A Brief History of High-Energy Astronomy: 1800 - 1899
In Reverse Chronological Order
||Foundation of the American
Astronomical Society (AAS) by 50 astronomers at a meeting at Yerkes
||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
||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
||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
|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.
||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.
||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
Vaucouleurs and Corwin (ApJ, 295, 287).
||William Crookes and others produces vacuum discharge tubes which
became known as Crookes
||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),
||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..
||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).
James Clerk Maxwell of 4 differential equations describing
the properties of electromagnetism, which are now universally known as
|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)'.
||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.
||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 in a highly eccentric orbit around the visible massive star.
||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
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.
||Foundation of the British Royal
Astronomical Society under a charter granted by King William the
eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in present-day
This was one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in the last two
millennia, ejecting more than 100 km3 of material and killing tens
of thousands of people in the vicinity. The ejected dust and aerosols
disrupted the global climate in 1815 and 1816, the latter year
becoming known as the
"Year Without a Summer", and caused many other deaths due to famine
as crop yields plummeted.
|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..."
||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).
Return to main History
of High-Energy Astronomy page
We would like to thank the following individuals for their
contributions to this page:
Jesse S. Allen, and
Ian M. George
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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