The Bifrost observatory
The Bifrost observatory was erected by Rune Fogelquist, one of the pioneers of Swedish amateur astronomy.
Photo: Rune Fogelquist

Love for the stars: The history of Swedish amateur astronomy during the 20th century

Research project
Active research
Project owner
Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion

Short description

With theoretical grounding in the fields of Public understanding of science and recent work on circulation of knowledge and communication studies in history of science, this project studies the history of amateur astronomy in Sweden from 1900 to the present. Of particular interest are forms of communication between amateurs and professionals, amateur participation in astronomical research and how those are shaped by developments in information technologies. During the 20th century it has grown into a large and diverse culture of ambitious citizens interested and engaged in science. In writing its history, we aim to throw further light on the relation between science and its publics, and at the same time contribute to the history of science in Swedish society.

The main aim of the project is to write the history of Swedish amateur astronomy, from the beginning of the 20th century, when a more organised amateur astronomy began to emerge, up until today. From an international perspective the history of amateur science is a topic that is quite under-researched, and when it comes to amateur astronomy, only a handful of historians have been working in the field. The same goes for Sweden, where very little research has been done on the history of amateur science, and none at all on the history of amateur astronomy.

The project sees amateur astronomy not as a monolithical entity. 20th century amateur astronomy has developed more or less distinct subcultures with both overlapping and differing ideals and practices. In this, amateur astronomy is similar to ornithology.

One important subculture is telescope building and astrophotography and a central theme in our work is therefore the role of technology in the development of amateur astronomy. To take part, the amateur astronomer needs some kind of instrumentation; therefore telescope technologies and the developments in optics, mechanics, electronics, and lately digital technologies, are an important part of this history. In the 1940’s, for example, amateur telescope making was developing quickly in Sweden thanks to a combination of local efforts by individuals and organizations and the appropriation of technical know-how from the so-called Amateur Telescope Making movement in the US. This movement, developed from the 1920’s in close collaboration with the journal Scientific American, taught tens of thousands of Americans how to grind and polish telescope optics and construct the mechanical parts of telescopes. One effect was that telescopes, up until then costly and advanced instruments available only to the wealthy, came into reach for many amateurs.

A second example is the introduction of the so-called Dobson telescope, a type of telescopes that provided larger apertures, making possible amateur observation of hitherto unreachable astronomical objects such as far away galaxies and faint nebulae. Further examples of the role of technologies in the history of amateur astronomy is the increasingly advanced electronics and computer controls of telescopes, as well as the introduction of cheap mass-produced telescopes from the 1960’s and onwards, putting a well-constructed and large telescope within easy reach of just about anyone who wanted to try out amateur astronomy. The central role of instrumentation has manifested itself in a very lively hobbyist culture, full of enthusiasts that love to tinker with their telescopes, in the process learning about optics, photographic technologies, mechanics, electronics and software, construct observatories. This technical side of amateur astronomy borders on hobbyist cultures such as ham radio.

One ideal has been competition; to challenge oneself as an observer, to observe as many or as difficult objects as possible. Another has been to take part in the production of astronomical knowledge production. Amateurs have quantified the shifting activity of sunspots and meteors, documented the variation in brightness of variable stars and the changing morphology of comets, discovered hitherto unknown objects, in the process created empirical data that sometimes has been of use for professional astronomy.

But apart from the scientific and technological aspects, there is also the wish for the sublime, the unique experience of seeing the beauty of the wonders of the sky with your own eyes in your own telescope, unmediated by photography or computer screen.

Amateurs also need information. Without proper star atlases and catalogues showing the positions of the thousands upon thousands of objects visible in amateur telescopes, along with predictions of the future positions of comets, and rapidly disseminated news about transient events as for example exploding stars (novae and supernovae), the amateur would be lost. Therefore, amateurs have tried many different ways to gain access to such information, and then to circulate it amongst their fellow amateurs. During the early years amateurs approach the professionals directly, writing letters to learn what they needed. Later on amateur organisations began circulating information in magazines, mimeographed bulletins and news circulars, and in the 1980s Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and telephone answering machines came on-line, providing up-to-date astronomical information helping the amateur find his or her way on the sky. Today’s internet-based forums and astronomical databases, so important for amateur astronomy, thus have a rich history of precedents that this project has unearthed and discussed.

But information also find its way back to the professional astronomers. Some celestial phenomena are best studied by distributed efforts, where many observers spread over wide geographical areas are collaborating on time-scales that can involve years or decades, to document change in objects such as variable stars, meteor activity, sunspot activity and the aurora. In these fields amateurs provide important data, useful for the professionals. The project studies the development of several programs for such observations, focusing on methods used to collect, validate, analyse, archive and publish datasets. Our study of several hierarchical networks of amateur observers -- parallels to what goes on in fields such as botany, ornithology, and geology -- has shown how amateurs perform large-scale empirical work, often in collaboration with professional astronomers. Even in the age of Big Science, the amateur astronomer can become part of the scientific knowledge production.