Sky & Telescope magazine, founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, has the largest, most experienced staff of any astronomy magazine in the world. Its editors are virtually all amateur or professional astronomers, and every one has built a telescope, written a book, done original research, developed a new product, or otherwise distinguished him or herself. Find out more about the editorial and arts staff of Sky & Telescope, or read on for a historical perspective on the magazine.
A Brief History of Sky & Telescope
Sky & Telescope magazine, now in its eighth decade, came about because of some happy accidents. Its earliest known ancestor was a four-page bulletin called The Amateur Astronomer, which was begun in 1929 by the Amateur Astronomers Association in New York City. Then, in 1935, the American Museum of Natural History opened its Hayden Planetarium and began to issue a monthly bulletin that became a full-size magazine called The Sky within a year. Under the editorship of Hans Christian Adamson, The Sky featured large illustrations and articles from astronomers all over the globe. It immediately absorbed The Amateur Astronomer.
Despite initial success, by 1939 the planetarium found itself unable to continue financial support of The Sky. Charles A. Federer, who would become the dominant force behind Sky & Telescope, was then working as a lecturer at the planetarium. He was asked to take over publishing The Sky. Federer agreed and started an independent publishing corporation in New York.
"Our first issue came out in January 1940," he noted. "We dropped from 32 to 24 pages, used cheaper quality paper…but editorially we further defined the departments and tried to squeeze as much information as possible between the covers." Federer was The Sky's editor, and his wife, Helen, served as managing editor. In that January 1940 issue, they stated their goal: "We shall try to make the magazine meet the needs of amateur astronomy, so that amateur astronomers will come to regard it as essential to their pursuit, and professionals to consider it a worthwhile medium in which to bring their work before the public."
Meanwhile, The Telescope first appeared as a quarterly magazine in March 1931 under the editorship of Harlan Stetson, director of the Perkins Observatory in Ohio. It featured popular articles about contemporary research written by professional astronomers. In 1934 Stetson moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought the magazine with him. Publishing duties were assumed by the Harvard College Observatory (HCO), and The Telescope became bimonthly.
At the 1939 World's Fair, Federer ran into some members of the HCO staff. They discussed their plans for a national association of amateur astronomy societies, which would eventually be called the Astronomical League. The conversation turned to HCO's magazine The Telescope. Since the current editor of The Telescope didn't have time for the job, it was suggested that Federer might move to Massachusetts and take over the publication. By October 1941 the Federers were in Cambridge, planning to merge The Sky and The Telescope.
Of HCO, Federer said, "It was the best place I could have possibly gotten into. The Harvard astronomers were truly strong in their support, and as time went on we had no problem getting articles."
A New Beginning
The first issue of the merged Sky & Telescope came out in November 1941, just one month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, despite the war, the time was right for developing a large-format, well-illustrated magazine that would appeal to a broader market than Popular Astronomy, a 50-year-old magazine that would eventually cease publication in 1951.
As Sky & Telescope grew, it required more and more space, and HCO could no longer contain the growing staff. In June 1959 it changed physical location to nearby Bay State Road in Cambridge. In 2007, the offices moved less than a mile away to 90 Sherman Street in Cambridge, and then in 2020 to One Alewife Center.
In the seven-plus decades of its existence, Sky & Telescope has seen a world of change in the way amateur astronomy is practiced. Just think of how it was in 1941: commercial telescopes and accessories were practically nonexistent. Now, you only need to thumb through Sky & Telescope to see the vast array of retail telescopes and equipment available all over the world. If you lived in a city of 100,000 people in 1941, you might be the only amateur astronomer there and have trouble finding anyone with whom to share the hobby; today, the Internet helps amateur astronomers to find fellow enthusiasts nearby and on the other side of the planet. Astronomical research has given us a model of how the universe works, while probes and telescopes in space, from Viking to Hubble, have contributed images of the cosmos that 1941 readers could only have dreamed of seeing. And Sky & Telescope has grown and changed along with the world of astronomy. We can't wait to see where astronomy will take us in the 21st century.