The Harvard Books on Astronomy


Rudi Paul Lindner

The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

American Astronomical Society, January 2002

            The Harvard Books on Astronomy were a milestone in science publishing, in bringing astronomy to the public, in recruiting young men and women to the field, and in attracting them to Harvard.  There were two series of Harvard Books, the first beginning in 1941 and ending in 1951, published by the Blakiston firm in Philadelphia.  The second series began at the Harvard University Press immediately after, with revised editions of most of the earlier volumes, to which a few new titles were added.  The Boks’ Milky Way remains in print, in its fifth edition.  In this talk I shall discuss the genesis and plan of the series, the production of the volumes, their success, and their impact upon the field.

            The range of astronomical literature available to an inquiring public in the late 1930s was wide in some ways, restricted in others.  There were the two-page monthly articles by Henry Norris Russell in Scientific American, describing recent developments; there was a magazine, Popular Astronomy, for serious amateurs and professionals; and there were two small, fledgling illustrated magazines, The Sky and The Telescope.  If you were searching for a book, your choices ranged from such general invitations to the field as E.A. Fath’s Through the Telescope, well illustrated but more descriptive than analytical, to one of the works by Jeans or Eddington, inspiring but not attractive to the eye, to a college textbook, such as Robert H. Baker’s Astronomy, the best selling work in the field since its first edition in 1930, long on data, short on inspiration.  There was little in between, as the reading lists in back of the various editions of Amateur Telescope Making indicate.  If you wanted to find something topical, you were pretty much out of luck.

            The idea for a series of popular, well-illustrated book-length treatments of individual astronomical themes probably belongs to the ever-active mind of Harlow Shapley, assisted by Bart Bok and Donald Menzel.  Shapley had been writing for general audiences ever since 1926, and he had composed three books of varying lengths as well as edited a radio lecture series.  Bok had been interested in public education in astronomy for some time, and Menzel had written a short, illustrated illustration to the field as a whole in 1931.  Shapley and Bok, the co-editors of the “Harvard Observatory series”, had developed some clear ideas of what they wanted, based upon recent experiments in adult education at Columbia University and elsewhere.  These books would develop topics in detail but without technical obstacles: they would be short on the romance of the skies and long on how astronomers work.  Their audience would comprise serious high school students, teachers, college students, and the educated public.  Each book would cover far more than a magazine article, but it would stop short of a professional monograph.  And each book would be fully illustrated with figures, lots of photographs, and portraits of the astronomers responsible for advancements in the field.  The authors would all be staff and graduates of the Harvard Observatory, which meant that the authors were, with the exceptions of Harlow Shapley and Leon Campbell, young: three of them are alive today, and I thank Lawrence Aller, James Baker, and Fred Whipple for their assistance.  And the books would emphasize the work done at Harvard.

            Bart Bok found an appropriate publisher in the Blakiston firm of Philadelphia.  Blakiston had been publishing medical and health sciences books for two generations and was very much interested in broadening its base.  It had a reputation for quality and high production values.  The Harvard Books reflect this.  Printed on glossy stock even during wartime, with photographs on alternate pages, and a Harvard crimson cover that cried out on library shelves, the series had no competition.  The books were also priced reasonably, at $2.50 per volume in 1941, $4.50 by 1949.  This was more than most high school students could easily pay in 1941, but for public libraries they were cheap.  And Blakiston flogged them to the library trade, pushing them into bookstores only after the war with the assistance of the Garden City Publishing Company network.

            The original plan for the series worked out pretty well, although there were defections.  The Gaposchkins were among the original authors, but they took their good time about developing a topic and in the end found themselves without sufficient scope for their talents.  The early advertisements promised a book on binary stars, stellar interiors, and stellar evolution by Martin Schwarzschild and Theodore Sterne, but the wartime work of both authors brought that to an end.  Their outline survives, however, and we can see what they had in mind, including a good deal on orbits, energy sources, and the H-R diagram, but not much on stellar evolution, reflecting the situation of the time.  At the end, Shapley added a title, The Relativistic Universe, by Philipp Frank, and one chapter did go through the editorial process, but in the end the work became a series of articles for Sky & Telescope.  Donald Menzel’s book on Our Sun appeared at the very end of the first series, in 1949, and as pointed out by Roy K. Marshall, because of material on nuclear energy Menzel’s book joined an earlier volume by Copernicus as the only two books on the sun to be delayed by official censorship.

            As exhibits in the history of the book, the volumes are fascinating.  The original conception had been that there might be ten photographs distributed over 150 pages of text.  As it worked out, all the books contained photographs on alternate pages, charts, graphs, and drawings, which made the series the best-illustrated books on astronomy available.  Reviewers commented favorably on the photos of researchers, which ranged from the formal portrait to the revealing snapshot.  The sole women portrayed were Henrietta Leavitt and Annie Cannon.  The pages were glossy, a plus in wartime, and the bindings attractive and uniform in design, as were the dust jackets.  The crimson bindings with gold lettering, the large numbers of illustrations, the appeal to a young audience from authors who were for the most part also young, there was only one other product on the market sharing these characteristics, the two volumes of Amateur Telescope Making, and I suspect that both series shared the same audience.

            The first series volumes were very popular.  Translations appeared, an authorized version in Spanish, and an unauthorized version in Russian.  All of them were reprinted, some with additions, and by 1950 there were calls for revised second editions.  The authors’ royalties increased after Donald Menzel, who had become a consulting editor for Prentice-Hall, attempted to take his volume there.  Despite the popularity and warm reception the Harvard Books enjoyed, Blakiston did not make any money on them.  The press runs, 2,000 copies each, were not big enough to benefit from the economies of scale, and the firm’s managers were afraid that a bigger run would lead to too many unsold copies; as a result, demand always caught the Philadelphia firm flat-footed.  By 1950 sales had reached 70,000 hard-cover volumes, the press runs had increased to 6,000 copies, but the books were becoming behind the times.

            Perhaps the most successful volume in the first series was Bart and Priscilla Bok’s The Milky Way.  The tone and texture are set for the young and the young at heart, and there is a consistent effort to alternate between the equipment and approaches used by the astronomers and the results of the researches.  It is very much a work in the tradition of Kapteyn and Oort, with lengthy discussions of the luminosity function and the use of star counts in outlining the true shape of our galaxy.  But the Boks were quick to change their focus in response to research elsewhere, and theirs was the first series book to be revised, in the light of the success of the Schmidt telescope and Walter Baade’s publications in 1944.  When the work of Morgan, Sharpless, and Osterbrock and then the results of radio astronomers produced a more accurate picture of our spiral arms, the Boks were quick to respond.  The book also has the lightest touch of the volumes in the series, with phrases that caught reviewers’ fancy.

            If the Boks’ volume was the most accessible and exuberant, the most demanding was by Goldberg and Aller.  Lawrence Aller recalls that the collaboration went well, with the technical materials relegated to appendices, but the contemporary correspondence indicates that the composition of this volume was a tug of war, with Leo Goldberg, fresh from his experience with The Telescope, eager to reach a general audience, and Aller seeking more technical rigor.  The finished product betrays some of these discussions, and in the end, when Leo Goldberg’s administrative commitments led him to leave later revisions to Aller, the second and third editions became more and more technical.  Nevertheless, Goldberg and Aller occasioned critical acclaim from professionals.  Walter Adams thought it the best volume in the series, and Walter Baade suggested that it should be on the list of the Book-of-the-Month Club.  When Goldberg and then Aller became part of the Michigan staff, their book served as a useful recruiting tool for students.

            Shapley’s own volume, Galaxies, is in some respects the most problematic.  Much of the material is local, emphasizing the exploration of our galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds, reflecting Shapley’s taste and his original title, Star Clouds and Galaxies.  Much of the research also seems local, based upon the instruments at Oak Ridge and Bloemfontein, with the Mount Wilson staff mopping up after them.  In his review, Walter Baade felt it necessary to point out that the forefront of modern research was not located on Garden Street in Cambridge.  The book also betrays some haste: there are pictures of astronomers to whom no reference is made in the text, and the last section, on the expanding universe, wanders.  The book is, on the other hand, very much in the Shapley style, a style that appealed to the general public and newspaper reviewers.

            It must be borne in mind that Shapley was unable to dedicate himself to the book.  By the late 1930s he had become a statesman of science with many demands upon his time and energy.  Specifically, during the gestation period of the series and of his book, he was deeply involved in providing for refugee academicians: Luigi Jacchia, for one, owed his and his mother’s life to Shapley.  While browsing through the Shapley papers in search of his negotiations with Blakiston I came across the file of my own master, whom Shapley counseled in person, wrote recommendations for, on whose behalf he badgered Harvard trustees, and whose thesis advisor Shapley lobbied relentlessly.  Shapley’s efforts on behalf of this young Byzantinist give us some sense of where he directed his energies in 1941 and 1942.  We should, in retrospect, make generous allowance for him.

            At the end of the 1940s, Blakiston became an imprint of Doubleday and the larger firm began to examine the list with care.  All the volumes needed revising, and that meant resetting type and obtaining new illustrations: that is, the entire production process would have to start over again.  A revised edition of one of the books, Fletcher Watson’s Between the Planets, would cost $1,400 without considering the cost of new illustrations, and this was more than Doubleday wished to invest, considering that astronomy was only two per cent of their business.  In the fall of 1951 a Doubleday executive called Shapley in and told him that the firm was ending its astronomy line.

            There were two firms interested in taking over the books, the Harvard University Press and Sky Publishing Corporation.  The Federers, who published Sky & Telescope, had good ideas but much less experience in the book trade – I believe that at this point their only venture had been Allyn J. Thompson’s Making Your Own Telescope --, and so Harvard took over in 1952, slowly publishing revised editions of most of the first series books and adding, very quickly, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s Stars in the Making.  This proved the series’ best seller.  Harvard sold over twelve thousand copies in hardback, but the paperback version sold more than 78,000 copies in corner drug stores, news stands, and stationers, where I found it next to a work of lesser authority but greater charm.

            The Harvard Books, under Harvard management, became separate volumes, with different design, production values, typography, and binding.  Further, in the 1950s and 1960s there was increasing competition for them in the marketplace, as a look through the “Books and the Sky” column in Sky & Telescope reveals.  The series continued, but it no longer had the same impact.

In the course of doing research on the series I heard many stories of the effect the crimson volumes had on young people.  For some, it was a matter of saving money to buy the next volume in order to keep up with the story, a bit like following the adventures of a radio hero, except that here were young astronomers, writing of the specific work they loved, and explaining in plain language how they did it.  For others, it was a discovery in the local Carnegie library, where the series stood out as the most pictorial introductions available.  For yet others, it made them eager to follow in the footsteps and to go into astronomy and, if possible, go to Harvard, the spearhead of research.  An informal survey of my age cohort in the science program at Michigan produced numerous copies of the first series.  The series was, for Blakiston, a loss leader that brought it much good will.  I understand that the party at which the Blakiston staff handed the contracts back to Harvard was impressive by any standard.  For the field of astronomy, the series proved a source of future amateurs, professionals, and solid public support.