Finding Aids to Oral Histories in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 9534
Classical Observation Techniques Videohistory Collection, 1988, 1991
A primary objective of the United States Naval Observatory (USNO), one of the oldest American observatories in continual existence, was to determine time and star position using state-of-the-art astronomical techniques. In order to fulfill its objective, the USNO engaged in meridian astronomy and astrometric studies, which provided a fundamental frame of reference whereby the many motions of the earth in space and its position in time could be determined against a celestial reference frame. Traditionally, these observations of stellar position and motion were carried out by visual observations which were gradually replaced by photographic techniques. Electronics and computer automation resulted in further technological advances for astronomical research.
Thomas E. Corbin completed his B.A. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1962 and joined the scientific staff of the USNO in 1964. Under the USNO Professional Development Program he completed his M.A. in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1969 and his Ph. D. at the University of Virginia in 1977. From 1969 to 1971 Corbin served first as an assistant and later as astronomer-in-charge of the USNO El Leoncito observing station in Argentina. From 1971 to 1981 he was a member of the Southern Transit Circle Division of the Transit Circle Division and Astrometry Department. Since 1984, Corbin served as head of the Meridian Division.
After receiving his B.S. in 1964 and M.S. in 1967 in astronomy from Case Institute of Technology, Geoffrey Douglass accepted the position of astronomer at USNO in 1967. His USNO work was devoted to using the 26-inch telescope for making double-star observations.
F. Stephen Gauss received his B.A. from Cornell University in 1963. That same year, he joined the USNO staff as an astronomer in the Six-Inch Transit Circle Division. While working at the Observatory, Gauss completed his M.A. in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1968. He was later appointed chief of instrumentation for the Astrometry Department.
Dennis Dean McCarthy was awarded his B.S. in astronomy from Case Institute of Technology in 1964 and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1970 and 1972, respectively. He was appointed astronomer to the USNO in 1965. In 1982, he was appointed chief of the Earth Orientation Parameters Division. His research interests include astronomical research on the rotational speed of the earth and variation of astronomical latitude.
Charles Worley began his training in astronomy at Swarthmore College under Peter Van de Kamp. He completed his B.A. at San Jose State University in 1959 and became the senior assistant astronomer at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, California, that same year. He served as the research astronomer there from 1960 to 1961. Worley assumed the position of astronomer to the United States Naval Observatory in 1961 and since 1966 has been the administrative assistant director of the Astrometry and Astrophysics Division.
The Smithsonian Videohistory Program, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation from 1986 until 1992, used video in historical research. Additional collections have been added since the grant project ended. Videohistory uses the video camera as a historical research tool to record moving visual information. Video works best in historical research when recording people at work in environments, explaining artifacts, demonstrating process, or in group discussion. The experimental program recorded projects that reflected the Institution's concern with the conduct of contemporary science and technology.
Smithsonian historians participated in the program to document visual aspects of their on-going historical research. Projects covered topics in the physical and biological sciences as well as in technological design and manufacture. To capture site, process, and interaction most effectively, projects were taped in offices, factories, quarries, laboratories, observatories, and museums. Resulting footage was duplicated, transcribed, and deposited in the Smithsonian Institution Archives for scholarship, education, and exhibition. The collection is open to qualified researchers.
David DeVorkin, curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, interviewed five USNO astronomers about their observing techniques on various telescopes used at the Observatory. DeVorkin was interested in the growth of the application of automation to astronomy. The sessions documented classical visual techniques for star observation, as well as computer controlled telescopes and electronic detection techniques that have virtually replaced the human eye in modern astronomical research. Interviews took place on March 28 and 31, 1988, and May 8, 1991 in various telescope domes on the USNO grounds, Washington, D.C.
Sessions One and Two took place on March 28 and March 31, 1988, respectively in Building Two, the 26-inch telescope building, and in the library of the USNO, Washington, D.C. Charles Worley demonstrated the procedures for making double-star observations and discussed preparation and research necessary for an observing session, as well as the importance of astronomical record keeping.
Session Three, recorded on May 8, 1991 in the 6-inch Transit Circle Telescope Building, at the Photographic Zenith Tube (PZT) telescope, and in the 26-inch telescope building documented Corbin, Gauss, McCarthy, Worley and Douglass demonstrating their observing techniques on the various telescopes and discussing the effects of electronic automation on their astronomical research. Of particular interest, Worley demonstrated the use of a speckle photometer attached to the 26-inch telescope which was not in use in the earlier sessions.
This collection consists of three interview sessions, totaling approximately 7:00 hours of recordings and 172 pages of transcript.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Worley, Charles E.
- Corbin, Thomas E.
- Douglas, Geoffrey
- Gauss, F. Stephen
- McCarthy, Douglas Dean
- DeVorkin, David H., 1944- , interviewer
- United States Naval Observatory
- Naval Research Laboratory (U.S.)
- Science -- History
- Technology -- History
- Oral history
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9534, Classical Observation Techniques Videohistory Collection