ‘Having considered the suggestions made by Mr. Lockyer, and viewing that a study of the conditions of the sun’s disc in relation to terrestrial phenomenon has become an important part of physical investigation, I have thought it desirable to assent to the employment for a limited period of a person qualified to obtain photographs of the sun’s disc by the aid of the instrument now in India’.  From the technical details given in the letter , it is clear that it was drafted by Lockyer himself. Accordingly, starting from early 1878,  solar photographs were regularly taken at Dehra Dun  under the auspices of Survey of India, and sent to England every week. Dehra Dun continued solar photography till 1925, but more out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm.


The larger of the two photoheliographs fell into disuse, and in 1898, Lockyer was stung by on-the-spot discovery that ‘the dome has been taken possession of by bees’.The arrangement was discontinued in 1925, and equipment sent to Kodaikanal.


St Xavier’s College Observatory, Calcutta (1879)

 Sunny India caught the attention of astronomers in the continent also. The Italian transit-of-Venus team led by Professor P. Tacchini of Palermo Observatory stationed itself in Bengal, its Chief instrument being the spectroscope, `an instrument not recognized in the equipment of any of the English parties’. A co-opted member of the Italian team was the Belgian Jesuit Father Eugene Lafont (1837-1908), the popular professor of science at the elitist   St. Xavier’s College. Lafont was  no researcher himself was an inspiring educator and science communicator.

Tacchini suggested to Lafont ‘the advisability of erecting a Solar Observatory in Calcutta, in order to supplement the Observations made in Europe, by filling up the gaps caused in the series of solar records by bad weather’. Lafont used his influence with Europeans, Anglo-Indians  (half-castes), rajas, zamindars, and Indian men of note, and soon collected  a substantial sum of Rs 21000 through donations, including Rs 7000 from the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.

A  9 in refractor by Steinhill of Munich was purchased and housed in a spacious dome constructed for the purpose.

No research or teaching use was ever made of  this facility. This is unfortunate. If the experiment had succeeded, observational astronomy might have become part  of Indian education system. As it is, astronomy has largely remained decoupled from  college/ university teaching.



Takhtasinghji’s Observatory Poona  (1888-1912)

      It was a Government Observatory, named after the principal funder, Maharaja of a princely state, Bhavnagar. It was India’s first modern astrophysical observatory. Unfortunately, it was created for an individual and did not last long. The original plan was to establish a spectroscopic laboratory at Elphinstone College Bombay for use by the students. The initiator of the proposal was a lecturer in the College, Kavasji Dadabhai Naegamvala (1857-1938), who obtained seed money of Rs 5000 from the Maharaja of Bhavnagar and a matching grant from the Bombay Government.  While in England in 1884 for buying the equipment,  he was persuaded by the Astronomer Royal and Lockyer to build a spectroscopic observatory instead.


Since Poona was a better astronomical site than Bombay, in 1885 Naegamvala was transferred  there to College of Science where the Observatory came up in 1888. Its chief instrument was a 16½ inch aperture silver-on-parabolic glass Newtonian  made by Grubb. In addition, Lockyer equipped Poona as a satellite facility. A six-inch Cooke equatorial purchased by the Government for the 1874 transit observation from India had been  loaned to Lockyer’s Observatory in South Kensington.


The India Office also purchased two spectroscopes from Hilger (one solar, the other stellar) for his use. The equatorial and the spectroscopes were given to Naegamvala so that he could observe with them and send raw data to Lockyer. Similarly, data was received  by Lockyer and more generally in England from Kodaikanal and Mauritius.


Not surprisingly, relationship between Poona and South Kensington was non-symmetrical. Whenever South Kensington found fault with data collection at Poona, it did not write directly to Naegamvala, but formally complained to his British superiors. Yet, when Kodaikanal Observatory was being planned, Lockyer suggested Naegamvala’s name for the directorship. The position was however offered to an Englishman, Charles Michie Smith, a non-descript physics professor at Madras. Lockyer and Astronomer Royal constituted two independent centres of power in England, and Kodaikanal came under the latter’s sphere of influence.


Naegamvala took observations till the very last date of his employment, 11 January 1912. The Observatory was officially abolished on the day of his retirement and  all equipment was sent to Kodaikanal. Thus instead of creating a permanent educational facility, a temporary research centre was created for the primary benefit of European solar physicists.


Kodaikanal Observatory (1899)

       If the 1874 transit of Venus was important for solar physicists, so was the severe famine of 1876-77 in the Madras Presidency. Monsoons fail at times, but the severity of famines was particularly high in the colonial period because of large-scale export of food grains from India to Britain  in utter disregard of local requirements. Astronomers of course would not worry about avoiding famines, but in predicting monsoon behaviour. In 1879, Lockyer presented a report to the Indian Famine Commission claiming that famines were correlated with sunspot minima.

There is no doubt that Lockyer and many others genuinely believed in a correlation with solar activity and terrestrial weather. But  it is also a fact that the practical benefits to be derived from a study of the sun were exaggerated to gain Government support. In 1881, Government of India’s chief meteorologist Henry Francis Blanford reported to the Famine Commission that no such simple sunspot-monsoon correlation as suggested by Lockyer existed.


In any case, the Government decided to go ahead with the Solar Observatory. It was however decided to wait till the neurotic Madras Astronomer Pogson was dead. This happened in 1890.

Kodaikanal started shakily. The first task was the acquisition of instruments; they came from a variety of sources.

A photoheliograph (Dallmeyer No. 4) originally made for the 1874 transit was given on loan by Greenwich to Kodaikanal. It was used till 1912. Madras had acquired a 6 in telescope on English mounting, by Lerebours and Secretan of Paris, in 1850. It was remodelled in 1898 by Grubb of Dublin who provided it with an electric drive, and mounted a 5 in aperture a 5 in aperture  Grubb photographic lens on the frame. These and other pictures have now been digitized.


The most important event in the Kodaikanl Observatory’s history was the arrival of George Evershed in 1907, who chose to come to India  no doubt to be able to work in solitary splendour. Kodaikanal rose to great heights under him. His first task was the installation of Ca-K spectroheliograph that had been received in 1904, from Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company. His 1909 discovery of the radial flow in sun spots_ the Evershed Effect_ is the only major discovery ever made from Kodaikanal.In 1911, he made an auxiliary specroheliograph and bolted it to the existing instrument. The Sun could now be photographed not only in Ca-K light but also in H-alpha.


This is the only time a state-of-art pure astronomical instrument was ever made in India.

These old twin spectroheliographs are no longer in use. The H-alpha pictures were discontinued in about 2005, and  the Ca-K  in about 2007. In the mean time, in 1995, as a back-up, Ca-K line filtergrams using a CCD camera were begun.      Finally, in 2008 a newly constructed  twin telescope was commissioned to take pictures in Ca-K and white light. In other words, Kodaikanal does not take H-alpha pictures any more. It takes Ca-K pictures all right, but with a new equipment, as in the Spectro building and white-light pictures at two places ( North Dome and Spectro).In 1933, a Hale spectrohelioscope was received as a gift from Mount Wilson Observatory.


The Spectroheliograph building, known locally as Spectro, has a priceless clock from the 18th century. It is among the dozen odd gridiron pendulum clocks made by John Shelton for the 1761 or 1769 ( probably the latter) transit of Venus. It is not known when and how one of the Sheltons ended in India. The clock was one of the original instruments at Madras Observatory (est 1787). It was transferred to Kodaikanal in 1899. It is still working, and is in use as an ordinary clock.


International Geophysical Year 1957-1958 provided an opportunity for ordering three new instruments. Two of these, Lyot heliograph, and Lyot coronograph, were never really utilized. The third instrument, acquired on turn-key basis, was the Solar Tunnel Telescope which was commissioned by M. K. Vainu Bappu, who joined as Director in 1961. This was the last time Kodaikanal got a new instrument.Over the years many minor instruments were obtained; and new temporary  ctivities initiated ( radio, magnetic/ionospheric). At present, the Tunnel Telescope, Spectro, and the North Dome are the only regular activity centres of  Kodaikanal Observatory.

Kodaikanal was never a well-endowed Observatory. Told instruments cwere often canabalized o meet current requirements, for example an eclipse expedition.There was therefore lot of improvisation; cutting up of old instruments to make new ones for solar eclipse expeditions, e. g.

About 25 years ago, I traced the history of almost every instrument, or parts thereof, that was in actual existence or was mentioned  in the Store’s Stock Register. Many of these details have been published ( eg in Vistas in Astronomy). Here I have drawn attention to only some of them.

  • Indian Institute of Astrophysics Bangalore ( whose field station Kodaikanal Observatory is) has a priceless instrumentation heritage. It deserves to be documented case by case  and preserved.
  •  Kodaikanal Observatory has always been an important feature on the  town’s tourist map. The Observatory however needs to revamp its Outreach Programme, and ,make it more attractive and interactive.
  • Many buildings in the Kodaikanal campus are lying unused. Utilizing them for a combination of heritage, curriculum-based education and science popularization will help preserve the buildings also. The Kodaikanal Observatory needs to be protected not only as cultural property but as real estate also.


Concluding remarks

Kodaikanal Observatory is a respected name in the world solar physics. Many better-known observatories have discontinued their old programmes, or even shifted to new locations, and become more high tech.

IIA should prepare a detailed dossier on the Observatory. Persuade  India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development ( Indian node for Unesco) to include it in the national list.

Then work towards getting it inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage List.






























A universal history of astronomy as an educational aid

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 31st, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Rajesh Kochhar

Invited  talk delivered at XXVII General Assembly of International Astronomical Union  Special Session 4: Astronomy Education between Past and Future, Rio de Janeiro 6 August 2009

A man is wise with the wisdom of his age only,

and ignorant with its ignorance.    -Henry David Thoreau

History is an exercise in constructing the past carried out in the present with an eye on the future. Thus, paradoxical as it may seem , history converts the past into a bridge between the present and the future. As our perception of today and expectations from tomorrow change, our interpretation of yesterday must also accordingly change.

Human beings are an astronomical species. Ever since they learnt to walk upright they have looked at the sky and wondered. The sky has remained the same, but not its meaning. Astronomy is thus simultaneously a state-of-art intellectual enquiry as well as a symbol of the collectivity and continuity of humankind’s endeavours to come to terms with their cosmic environment. This collectivity can be conveniently discussed in terms of a three-phase model comprising (i) propitiatory phase; (ii) negotiatory phase; and (iii) the modern, curiosity-driven, impersonal phase.

To begin with, sky was home to divinities who were to be feared and appeased. As time progressed, human beings felt more secure and became intellectually more alert. Earlier awe made way for curiosity. Sky was now seen as a phenomenon which could be described The knowledge thus gained was employed to renegotiate the equation with celestial bodies. (iii) The third phase nominally began with Copernicus but took off with Galileo. Sky was now the abode of laws of nature which could be discovered and tested. Earlier astronomy had measured angles; now it could ascertain distances. The sky had acquired depth literally as well as figuratively. It is the transition from phase 2 to phase 3 which concerns us here.

Cultural Copernicanism

Post- world war II decades have ushered in an age which we may call the age of Cultural Copernicanism . In analogy with the cosmological principle that the universe has no preferred location or direction, principle of Cultural Copernicanism would assert that no cultural or geographical area or ethnic or social group can be deemed to constitute a superior entity or a benchmark for judging or evaluating others. This principle argues for a Trans-Cultural Civilizational Perspective whereby modern astronomy (or science in general) is seen not as a western brand but as the current phase of human cultural cumulus to which contributions at different times have come from different parts of the world.

This framework however is a recent development. Historiography developed in the long 19th century consciously projected modern science ( including modern astronomy) as a characteristic produce of western civilization, decoupled from and superior to its antecedents, with the implication that all material and ideological benefits arising from it ( and modern technology) were reserved for its authors.

As a reaction to this, the orientalized east has often tended to view modern astronomy as western astronomy , and sought to defend, protect and reinvent its “own” heritage. This defensive mindset works against the propagation of modern astronomy in many non-western countries.

It also warps their own accounts of their history. Those who act can retract, but those who react continue doing so.

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return. – W.H. Auden

If we wish to create enthusiasm for (modern) astronomy and teach it effectively, especially in geographical areas which have memories of their astronomical past, we must create links to the past and situate modern astronomy in a more extended evolutionary sequence.

Even for researchers, educators and students in astronomically advanced countries, a universal history of astronomy would be professionally beneficial and culturally satisfying. It will bring home the important lesson that at all times, including today, scientific breakthroughs have taken place only when inputs are received from diverse sources.

19th century historiography:Suggested correctives

There are two aspects to be considered: (A) How Europe constructed its own history of astronomy and (B) how it described earlier developments especially in India and the Muslim cultural zone (MCZ). (I am unable to say any thing about developments , e.g., in China.)

Greek science

My own assessment is that science in Europe would have developed exactly the way it did even if Greek science did not exist. This is because of the dynamism created by maritime voyages and the exorbitant profits therefrom. Europe however took its science’s roots back to ancient Greece. And stopped there. It refused to go into the antecedents of Greek science itself . Hellenic and Hellenistic periods were presented as a monolith so that by association Homer and Aristarchus would reinforce each other.

Greek science could arise only after Alexander. His conquests brought Greeks to the older civilizations of Egypt and Iraq, which had large surplus economies, vast geographical extent, higher levels of practical knowledge and technological advancements. These, when combined classical Greece’s intellectual prowess, gave rise to “Greek science”. But it did not suit Europe of the time to give any credit to Africa or Asia.

Terms like Hindu astronomy and Arab astronomy are isolationist and were intended as such. Moreover they are misleading. The word Hindu was not in use in 500 CE. And .as Ibn – Khaldoon pointed out , “ most Muslim scholars both in the religious and in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs”. Unfortunately, these terms continue to be used by sheer force of habit. They should be discarded in favour of purely descriptive terms like Siddhantic astronomy and Zij astronomy.

More generally, serious thought needs to be applied to the vocabulary employed. Words do not have any intrinsic meaning; they carry the meaning given to them. Some terms may appear innocuous to astronomers, but they may carry their own baggage from other area studies.

With reference to earlier epochs, terms like pre-scientific or ascientific astronomy have been employed even in serious literature. In contrast , ethno-astronomy or cultural astronomy may appear more acceptable , but they have their own shortcomings. They appear to be patronizing and an exercise in exoticism. ( All human activity including the modern scientific is cultural)

I have seen the use of term rational astronomy to refer to the modem phase. This seems to suggest that in earlier phases people made a distinction between the rational and the irrational and deliberately chose the irrational!

May be terms like solsticial (equinoctial) astronomy or colure astronomy or cardinal point astronomy can be used, because they are purely descriptive and not tainted by any association.

Incidentally, we routinely use geographical terms like India, China, and Egypt while discussing their antiquity. But an exception is made in case of Iraq which is invariably described in such difficult-to-comprehend terms like Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Chaldea, etc. This tends to decouple modern Iraq from its rich heritage. Why is this so?


Greek science was one of the big bangs for 19th century Euro-centric historiography; Copernicus was another. Some of the earlier accounts give the impression that he was not a product of his time at all , but was merely  taking sides in the  old dispute between Aristarchus’ heliocentrism and Ptolemy’s geocentrism.


The common use of a term like Arabic numerals raises the hackles of Indians who consider it to be a case of mis-branding. (This is true. ( Arabic/Persian call them Hind-se’, from India.) But terms like Arabic numerals and Algorithm, after Al-Khwarizmi, draw attention to an important historical fact , namely, arrival of intellectual inputs from MCZ into Europe.

What did Europe do with these inputs? More specifically, did they go into the making of Copernicus? Whether Al-Tusi deserves to be elevated from a lowly , early 19th century, footnote to the 21st century main text needs to engage the attention of present-day scholars, in a non-parochial context.

A universal history of astronomy would transcend patriotisms of all kinds.

Buddhists and Arabs

Arabs were  dismissively told that there role had been no more than as librarians and archivists for preserving  Greek science till Europe was in a position to take its heritage back. And yet, when Indians in their own context pointed out that in earlier times the Buddhists had  worked extensively  on health-related  chemistry , they were told with a straight face that  when their ancient texts mention Buddhist , they probably meant Arabs! Surely Arabs would have liked to hear that. But it was not considered necessary to inform them.

From about 500 CE till Kepler’s time , Indian astronomers were probably the only ones in the world who could calculate an eclipse with any reasonable accuracy. Disdainfully they were told that there was nothing original in their astronomy; it was a tame imitation of the Greeks. Indians did not retort that the only way to build an intellectual tradition is to absorb extant knowledge and build on it. Instead they weakly argued that the Greek borrowing was in astrology and not in astronomy, as if the distinction would have made any sense 2000 years ago.

Indians take pride in the appreciation earned by Indian texts in Baghdad, but are themselves less than liberal in acknowledging the role of Greco-Babylonian inputs around 1st century CE in revitalizing their Vedic astronomical tradition.

Since racial purity is an absolute no-no now , great emphasis is being placed on cultural purity. It is like discovering therapeutic virtues in distilled water.

Unlike the MCZ, Indian astronomical developments did not impinge Europe directly. The main concern of Siddhantic astronomers was the computation of planetary orbits. In the process they solved many equations which as formal mathematics caught Europe’s interest much later. Should they be the concern of only Indian historians?

History of astronomy functions at two levels. At one level we are interested in tracing the historical trajectory which leads to recent developments. But examination of high points that do not lie on the trajectory is also a legitimate field of enquiry. To put it attractively, if history has its compulsions, it also has its romances.

Thomas Godfrey’s 1730 invention of sextant in Philadelphia a year before Hadley invented it “ independently” the next year in England is an example of romance of history . Similarly European pre-history of telescope before Hans Lippershey’s commercial invention in 1608 is a fascinating subject. This line of enquiry should be extended to include similar episodes from other culture areas as well.

To sum up

Astronomy as a modern scientific discipline stands apart from most others in the sense that iy is collaborative rather than competitive. No person howsoever important, no nation howsoever powerful, no observatory howsoever well equipped is permitted a view of the whole celestial sphere.

It is a significant arrangement by nature that to know where you are located on the earth you must take the help of the sky ( stars/satellites).There is a rather obscure theorem in applied mathematics, known as Lichtenstein’s theorem, which tells you that for a rotating body like the earth the distinction between north and south along with the existence of equator is a mathematical fact , but the distinction between east and west is completely arbitrary.

We are all committed to the world-wide propagation of astronomical sciences. I have argued that to facilitate the task we must construct a universal history of astronomy so that every one feels they have contributed to it in the past and must do in the present and future as well.

Even otherwise an inclusive history is good for the world’s general wellness.