Wednesday, May 30, 2012



The history of amateur astronomy is full of sky watchers who became entranced with astronomy long before they reached majority.  My guess is that if you are an amateur astronomer, you were beguiled by the sky as child or teenager too. 

Alan Craig was born in Oregon and his family moved to a California farm before he was an adolescent.  1911, when he entered his teens, was a fortunate year to have curiosity about the sky.  Another teenager, Fred Leonard, a Chicago 15-year-old promoted what was his local astronomy club in a national astronomy enthusiasts’ magazine, Popular Astronomy (PA).  Leonard’s ambition was to make his Society for Practical Astronomy (SPA) a national and even international organization.  Young Alan must have been a PA reader and read Leonard’s invitation to join the SPA.  Craig wasted little time and was an active member of the SPA by April 1912. 

Alan’s reports to two sections of the SPA show the breadth of his astronomical interests.  He contributed meteor reports to Dr. Charles P. Olivier, the Meteor Section director beginning in 1912.  Olivier wanted drawings of meteors’ paths among the stars to disprove a mistaken popular idea about where meteors originate from in the sky.  In 1912 Craig also sent estimates of stars’ brightnesses (technically called ‘magnitudes’) to William Tyler Olcott who directed the Variable Star Section (VSS).  ‘Variable stars’ are those whose magnitudes are known to vary over time.  Alan used a telescope with a light-gathering lens measuring two-and-a-half inches (6.4 centimeters) in diameter to monitor them.  Leonard and Olcott intended that the VSS would record amateur observers’ magnitude estimates of these inconstant stars and would then provide the data to professional astronomers who studied them.   

From 1912 through 1913, Alan plotted 253 meteor paths on maps of the stars for Dr. Olivier.  His interest in meteors waned in 1913 in favor of watching the variable stars’ light shows.  Perhaps he became more dedicated to variable stars because one of his early variable star reports to Olcott received such an appreciative response in a monthly column Olcott wrote in PA.  After Alan submitted 100 estimates in September 1912, Olcott wrote, “Mr. Craig deserves a great deal of credit for the excellent work he has done in observing variables in a short time.”  This may have been all the young man needed to motivate many more contributions.  From 1912 through 1914, he reported 1700 magnitude estimates to Olcott. 

We don't know why Alan Craig ceased reporting to Olivier and Olcott, but his brief career is like those of many adolescent sky watchers.  They begin with a great deal of energy in their observations, only to stop as suddenly as they began them.  We can guess that in 1915, the 17-year old was given more responsibilities for work around the family farm.  Whatever the reason(s), Craig’s name stopped appearing regularly in Popular Astronomy after 1914.  His last known report was to Dr. Olivier in 1923 and 1924 when he furnished magnitude estimates of meteors he had seen by chance while watching other objects through his telescope.  Despite his disappearance from print a century ago, Alan Craig, with a few other sky watchers, had a long-lasting impact: they launched two organizations, Olivier’s American Meteor Society (AMS) and Olcott’s American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).  Both survive today and amateur astronomers in them contribute to scientific knowledge in the same ways Alan Craig did.    

Richard Taibi
April 9 and May 30, 2012
Copyright 2012 


Olcott, William Tyler, Annual Report of the AAVSO for the year ending October 10, 1912; PA, vol. 20, pp. 609 and 615.

Olcott; Annual Reports of the AAVSO for 1913 and 1914, PA, vols. 21-23.

Olivier, Charles P.; 126 Parabolic Orbits by the AMS during 1911-1913, Publications of the Leander McCormick Observatory, volume 2; Charlottesville, VA: U of VA; 1914, pp. 457-460.

Olivier, C.P; Report of the AMS for 1923 and 1924, PA, volume 33, 1925, pp. 240-241.


SKYWATCHERS is an opportunity for me to present biographies of United States astronomers, some professional, many more amateurs who deserve credit for their contributions to astronomical science. Almost all of them were meteor enthusiasts, but all were actively watching or searching for some sky phenomena.  

New biographies will be published from time to time.  Some of this posted material will appear in a history of the American Meteor Society that I am writing.  Some of the AMS' history, and the biography of its founder, Charles P. Olivier, all written by me, can be found on the Society's webpage, 

I invite your reactions to what's posted.  I hope you find it interesting.