A Brief History of High-Energy Astronomy: 1800 - 1899

In Reverse Chronological Order

1899 Foundation of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) by 50 astronomers at a meeting at Yerkes Observatory.
1898 Pierre and Marie Curie isolate the radioactive elements polonium and radium. For this work, they were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Henri Becquerel. In the same year, Ernest Rutherford first establishes that radioactive substances emit at least two different kinds of radiation: alpha rays (now known as alpha particles, which are actually helium nuclei) and beta rays (or beta particles, which are actually electrons).
1897 J.J. Thomson measures the charge-to-mass ratio of so-called Cathode Rays (now known to be electrons). His work establishing the properties of electrons was rewarded with the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physics.
1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel discovers natural radioactivity by wrapping photographic plates around a sample of potassium uranyl disulphate and finding that the plates were darkened, even though they had not been exposed to any form of light such as sunlight. For this work, Becquerel was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Pierre and Marie Curie.
8 Nov 1895 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (accidentally) discovers an image cast from his cathode ray generator, projected far beyond the possible range of the cathode rays (now known as an electron beam). Further investigation showed that the rays were generated at the point of contact of the cathode ray beam on the interior of the vacuum tube, that they were not deflected by magnetic fields, and they penetrated many kinds of matter. Röntgen named the new form of radiation X-radiation (X standing for "Unknown"). Hence the term X-rays (also referred as Röntgen rays, though this term is used mostly in Germany). For this research, Röntgen was awarded the (first) Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901.
Jan 1895 Publication of the first issue of the Astrophysical Journal , arguably the `foremost research journal in the world devoted to recent developments, discoveries, and theories in astronomy and astrophysics'. This journal was founded by George E. Hale and James E. Keeler, and the first article in the first issue was by Albert Michelson on solar spectroscopy.
1889 Foundation of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) by a group of amateur and professional astronomers in Northern California, and the publication of the first issue of the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP), the ASP's technical journal. PASP publishes refereed papers on astronomical research covering all wavelengths and distance scales as well as papers on the latest innovations in astronomical instrumentation and software. The PASP has been published continuously since 1889 (except for one issue which was lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and had to be reprinted).
21 Aug 1885 The peak brightness of the supernova SN 1885 (S Andromedae) in Messier 31 (the Andromeda Galaxy), the brightest (V ~ 6th magnitude) recorded extragalactic supernova for about a century after this date (but now the second brightest after SN 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud). SN 1885 was discovered by E. Hartwig, L. Gully and (possibly) I.W. Ward, and is now considered to be an example of a subluminous (1991bg-like) supernova Type Ia (see van den Bergh, AJ, 123, 2045, 2002). A centennial review of SN 1885 was written in 1985 by de Vaucouleurs and Corwin (ApJ, 295, 287).
1869-1875 William Crookes and others produces vacuum discharge tubes which became known as Crookes tubes.
circa 1868 The last supernova known to have occurred in our Galaxy, albeit there are no records that anyone saw it happen! The young age of this supernova is inferred from the rapid expansion of its remains, the supernova remnant SNR G1.9+0.3, which expanded by about 15% in the 23 year period from 1985 to 2008 according to radio observations made using the VLA. This supernova lies near the Galactic Center and, as such, its optical emission was heavily absorbed by the high column density of interstellar material in this direction, explaining why it was not seen by 19th-century observers (and why the SNR is not visible in the optical). This object is discussed by Green et al. (2008, MNRAS, in press), q.v.
1864-1867 The English astronomer, William Huggins, makes the first spectroscopic observations of a nova (Nova CrB 1866 or T CrB). Huggins, and also the Italian astronomer, Father Angelo Secchi, also obtain spectra of other astronomical objects such as the Orion Nebula, planetary nebulae, a comet, the Moon, the planet Mars, and bright stars such as Betelgeuse and Sirius, heralding the start of the era of astronomical spectroscopy: see, for example, Huggins & Miller, Royal Society of London: Philosophical Transactions 1864, p. 413 et seq..
1865 Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States of America) watches a 12 foot long solid fuel rocket carrying a ten pound gunpowder warhead fired at Washington, D.C. from a point outside Richmond, Virginia. No record of the return of the rocket to Earth has been found. This is the first recorded use of rockets as strategic (as opposed to tactical) weapons. (from "Our Incredible Civil War" by Burke Davis).
1864 Publication by James Clerk Maxwell of 4 differential equations describing the properties of electromagnetism, which are now universally known as Maxwell's Equations.
1 Sep 1859 First recorded observation of a solar flare, in white light, by Richard Carrington (1860, MNRAS, 20, 13), and, independently by R. Hodgson (1860, MNRAS, 20, 15). This flare was followed about 18 hours later by an intense magnetic storm at the Earth as the associated coronal mass ejection impacted our magnetosphere. This storm was arguably the most intense in recorded history (Tsurutani et al. 2003, JGR, 108, No. A7, 1268 argue the pro, while Akasofu & Kamide 2005, JGR, 110, A09226 argue the con), and produced vivid low-latitude aurorae and disrupted communications due to `fires [which] were set by arcing from currents induced in telegraph wires (in both the United States and Europe)'.
1849-1851 Discovery by Schwabe of the solar sunspot cycle of 11 years (Schwabe, M. 1849, Astronomische Nachr. 21, 234 and 1851, Bern Mitt, p 94)
23 Sep 1846 Discovery of the planet Neptune by the German astronomer Johann Galle. The existence of this planet had been predicted by both Adams and Le Verrier based on anomalies in the orbit of Uranus. The British astronomer James Challis had actually observed Neptune the previous month but failed to realize that it was a planet.
1843 Peak of the "Great Eruption" of the star Eta Carinae when it briefly became the second brightest star in the sky despite its great distance. It is believed to be one of the most massive and luminous stars in the galaxy, and has exhibited lower-level variability since this time. It is now surrounded by the material ejected in the Great Eruption, the so-called Homunculus Nebula, and material from earlier eruptions lies yet further out. Eta Carinae is expected to blow up as a supernova or hypernova within 10-20 thousand years. It was detected as a hard and bright X-ray source by the Einstein and later X-ray observatories. This X-ray emission varies on a 5.5 year cycle which has been interpreted as a modulation caused by the orbital period of a lower mass companion around the visible massive star.
1838 The first distance measurement of an object outside the Solar System, the (relatively) nearby (3.3 parsecs or 1019 cm, 680,000 times more distant from the Earth than the Sun) dwarf star, 61 Cygni, by Friedrich Bessel using the trigonometric parallax technique.
9 Feb 1827 Publication of the first issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), arguably the `leading primary research journal in astronomy and astrophysics'. MNRAS is devoted to publishing `the results of original research in positional and dynamical astronomy, astrophysics, radio astronomy, cosmology, space research, and the design of astronomical instruments'. The first article in the first issue was a report of the Council of the Astronomical Society of London (as the RAS then was known as) on the Society's 7th Annual General Meeting in which, inter alia, the deaths in the previous year of Bode, Fraunhofer, and Piazzi were noted.
1821 (or 1823) Publication of the first issue of Astronomische Nachrichten (Astronomical Notes, or AN for short) by H.C. Schumacher. AN claims to be `the oldest astronomical journal in the world that is still being published'. In its recently reformulated role, AN is intended to serve as a supplement in all fields of astrophysical research including instrumentation, numerical methods, solar and stellar astrophysics, extragalactic and cosmological research, as well as a place to publish refereed workshop proceedings.
1820 Foundation of the British Royal Astronomical Society under a charter granted by King William the Fourth.
13 - 14 Sep 1814 British forces use explosive-tipped rockets (among other weapons) to attack American forces occupying Fort MacHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. This is an early (although not the first) example of the use of rockets as a tactical weapon in warfare, and is celebrated in the US National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner: "... and the rockets' red glare..."
1801 An English chemist and physicist, William Wollaston, discovers dark (absorption) lines in the solar spectrum, later christened Fraunhofer lines (after the German scientist who rediscovered them 13 years later), marking the beginning of solar spectroscopy.
1 Jan 1801 Giuseppe Piazzi discovers the first of the minor planets (otherwise known as asteroids), Ceres. Ceres is the largest main-belt (i.e., having an orbit between Mars and Jupiter) asteroid, having a diameter of 933 km: since this discovery, several thousand more minor planets have been discovered).


We would like to thank the following individuals for their contributions to this page: Jesse S. Allen, and Ian M. George along with JPL's Space Calendar and the Working Group for the History of Astronomy's Astronomiae Historia (History of Astronomy) information pages.

Web page author: Stephen A. Drake (based on an original by Jesse S. Allen)

Web page maintainer: Stephen A. Drake

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