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References for Historical Double Star Information

I grin every time I read this:

From Observations of the Apparent Distances and Positions of 380 Double and Triple Stars, Made in the Years 1821, 1822, and 1823, by Sir John Herschel and Sir James South, p.339.

It’s an account of John Herschel and James South’s first attempts to pry apart Delta (δ) Cygni in 1823 – and if you read it carefully, you’ll see it took four tries!  It’s nice to know I’m not the only one that star has tortured.

One of the real joys of reading through the observations of those who came before us is in finding these giants of observational astronomy faced the same frustrations with weather and atmospheric conditions we face on many a night.   I frequently find  the same double stars that give us a hard time today were no easier for these guys, even with their larger telescopes (usually refractors).  If it’s any comfort,  it’s very possible those larger apertures made their tasks more difficult on some nights.


Over the past few years I’ve come across such a wide variety and number of sources for historical double star observations that eventually it became obvious it would be a good idea  to compile them into a single list for easy reference .   So here at last it is – and I apologize for it being more of a bibliographic essay than a list.  But frequently these catalogs are not just mere lists of observations and comments — they also contains some very fascinating and absorbing reading about the equipment and methods these astronomers employed.  So it proved to be impossible not to say a few words about that material, too.

You’ll also find a link to this post under the Resources tab at the top of this page, the purpose of which is to take you to this post a year from now when you’re searching madly through old posts trying to find it.   😉

No doubt I’ll come across others, and as I do, I’ll add them to this list.  In the meantime, hang on, because here we go …………………………..

(UPDATE NOTE:  I’ve added links to two historical star atlases at the end of this post).


Any list of historical sources just has to start with none other than:

William Herschel

You can’t get too far into the history of double stars without running into Sir William’s work — he was everywhere in the sky, frequently with the help of his sister, Caroline, who discovered more than a few comets, double stars, and deep sky objects on her own.

I’ve come across two references which have been a great help.  The first is the reproductions of his 1782, 1784, and 1821 double star catalogs which were compiled into a single document  by J. L. Dryer, and can be found here in .pdf format.   Links to the three catalogs can be found at the bottom of the title page.   At the beginning of each catalog, you’ll find a short discussion written by William Herschel that covers his methods, equipment, and thoughts on current projects.

The second source presents those three double star catalogs in an Excel spreadsheet, and is extremely handy because the stars are listed by their Washington Double Star Catalog (WDS) identification number, which basically means in order of right ascension.   All the information in the three catalogs mentioned above is there, including Herschel’s comments, which can be found at the far right of the spreadsheet.  At the top of the spreadsheet is a very helpful description of some of the terms and abbreviations Herschel employed.

Herschel’s double stars use Roman Numerals to categorize separations, which is why you’ll see numbers such as H II 16, H IV 21, etc.  Those categories can be found on page four of the Cambridge Double Star Atlas, but for those that don’t have it, I’ll include them here:

I = difficult;  II = close but measureable;  III = 5” to 15”;  IV = 15” to 30”;  V = 30” to 1’;  and VI = 1” to 2’

John Herschel and James South

John Herschel and James South (another biography of Sir James South can be found here) embarked on a joint double star search from 1821 to 1823, which was published in the January, 1824, edition of Philosophical Transactions, a scientific publication of the Royal Society.  The full title of that work is Observations of the Apparent Distances and Positions of 380 Double and Triple Stars, Made in the Years 1821, 1822, and 1823, and Compared with Those of Other Astronomers; Together with an Account of Such Changes as Appear to Have Taken Place in Them Since Their First Discovery.  Also a Description of a Five-Feet Equatorial Instrument Employed in the Observations.  Long winded, as titles were during those days, it certainly leaves little doubt as to what the work includes!

Those observations are cataloged with either a prefix of “Sh” (The Cambridge Double Star Atlas) or “SHJ” (WDS).  There are not a lot of comments with many of the entries, but if you scan through it carefully, you’ll find an occasional gem scattered here and there.

You can download the entire 1824 Herschel/South catalog from the Royal Society archives here in .pdf format (scroll down to the last entry at the bottom of the page), or from Google at this location.

James South

James South also published a catalog of double star observations, Observations of the Apparent Distances and Positions of 458 Double and Triple Stars, Made in the Years 1823, 1824, and 1825; together with a Re-Examination of 36 Stars of the Same Description, the Distances and Positions of Which Were Communicated in a Former Memoir, which appeared in the January, 1826, edition of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.  It’s format is very similar to the earlier Herschel/South catalog described above.  You’ll find it here, the first entry on the page.

South’s double star discoveries carry a prefix of “S” on star charts as well as in the WDS.

John Herschel

John Herschel  recorded 5533 double star observations, most of which were published in The Royal Astronomical Society’s journal,  Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, which fortunately are in the public domain.  You’ll find a complete listing of the locations of Herschel’s seven catalogs in this comment from an earlier post.  Most of these are in tabular form, so they’re short and to the point, but each one also includes an introduction (in some cases it’s at the end of the catalog) which adds to their value as well.

John Herschel’s observations are cataloged with a prefix of either “h” (The Cambridge Double Star Atlas) or “HJ” (WDS).

Admiral William Henry Smyth

The venerable Admiral’s work was originally published in two volumes in 1844 under the title A Cycle of Celestial Objects.  Volume two is a classic, now known as The Bedford Catalog, and is available through Willman Bell at this link.  The first volume, which is in the public domain can be found here.  Although it’s of somewhat limited use today,  there still is a wealth of interesting information to be read in that first volume.  In fact, both of the volumes are a delight to read, but The Bedford Catalog is unquestionably the gem of the two.  On page “x” of the Admiral’s introduction to that volume you’ll find a diagram for converting 17th and 18th century position angles (such as 15 degrees north following) into the 360 degree language in use today, which alone is worth the price of the book.  My thanks to Neil English for penning the entry at the link above on the admirable Admiral.

Friedrich George Wilhelm von Struve

I came across a listing of 3,131 of F.G.W. von Struve’s double star observations in a compilation by a British astronomer, Thomas Lewis, which carries this very descriptive title:  Measures of the Double Stars Contained in the Mensuræ Micrometricæ of F.G.W. Struve Collected and Discussed with an Introduction Containing General Deductions, a List of Proper Motions of Fifty Faint Stars, and Various Other Information in Respect to Double Stars.  Published in 1906, it also is in the public domain, and can be found at this link.  In addition to Struve’s initial observations, those of other astronomers are included up through somewhere close to the 1906 publication date of the book.  And the introductory material included by Lewis is very good as well.

The stars cataloged by F.G. W. von Struve are identified with the Greek prefix “Σ” on many charts, but you’ll find them listed in the WDS with an “STF” prefix.

Otto Wilhelm von Struve

The son of F.G.W. von Struve, Otto Wilhelm made 547 observations of double stars that were published in 1843 in what is generally referred to now as the Pulkovo Catalog.  I came across a 1901 Lick Observatory publication, Micrometrical Observations of the Double Stars Discovered at Pulkowa Made with the Thirty-Six Inch and Twelve Inch Refractors of the Lick Observatory, Together with the Mean Results of the Previous Observations of These Stars, which was compiled by a Lick Observatory astronomer, William J. Hussey.  That book includes all 547 of Otto Struve’s observations, along with subsequent observations by many others, plus Hussey’s observations, as well as an informative and fascinating introduction.   It’s in the public domain, and can be found here.

Those stars carry the Greek prefix” OΣ” on many star charts, but you’ll find them in the WDS with a prefix of “STT.”

There is a supplement to the 1843 Pulkovo Catalog which I have yet to find.  I’ll add a link to it here if I find it, or if anyone who is reading this knows of a source for it, please leave a comment here!  The stars found in the supplement are identified as OΣΣ on most charts, or “STTA” in the WDS.

S. W. Burnham

Last, and certainly not least, is Sherburne Wesley Burnham, who made a huge contribution to double star astronomy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.   I use two sources, both of which are now in the public domain.

A General Catalogue of 1290 Double Stars Discovered from 1871 to 1899 by S.W. Burnham.  Arranged in Order of Right Ascension with all the Micrometrical Measures of Each Pair is a Lick Observatory publication of 1900 containing all 1290 of the stars credited to Burnham, which are now identified with either a prefix of β (most charts) or Bu (WDS).   In many cases, Burnham includes the previous observations of other astronomer along with his own.  There are thirty pages of introductory material, including photos of many of the telescopes and pieces of equipment Burnham used.  The book is available through Google at this link, and also can be purchased in print-on-demand editions.

I also use a collection of Burnham’s articles and observations from 1800 to 1890, which have been compiled into a single edition entitled A Collection of Articles on Double Star Observations. The first article is an account of an 1879 trip Burnham made to California to inspect a potential site for an observatory.  Imagine him all alone on Mt. Hamilton with his six inch Clark refractor on the same site where Lick Observatory stands today!  You can find the book on Google here, as well as in print-on-demand editions.

Also, you can download a number of Burnham’s observation logs  from the Lick Observatory’s collection at this site in .pdf format.  They’re a bit difficult to decipher, but I’ve looked through several, and every now and then I come across something that leaves me spellbound for several minutes.  These are actual photocopies of the observation books, in color, water stains included, with columns of figures strewn across them — be prepared for them to take quite a while to download because of the graphics and color.

The records of many other people are available on that page, too.  Just scan down the list and you’ll see famous names from early twentieth century astronomy such as Barnard, Curtis(s), Mayall, Menzel, Stebbins, Trumpler, Whipple, and Wilson.

To be continued and updated as new material becomes available.


And to continue, here are additional links to a couple of historical star atlases that were frequently used a a reference source by the people above:

Uranometria  —  this is Johann Bayer‘s 1603 atlas.  The page that comes up at that link is an index of constellations — clicking on the want you want to see will take you to a reproduction of that page, and if you click on the “larger view” link at the upper right, you’ll be rewarded with a full-sized image that allows you to see the detail much more clearly.

Atlas Coelestis  —  This appears to be the 1729 edition which was published after John Flamsteed‘s death in 1719.   I’ve discovered a 1753 edition is available for download in .pdf format at this link in either black & white or in color.  Get the color version — it is a beautiful work of art, and the drawing of the Gemini twins on page 20 will endear it to you forever.   Grand stuff!


5 Responses

  1. John, thank you for all the hard work you put in, it must have taken
    a lot of time hunting down all the lists and the links to them. Lots
    of information there to keep us busy, maybe its just as well there
    are lots of cloudy nights.


  2. Hi John!
    I see from Pat’s comments, It must be raining in Ireland again. Just a quick update on the the Herschel and South Double Star Publications available through the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, It would appear that they are now free of charge. I have downloaded both publications at no charge.

    Thanks for putting the Bibliography together. I started reading the story on Robert Burnham Jr. …what a marvelous tale of a man so dedicated to his passion and so unrewarded for his work. I will read my copy with much greater respect of the author.

    Cheers, Chris.

  3. Thanks, Chris and Pat, for the comments. I’ll update the download info in the bibliography for the Herschel/South and South observations. For some reason I couldn’t get the .pdf versions to download to a Windows PC, but it works fine on an Ipad. Must have missed something in the translation there somewhere. 😉


    • I’ve just added links to two historical star atlases at the end of the post above. In the process, I discovered a full color version of Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis is available for dowload in.pdf format — scroll down to the end of the post to reach the link.

      It’s really quite a beautiful work of art — and the fact that it’s within reach of your fingertips is one of the amazing miracles of modern technology!

  4. I came here hunting something else, but this inspired me regardless. Inspiring stuff!

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