Fifty Years of History
By Alan P. Witzgall

Author's note: As AAI approaches it's 50th Anniversary, it seems appropriate that a look back should be taken so that we "youngsters" might appreciate all the work that went into founding this association. Thanks to many scattered records in the archives, and the recollections of veteran members, I was fortunate to create what I hope is an accurate account of what has gone before. In this way we might use this knowledge as an inspiration to forge an even more glorious future. - APW

The date was November 14, 1949. The Amateur Astronomical Society of Union County was formed when two amateur astronomers, Ed Wittke, Sr. and Winifred Lurcott were invited to a meeting in Borough Hall by then-mayor of Roselle, and avid amateur astronomer, Bernard Dreifoos. The first elected officers were: President, Richman H. Lummis; Vice President, Mark H. C. Spiers; Secretary, Mrs. Rosalie N. Bochaw; Treasurer, Edward Wittke, Sr.; Trustees, Carl Bochaw and Stanley W. Brower.

Between 1949 and 1953, the business meetings of the fledgling organization were held in various places within the towns of Roselle Park, Elizabeth, and Union. Observational meetings were held in Echo Lake Park and Surprise Lake of Watchung Reservation. Field trips were taken to the Sproul Observatory in Swarthmore, PA., Princeton Observatory, and the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

By the year 1954, the AASUC had 51 members. Our meetings were held at the Girl Scout House in Cranford. A major change in the basic structure of the organization began as we started giving courses in elementary astronomy for the public, and the first classes in mirror grinding began. The magazine "Sky and Telescope", became a feature of membership. A schedule of our monthly meetings in brochure format was also published for the first time. In 1955, the meetings were transferred to the YWCA. in Plainfield.

Because of our growing membership, by 1956, the meetings were transferred to the Regional High School in Springfield. A lecture on Rockets and Space Travel by noted space visionary Willy Ley attracted between 600 and 700 persons. Membership had now reached 74 and, on November 30, 1956, the name of the society was changed to "Amateur Astronomers, Inc." and the charter of the incorporation became effective.

Then, in 1957, the meeting place was changed to Aldens School in Roselle Park. Steps were taken to set up a club library. In May, the current corporation insignia was designed by member Dr. Winthrop Hall.

In 1958, the meeting place was again moved. This time, it was to the Stillman School in Plainfield. The club was granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. AAI became a member of the Astronomical League in September, and membership had reached 100. To celebrate the tenth anniversary, a banquet was held November 14, 1959. The guest speaker was Sky and Telescope's editor, Charles Federer.

Between 1960 and 1961, discussions were begun with the Trailside Museum Association about a possible joint observatory and planetarium project. It became clear, unfortunately, that their concept of such a project would have led to an unsatisfactory arrangement for AAI, and we looked elsewhere for a permanent home. In April of 1961, the charter name was officially changed to Amateur Astronomers, Inc. and a seal was designed for the club.

Then, in September of 1962, AAI's meetings were held in the auditorium of Union Junior College in Cranford at the invitation of the college authorities. The following year, UJC announced that a donor for an observatory had been found. AAI and UJC drew up an agreement whereby AAI would lend its professional skills, staff the building, and install the instruments in exchange for use of the building and surrounding grounds.

In 1964, an agreement for a preliminary term of ten years was signed between our club and the college. The benefactors were Mrs. Carrie Regina Beinecke, daughter of Mr. William Miller Sperry, and her son, Mr. William Beinecke. Mr. Anthony Paone, then President of AAI, was appointed as the first director of the proposed observatory.

On May 16, 1967, the William Miller Sperry Observatory was dedicated with the eminent cosmologist, Dr. Harlow Shapley, as the principle speaker at the ceremony. The first newsletter, "The Sperry Observer" was started. Some 10,000 school children from the surrounding counties came to the observatory site for daytime classes to learn astronomy in the first three years. Our twentieth anniversary party was held at the Mountainside Inn in November, 1969, with the featured speaker George Lovi from Sky and Telescope magazine.

In the fall of 1970, the first Qualified Observer Class was given. It had seven trainees. Ed Pearson (who holds QO #1) had been doing the informal training on and off since 1967, but, in light of our increasing visitor attendance, it was decided to ensure the professionalism of our staff, both in handling of the telescopes, as well as in general astronomical knowledge. A formal outlined course was prepared, and the Instrument Qualification Committee was officially recognized as one of the Standing Committees. As this is written (January 1998) over 370 members have trained and become Qualified (and in about 110 cases, Senior) Observers.

A major milestone was passed with the dedication of the 10-inch refracting telescope in October of 1972. This custom instrument was installed in the East Dome and it was presented to the college with appropriate ceremonies. (Some years later, it was dedicated to the memory of Samuel Mellor, a master machinist and valued member of AAI). It had been designed and built entirely by the efforts of AAI members. Funds continued to be collected for the next great hurdle: the 24-inch reflector.

In 1973, AAI sponsored a 240-member expedition, headed by Roger W. Tuthill, to the 7-minute total solar eclipse in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania. Since club membership was a requirement, our membership increased to over 600, hailing from 40 states and several foreign countries. In light of the interest generated by what appeared to be the approach of a major comet (Comet Kohoutek), AAI inaugurated a telephone dial-in service to provide a one-minute tape recording of sky events. As you know, Kohoutek was a disappointment to the public at large, but the popularity of the sky information recording warranted its continued availability. The service is still available by dialing 908-276-STAR. The general public uses this service approximately 8000 times a year, and much more often if a major event (such as a lunar eclipse or other celestial phenomenon) comes up.

1974 was a year of major upheaval for AAI. Because of the constantly increasing costs for the building of our in-house designed 24-inch reflector telescope, it was decided to obtain a commercially built instrument. The decision, unfortunately, caused some rifts in the membership of AAI, but the majority ruled in this case to beneficial effect. The 24-inch Cassegrain was purchased for $28,000 from Group 128 in Waltham, Massachusetts, and it was installed in the West Dome in October. Although not as well engineered as the one we designed (ours was essentially a scaled-down copy of the 120-inch Shane Reflector at Lick Observatory!), the expertise within AAI has kept it up to date and operational through the years. Note that this instrument is the property of AAI and not UC. The second agreement signed with Union College eliminated the necessity of the donation of a reflector telescope. (In the years since, the Cassegrain has been dedicated to member Ed Pearson's memory). In June of 1974, AAI ran an eclipse trip to Australia. Also, AAI held its 25th Anniversary Party at the Clark Ramada Inn.

In 1976, the second newsletter, "Sol III" began publishing under the editorship of Lenny Schoen. In October, 1977, AAI sponsored an eclipse trip to Colombia, South America, and again, in February, 1979 to Manitoba, Canada to stand in the shadow of the Moon. Our 30th Anniversary Party was held at Sulfur Springs Inn in Berkeley Heights.

1980 saw AAI send an eclipse expedition to Kenya. In late 1981, the third club newsletter "AAI Notebook" was begun by member Barry Malpas. In 1983, the globetrotting members of AAI sponsored an eclipse trip to Indonesia.

In May, 1984, a trip was taken to view an annular eclipse from Saluda, Virginia. AAI hosted the Northeast Region Astronomical League Convention (NERAL) in June at Union County College. Dr. Fred Whipple was the featured speaker with his favorite topic - Comets. The 35th Anniversary Party was held at the Sulfur Springs Inn with Dr. Robert Wilson as the main speaker.

In 1985, AAI joined the information age when our first commercially built computer (an IBM PC-XT) was acquired and operated by the members.

On January 3rd, 4th, and 5th, 1986, AAI hosted a grand "Halley Twice Star Party" which drew some 10,000 visitors to the College -- some for their second view since the 1910 passage. Fifty members brought their personal telescopes, and many members came to help out their club. That April, AAI conducted simultaneous Halley Comet observing expeditions to Australia and Chile, while, here at home, we held a second observing party for the public as Halley receded from the inner Solar System.

In mid 1987, the first issue of "Journal of Sperry Observations", AAI's own annual research publication for its members to write about their studies on astronomical subjects, was founded by member Barry Malpas.

In 1988, membership reached 300. In 1988, AAI became a charter member in the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey (UACNJ). In 1989, AAI's newsletter was renamed "The Asterism" by editor Bill Kuriskin. July 1991 saw AAI sponsor dual eclipse trips to Hawaii and Baja, Mexico. Membership reached 400 in October, 1991.

Another AAI eclipse expedition took to the air over the South Atlantic in 1992. Members intercepted the shadow 1600km. east of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. AAI upgraded its computer capabilities by purchasing a Gateway 2000 486-based machine and installed many utility and applications programs. The AAI Library amassed a total of 1097 books, 292 of the books being reference texts.

Member James Chenard became the first AAI member to be awarded a Herschel Club certificate (#80) for recognition in logging all 400 deep sky objects observed by the great astronomer, William Herschel.

In November, 1992, members Dr. Karl Hricko, Dr. Lewis Thomas, and Joseph Mitterando's project was chosen by the Space Telescope Science Institute to use the Hubble Space Telescope. In April of 1993, the trio began the experiment with the Hubble Space Telescope. Member George Lewycky was also chosen to use the HST for a research project. In November, 1993, the Research Committee, with Hank Adams as Chairman, acquired an ST-6 CCD camera for use with various research projects.

In July, 1994, members Steve Clark, Ken Wilson, and Al Witzgall hosted the momentous collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter for the estimated 2,000 people who came to the Observatory Open House. That November, AAI led an expedition to Bolivia for a total solar eclipse. Later that same month AAI held it's 45th Anniversary Party at The Westwood in Garwood.

In 1995, the drives on the 24-inch reflector are upgraded by member Hank Adams.

1996 AAI further upgraded it's computers by purchasing a 133Mhz Pentium-based system. Later that year, AAI went deeper into the information age by the inauguration of its official internet website maintained by George Lewycky.

September, 1997, an internet website for AAI members is started and maintained by Steve Clark to keep members informed.

The history of AAI continues to expand. With an eye to the future (illuminated by incessant poor outdoor lighting), AAI is establishing a Remote Observatory at the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey's location in Jenny Jump State Forest. An Eclipse trip to Aruba and an ocean cruise to the centerline of totality are ready to go. And we are getting ready to celebrate our 50th Anniversary in November of 1999. And the saga continues.........

Follow us on Facebook.

Amateur Astronomers, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization.
Except where noted, this entire website and all webpages herein copyright 1998-2013 • All rights reserved • Amateur Astronomers, Inc. USA