A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way

by Edward Emerson Barnard. Edited by Edwin B. Frost and Mary R. Calvert. (Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, 1927).

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Click here for additional photos of the Atlas and of the Bruce Photographic Telescope

"The Milky Way has always been of the deepest interest to me. My attention was first especially attracted to its peculiar features during the period of my early comet-seeking. Indeed, there is no work in observational astronomy that gives one so great an insight into the actual heavens as that of comet-seeking. The searcher after comets sees more of the beauties of the heavens than any other observer."
-E. E. Barnard

Barnard's Atlas is an astronomical classic - an important historical work that very few amateur astronomers ever get a chance to examine. I requested this two volume set via interlibrary loan, never expecting to receive it due to its age and rarity. About one month later, both volumes arrived at my local library. Only 700 copies of this work were originally produced, and as far as I know there was never a second edition. Most remaining copies are in observatory libraries, and due to their age, I'm guessing most don't circulate, and may not even be available to the public. Other copies are in the hands of private collectors, and it's very unusual to find a copy for sale (I did find a rare book auction house in Boston selling this set. The asking price was $12,000!).

Volume 1 contains 52 original prints produced from Barnard's original negatives, and 31 pages of Barnard's description of each plate. All plates were shot with the 10" and 6.25" Bruce photographic refractors at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, or at Mt. Wilson, California. The plates themselves have the appearance of original photographic prints glue-mounted on linen pages. The cover and overleaf bear a portrait of Barnard, followed by an introduction to the work by Edwin Frost, and after that an extensive introduction by Barnard. Vol. 2 contains 51 hand drawn charts showing objects of interest on the plates and a listing of the coordinates of the objects on the page facing the chart.

Barnard was a procrastinating perfectionist, and his classic atlas was not published until 20 years after the original Carnegie grant - 5 years after Barnard himself had died. After his death in 1922, the cause to finish the epic project was taken up by his long-time assistant Mary Calvert and Yerkes' director Edwin Frost.

The set I examined bears the nameplate of the Washburn Observatory Library (University of Wisconsin-Madison) on the inside flap. The cover is a cloth-bound hard cover, brown in color. The pages are yellowed and just shy of brittle. Many pages bear light pencil marks, cryptic annotations of researchers lost to the years. Several plates also have what appear to be wax marker imprints, noting the positions of various open clusters, or other unknown items of interest to readers of a generation ago.

Only 700 copies of the atlas were produced, and since Barnard was unsatisfied with any method of reproducing his photos for publication, he personally supervised the printing and inspection of the over 35,000 prints necessary for the publication of his work. As his notes for each plate attest, he was not satisfied fully with the final result; he frequently criticized the prints as being over or underexposed, too bright or too dark, etc.

Spending two weeks pouring over the beautiful glossy prints of was sheer joy. Barnard wrote a one page description of each plate, with date, exposure time, celestial coordinates, observing location, and a brief title (e.g., region west of Sagittarius). Each page is rich with his descriptive prose and drips with history as he struggled with the nature of the many dark lanes and twisting tendrils of nebulosity, most of which he was the first to examine. All prints bear slight concentric star trailing at the corners, a testament to the length of the exposures. That such wide field shots from that era are as clear as these are is amazing.

This is not a book, it is the result of a lifetime's obsession with photographing the sky and capturing the beauty and mystery of astronomy. Barnard's soul is in this book, and its pages speak of his passion better than prose or poetry.

Title page and overleaf of the Atlas. Note the impression of Barnard's portrait, in reverse, on the title page. Intentional artistic touch or bleeding of the ink over the years?

.Click here for an article by E.E. Barnard on the Bruce telescope and additonal photos (Yerkes Observatory web site).

(posted November, 2000)

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