Stellar parallax or Cold War espionage?

At the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory on June 16, 1916, the observatory’s first director, Frederick Slocum, outlined an agenda for the new institution: determining the distances of stars. This stellar parallax program constituted the observatory’s main research effort for the majority of the twentieth century.

The parallax program involved researchers as well as many human “computers” who were aided by tools, such as the Millionare mechanical calculator, to perform the necessary calculations. Advances in technology allowed for more accurate measurements and faster computations, changing the kinds of work people did. The Mann comparator, which the Astronomy Department purchased in the late 1950s, was one of the observatory’s most important acquisitions in this regard.

A photo of the Mann Machine

The Mann Measuring Machine. Photo by the Author. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

The Mann was an important aid to the people tasked with measuring the distances between the different stars recorded on glass plate images of the sky. The stellar parallax program’s results were contingent on both how the plates were recorded and how they were interpreted, so accurate measurements were crucial for exact results. Previously, plate measurers had worked solely relying on their eyes to gauge the minute distances that would be used in their calculations. With the Mann, the measurers could insert each plate and look into a viewfinder, using a mechanical crank to move the plate very slowly by degrees in order to pinpoint the exact locations of the stars and make measurements between them.  It was still tedious work that required a practiced eye, but the comparator made accuracy easier to achieve.

When you take a closer look at our Mann comparator, you can see that there are two small name plates attached to it. One, close to the crank, indicates the manufacturer and serial number of the device. The other, larger plate is affixed to the base and reads, “PROPERTY OF U.S.A.F – 866477 – DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG.” What do these two tags tell us?

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An astronomer leaves for war

On April 6, 1917, less than three years after he had begun teaching at Wesleyan University, Frederick Slocum, the first Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, was looking to see how he could help his country. That day, the United States Congress had issued a declaration of war against Germany and its allies, brining the nation into World War I. Four days later, Slocum wrote to the Secretary of the Navy “to see if I can be of service to the Navy Department.”

Frederick Slocum, First Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, to the Secratary of the Navy, seeking a job teaching naval navigation, April 10, 1917. Frederick Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory.

Frederick Slocum, First Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, to the Secratary of the Navy, seeking a job teaching naval navigation, April 10, 1917. Frederick Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory.

The conflict in Europe had been looming over the Astronomy Department and the Observatory since the two were created. Slocum had begun teaching at Wesleyan in 1914, less than two months after the beginning of the war. And plans to build an 18.5-inch refracting telescope were derailed in 1916, because the lens manufacturer was French and could not make, much less ship, the lens until the war was over.

But with American entry into the war, the entire University—not just the Astronomy Department—was altered. In 1917, President William Shanklin, according to the Wesleyan University Bulletin, appointed Lieutenant Arthur James Hanlon as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. In this position, Hanlon taught student volunteers in a military training course.

Soon, almost every student was participating in Hanlon’s class. The students received credit for taking the course, despite the fact that it consisted mostly of physical exercises; there was virtually no academic content in what Hanlon taught. Furthermore, over the course of the war, later issues of the Bulletin reveal, the number of credits students received from the course increased. The message was clear: student life, academic and extra-curricular, was to be centered on the war effort.

Like many Americans, Slocum saw it as his patriotic duty to take an active role in mobilization for war. He aimed to use his astronomical training to teach courses in navigation. Growing up in Massachussetts, the son of a ship captain, and a sailing enthusiast, Slocum had longstanding experience with celestial navigation, using the stars to determine his position at sea. Wesleyan University did not offer such a course, so he reached out to the Navy Department and the U.S. Shipping Board to see if he could use his skills to train cadets.

Slocum’s inquiries soon bore fruit. In 1917, he took up a position with the U.S. Shipping Board, and, in 1918, he began teaching nautical science at Brown University.

Slocum teaches a course in celestial navigation at Brown University in 1914. Images of Brown, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library.

Slocum teaches a course in celestial navigation at Brown University in 1914. Images of Brown, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library.

Although he supported the war effort, President Shanklin was concerned with Slocum’s absence from campus, fearing that Wesleyan’s new star professor might not return. Slocum was central to the university’s goal in building the Van Vleck Observatory: creating a small but significant research program to advance astronomical science by determining the distances to the stars. From the time Slocum left the Wesleyan to the time he returned, this stellar parallax project was on hold.

In a 1918 letter to Slocum, Shanklin stated that Wesleyan University had hoped to see a similar course offered; however, the Navy was unwilling to fund it. Instead, he wrote, the Navy had decided that the larger university at Yale could handle all the new recruits, leaving Wesleyan without a nautical science program. Still, Shanklin told Slocum that he was trying to change the minds of Navy officers—and encouraged Slocum to return to Middletown should he succeed.

Shanklin’s concern that Slocum might not return to Wesleyan after the war, it turns out, was well-founded. In a letter sent to Frank Schlesinger, of Yale University, in December 1919, Slocum revealed that he had in fact resigned from Wesleyan after the University had refused to lend him to Brown during the war. He wrote that, even though the war had ended, “I feel that I am still enlisted in the service of the country.” On April 8, 1920, Schlesinger informed Slocum that he had written to Shanklin, without Slocum’s prior knowledge, encouraging Shanklin to bring the first Director of the Van Vleck Observatory back to the University. It was only then that Slocum returned to teach at Wesleyan.

Slocum’s temporary absence reveals how “total” a “total war” can be. Throughout academia, professors left during World War I and World War II to contribute to the war effort in any way they could. Unless a university had a program especially designed to allow professors to use their teaching skills in training military cadets, a large number of faculty members were prone to leave. They would often never return.

Decades later, during World War II, the United States government gave Wesleyan University funding for a course similar to the one Shanklin had requested during World War I. Military training courses returned to the university, but they were academic courses and included instruction in navigation. This time, Slocum stayed at Wesleyan and taught a class, through the Civil Aviation Authority, called Navigation for Sea or Air.

Don’t judge a book by its cover: the hidden treasures of Mildred Booth Stearns’s library

The books of Mildred Booth Stearns are a prime example of the joy and insight that can be found by poking through a few objects. Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at the Yale Astronomy Department after graduating in 1920 from Vassar having specialized in Mathematics. Today, the word computer is only used to describe the object you’re probably reading this blog post on, but in the pre-IBM world, a computer meant a person, often a woman, who made calculations, especially for scientific work. She would have been doing complicated and time-consuming measurements and calculations at Yale, and it is within the Yale Astronomy Department that she met her future husband  Professor Carl L. Stearns, then a grad student. She moved to Middletown, 8 Brainerd Avenue, when Carl became a professor at Van Vleck Observatory, and during World War II she taught physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan.

Van Vleck Observatory has eleven books that Mildred wrote her name in the front cover of, with such scintillating titles as The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, New Analytic Geometry, and Simplified Theory of Flight. Many of the books were college textbooks, indicated by her dorm room number inscribed and her annotations like “Learn,” “Do some,” and “Try a few.” Those college textbooks must have stayed relevant to her life, considering that they did not stay behind at Vassar but followed her to Yale and then Wesleyan. Mildred Booth Stearns’s life shows the opportunities for women in the sciences during early and mid twentieth centuries, opportunities that are now often forgotten. Pieces of paper tucked unobtrusively inside her books suggest the priorities and diversions of a woman actively engaged in scientific research and teaching during the first half of the twentieth century.

I opened up one book, The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, expecting annotation but nothing else. And while I found an inscription “Mildred Booth – 1920/201 Lathrop” in the front cover as expected, I also found something completely unexpected. When I opened the book, I found three yellowing, folded newspaper cut-outs, and when I unfolded them, I discovered three crosswords. They were all from the New Haven Evening Register, and dated Monday, November 17th, 1924, Tuesday, November 18th 1924, and Wednesday, November 19th, 1924. Monday and Tuesday are blank: Wednesday is completed except for 26 across and down, each three letters, with the clues being, respectively, “A unit of electricity” and “Part of a wheat plant.” Wednesday’s crossword is Valentine’s Day themed, a heart with February 14th written in it: she had married her husband in 1923, and one wonders whether that influenced her decision on which crossword puzzle to complete and which to leave blank.

An almost-finished Cross Word Puzzle by Mildred Booth in the shape of a heart

A crossword puzzle with a Valentine’s Day theme, nearly completed by Mildred Booth. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University. Photo by the author.

By leaving crosswords from 1924 in a textbook inscribed in 1920, Mildred Booth gives further context to her life and usage of these books. According to the Vassar Alumnae Register, Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at Yale between 1920 and 1923, meaning that she left the same year she was married, probably after marriage—but she was still using her textbook on Electricity and Magnetism in 1924, consulting it frequently enough to tuck unfinished crosswords in it. It is impossible to know whether she was helping Carl Stearns with his research or just looking at the books because she genuinely enjoyed physics, but either way, this technical physics textbook was still important to her after marriage, when she no longer had an official scientific position. Women’s interest and participation in science cannot be measured by job records alone, as this serendipitous clipping tells us.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books did not only contain crosswords; they contained a wealth of primary sources on the domestic war effort during World War Two. During the war, Mildred brushed up on her college courses in order to teach physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan, but she also learned new things about the practical reasons such cadets would be learning physics: flight. The only paperback in the collection is a slim book entitled The Effects of Flight, published in 1943 “by the Authority of and under the Supervision of Training Division, Bureau of Aeronautics U.S. Navy.”

Paperclipped to the title page of this book were two yellowing clippings of text with parts of color pictures on the back. They are excerpts from newspapers, and begin: “Tension is the enemy of endurance. We civilians haven’t got a right to indulge in it, for it’s dangerous to the war,” and on the next clipping, “effort.” The clippings are from an essay called “Give Yourself A Chance!” by Louise Redfield Peattie, which was printed in the Spokane Review in Spokane, Washington, on June 19th, 1943 with the same layout, but possibly in other newspapers as well. The article discussed the dangers that would be encountered if civilians worked too relentlessly on the war effort, to their own detriment and the detriment of the country.  To remedy this problem, the piece encouraged “recreations that really make us into better Americans.”  It’s a poignant clipping for a teacher and mother of three who was making an essential contribution to the war effort. It made me wonder whether Mildred Booth Stearns clipped it for herself or whether a friend or relative, possible in Spokane, clipped it out of the newspaper and sent it to Mildred to encourage her to enjoy herself more and work less.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. A slim book with a drawing of a men piloting a plan into a large bomb cloud.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

 Simplified Theory of Flight is another book Mildred used during the war, one with two pieces tucked into it that illustrate the economic effects of the war effort. Between the back cover and the last page is a pamphlet on the 4th War Loan, encouraging people to “Display Your Colors” by buying bonds. The pamphlet admonishes readers that “We can’t afford to let up now” and informs them that the starting date is January 18th, 1944.

Even more charmingly, the book also contains the July 1943 record catalogue from Columbia Masterworks, a record label owned by Columbia Records specializing in classical music, with 231 Mary and 107 Jon written in Mildred’s handwriting. The pamphlet is stamped with the label Payne’s Music House, Middletown – Conn. Payne’s Music House occupied a historic building, build in the mid-nineteenth century, at 107 College Street, right off Main Street, between 1929 and 1974. The pamphlet is intensely aware of the war: the back advertises Henry Lowell’s “Tales of Our Countryside,” music “essentially simple, direct, melodious, affecting, and richly and racily American in spirit.” It also announces that “OUR FIGHTING MEN NEED RECORDS, TOO” and promotes an organization called “Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc.” which collected unwanted records to be sold as scrap in order to fund the purchase of new records for soldiers. The pamphlet is from July 1943, the month after “Give Yourself a Chance” was printed, suggesting that Mildred Booth Stearns took the advice to heart and invested in her own recreation through classical music. Did she fear becoming burned out from the work of teaching physics to Navy cadets, a role that would not be open to women at Wesleyan except during war time?

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design of red, white, and blue shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life.

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!”

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!” Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books indicate that historians must leave no stone unturned: more importantly, they must leave no page unturned. The intimate artifacts of historical lives linger with us, and can be found through just a little bit of flipping through some books or shuffling some objects around. Mildred Booth left pieces of herself in every dry textbook she had, and her sources of small joys and concerns, such as crosswords, music, or articles telling the reader they are working too hard and it is dangerous, are immediately familiar to anyone. Mildred Booth Stearns was a woman involved in the sciences for her whole life: from mathematics at Vassar to her continued use of physics textbooks even after she was no longer a professional computer to her return to the world of professional science as a physics instructor who had to teach students about flight in the Second World War. Her life shows the limitations of the ways women were professional scientists in her era, but more so, it drives home the point that women in the past were doing so much more than fulfilling the stereotypes of the era.