Anderson, John A. (John Augustus), 1876-1959

Alternative names
Birth 1876-08-07
Death 1959-12-02

Biographical notes:

Astronomer; Executive Officer, Observatory Council, California Institute of Technology, 1928-1948.

From the description of Papers, 1914-1951. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 83367913


John August Anderson was born on August 7, 1876, in Rollag, Minnesota, the sixth son of Norwegian immigrants. He earned a bachelor's degree from Valparaiso College in Indiana in 1900. After a brief period of teaching, he began graduate study at Johns Hopkins University and received his PhD in 1907. His thesis was a study of the emission and absorption spectra of the oxides of the metals neodymium and erbium.

Anderson was appointed professor of astronomy at Hopkins in 1908. At that time he was requested to take charge of the ruling engine constructed by Henry Rowland, the great American pioneer in spectroscopy. Anderson refined Rowland's machine to produce gratings of even finer resolving power. In 1912, Anderson was called upon by George Ellery Hale to assist in the construction of a new ruling engine for the Mount Wilson solar observatory in Pasadena, California. In 1916 Anderson relocated to California to become a permanent member of the Mount Wilson staff within the physical laboratory set up there by Hale. During his years with Mount Wilson, Anderson conducted major experimental work in solar observation and spectroscopy and became an expert in optics. With Harry O. Wood of the Carnegie Institution's Seismological Laboratory, he development a new torsion seismometer for the measurement of local earthquake shocks.

In 1928, the California Institute of Technology received funds for the building of the 200-inch Palomar telescope, then the largest optical telescope in the world. Anderson was asked by Hale to serve as executive officer of the newly formed Observatory Council, whose charge was to oversee all aspects of the telescope project. Over the next twenty years, Anderson directed and participated in site selection, design and testing of the 200-inch mirror, the establishment and operation of an on-site optical shop, and the design and testing of the telescope structure and, especially, its instrumentation. Anderson remained head of the Observatory Council up to the time of the telescope's dedication, in June 1948.

Anderson had maintained a part-time connection with Mount Wilson, from which he retired in 1943. He was a member of several learned societies, including the American Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1928. John Anderson died in Pasadena on December 2, 1959.

From the guide to the John A. Anderson papers, 1914-1951, (California Institute of Technology. Archives.)


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  • Astronomers--Correspondence
  • Optical instruments--Design
  • Astronomical instruments--Design
  • Telescopes, reflecting--Design
  • Astronomical observatories--Administration
  • Reflecting telescopes--Design


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