Biography and History

This collection documents the scientific achievements and academic program of the Astrophysical Sciences Department, formerly the Astronomy Department, from 1835 to 1988. Although astronomy was studied at Princeton beginning in 1787, it was grouped with mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1840, astronomy became its own discipline when Stephen Alexander became Princeton's first Professor of Astronomy and Chairman of the Astronomy Department. The Department increased the scope of its research when the Halsted Observatory opened in 1872. Charles A. Young succeeded Alexander as Chairman in 1877. Young is primarily known for his observations of stars, especially using solar spectroscopy to determine the elements that compose the sun. In 1905, Young retired and Henry Norris Russell assumed the chair. Russell is most noted for his theories on solar atmospheric composition and stellar evolution, as well as his analysis of eclipses with Professor Raymond S. Dugan. In 1927, Russell, Dugan, and Professor John Q. Stewart published a two-volume book that became the major text in American astronomy classes. Research endeavors improved with the opening of the FitzRandolph Observatory in 1934, which replaced the Halsted Observatory.

In 1947 Lyman Spitzer, Jr. succeeded Russell as Department Chairman. Spitzer focused on expanding Princeton astronomical research into theoretical astrophysics and space astronomy with the help of government, military, and scientific foundation grants. He also organized the Forrestal Research Campus (called Project Matterhorn and eventually the Plasma Physics Laboratory) in 1951 to study plasma physics and nuclear power. In 1962 the Astronomy Department officially changed its name to Astrophysical Sciences to signify its expanded programs in plasma physics, atomic and molecular physics, and astrophysics. Under the continued leadership of Chairman Spitzer, the Department took vivid photographs of the sun via telescopic cameras on balloons, helped NASA's satellite program to study the gases and dust in space, and launched telescope-carrying rockets into earth's atmosphere to observe stars. In 1966, the Department enjoyed improved facilities with the installation of a 36-inch telescope in Fitz Randolph Observatory and the opening of Peyton Hall.

Source: From the finding aid for AC157