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History of the Milwaukee Astronomical Society

1934-35: An Offer of Land / AAAA

At the beginning of 1934, the establishment of a real observatory suddenly became a reality because of an offer of land to the MAS. A member, Professor M.J.W. (Matthew) Phillips, a high school science teacher at West Allis High School, offered an acre of land from his family farm in Waukesha County, which at that time was just outside the town of New Berlin. The story is Prof. Phillips wasn’t sure it was a suitable site, but the stunned board and committee immediately made the trek to the site in New Berlin in sub-zero weather to check it out and make a quick survey. What they found was better than their wildest imaginations and it was deemed to be nearly perfect.

Original MAS property plat.It was on a hilltop with great horizons in all directions as it sat in the middle of the Phillips farm. It was 960 feet in elevation which is almost 400 feet above Lake Michigan. It was close to a good highway (now known as National Avenue), but not too close. And it was off a good quiet road: 3-Rod Road which one day would be renamed Observatory Road. And then there was the Goldie Locks feature of the property: it was 15 miles away from Milwaukee. Far enough away from the city to be very dark, but still not too far away as to be inaccessible by most of the membership.

But Phillips had an important stipulation: construction would need to begin within 5 years. Why? It is important to keep in mind that they were in the middle of the great depression and at the time Phillips made his offer, the club had only been in existence for 15 months! So it was far from certain at that point the club would continue and in the short term, get enough money and member enthusiasm for the monumental task of constructing an observatory. And it is clear that Phillips was donating this for only one reason: he wanted the site to be used as an observatory. But there was no good reason to decline the offer and it was gladly accepted.

The committee, headed by Frank Dieter, drew up plans for a 14 foot domed observatory which could accommodate up to a 16 inch telescope, with another identical observatory some 50 feet away to be built later. Then the two buildings would be joined, providing a meeting area. But with no funds, the plans would be shelved for several years.

In February of 1934, the club established a newsletter called the MAS Bulletin C.P. Frister standing next to the Armfield Telescope. Frister was one of several members involved in the construction of this scope. which would be published until December of 1935. You can read those issues here. Also in February, Luverne Armfield, in recognition of both his variable star observing and the number of new observers he'd recruited through the MAS, was offered the use of a 13-inch plate glass mirror from the AAVSO via Harvard College. It was made with the understanding that the society could have it as long as they pursued the study of variable stars. It had a focal length of 102.5 inches making it an f/7.88. Immediately Armfield and other members got started with fashioning a telescope and mount which was largely funded by Armfield.

In March of that year, the MAS filed papers of incorporation and became a non-profit organization. This was now necessary for the club to take possession of the land for the observatory.

By October, the 13-inch telescope had been hastily completed and put into use in Armfield's back yard, which was the unofficial location of the MAS Observatory. The mirror box was made out of wood (to be upgraded later), and there was no clock drive. Again, to be added later. But the telescope performed beautifully and even from West Allis, the scope could easily detect a 15.8 magnitude star.

You can get a more detailed account of this telescope in the October, 1934 issue of the MAS Bulletin written by Luverne Armfield here.

Twin highlights of 1935 were the visit of Dr. Harlow Shapley to Armfield's house (Shapley spoke on Nova Herculis), and the formation of the American Amateur Astronomical Association (AAAA), a joint idea of Armfield's and J. Wesley Simson. Simson who was the editor of Astronomical Discourse, the publication of the Missouri-Southern Illinois Observers.

First issue of Amateur Astronomer, the journal of the AAAA. The AAAA was an extremely ambitious endeavor. It was a confederation of amateur astronomy societies and clubs for the purpose of coordinating astronomical observations and information exchange on telescope making and observatory construction. It was the forerunner of the Astronomical League. Eventually, 15 societies would sign up with clubs as far away as New York and California.

Every other month the AAAA published Amateur Astronomy as a journal of the member club activities. The MAS Bulletin stopped publication and instead was incorporated in the AAAA journal. It would be published until 1938 and you can read the issues on the MAS website here.

Duplicate Meteor Plot

The most important impetus for the formation of the AAAA was the value of doing duplicate meteor observations. Meteor observing was one important way that amateurs could contribute to science, and Armfield was an advocate and an observer. Doing meteor counts and establishing radiant points had long been the way amateurs could contribute, but if you could get a good enough plot for a meteor seen by two observers 25-125 miles apart, a parallax could be calculated and, hence, a height calculation could be made.

On its surface it sounds very simple. However, in practice it proved extremely difficult to almost impossible. First, it was difficult to get the decent plot accuracy. It took an experienced observer and that person had to be looking at the right part of the sky. The closer that observer was looking to where the meteor appeared, the more accurate the plot. Second, the odds of another qualified observer seeing the same meteor to make a duplicate plot with the necessary precision were extremely low. Third, just looking at the plots and times it wasn't always certain the two meteor plots were in fact the same meteor! The time had to be very precisely noted and in that era having the necessary accuracy was difficult.

Meteor Observing in Armfield's Backyard

Meteor Observing in Armfield's Backyard

Doing coordinated meteor watching helped to overcome these issues. Rather than two random observers being paired after the fact, the meteor observations would be coordinated so that observers could agree on when and where to look. But even better would be real-time coordination so there would be no question that they were observing the same meteor. In theory it could be done with a phone call, but that would have proven too expensive. So they latched on to the idea of using short-wave radio which was accomplished by teaming up with HAM radio enthusiasts.

It helped solve the various problems. 1) Precision of the plots was elevated by the observers agreeing on where they should be looking. And if it was desirable to change that location, they could immediately agree. 2) You were guaranteed that the other observer was equally qualified. 3) There was no doubt that the two observers had just seen the same meteor. In this case precise timing was not actually needed.

Because the optimal distances for these duplicate observations fell between 25 and 125 miles, teaming up with other astronomy clubs became a necessity and that is where the concept of the AAAA became so important. Read Ed Halbach's AAAA article about the duplicate meteor observation program here.