Copyright (c) S. Waldee 2014,15 - All Rights Reserved
Horsehead Nebula: Discovery and Study during the 19th and 20th Centuries

William Herschel's Nebulous Regions * Photographic Discovery of the Horsehead Nebula at Harvard * The earliest images by W. H. Pickering, Edward Barnard, Max Wolf, and Isaac Roberts * Confirming Faint Bright and Dark Nebulae by Photo * Astrophysics of the Horsehead * Viewing It In Amateur Telescopes * New 21st Century Observing and Imaging Techniques * Drawing the Horsehead

The Horsehead Nebula
An illustrated astronomy history website by Stephen R. Waldee

IC-434 and the Horsehead nebula, photographed in 2005 by Chuck Vaughn with AstroPhysics 155EDF Refractor with 0.73X Telecompressor, and Canon 20Da with Hutech Type I Filter. Click here for his full-sized image on Chuck Vaughn's website. Picture provided by permission of C. Vaughn.

The Horsehead Project
Greetings, Deep-Sky Observers & Astro History Buffs:

    Welcome to an adventure with one of the deep-sky's most marvelous and mysterious nebulae: an almost unimaginably gigantic cloud of dark interstellar matter that perplexed photographers and astronomers from the time of its discovery on an early glass negative: by a pioneering woman scientist!

     Read the untold saga, forgotten for more than a century and uncovered from historic documents published by Harvard but never again correctly quoted by all subsequent reference works. We present, with cooperation of the Curator of Historical Photographs of Harvard College Observatory, and the Mary Lea Shane Archives of Lick Observatory, the "History of the Horsehead Nebula", a year-long project undertaken in 1989-90 by amateur astronomer Stephen R. Waldee, assisted by many other individuals, both amateurs as well as celebrated professionals. Our story unfolds in three short articles originally written for ASTRONOMY Magazine, but never published; and then in a long, annotated scholarly paper -- believed lost for more than a decade but now at last recovered and reconstructed -- tracing the history of 19th century nebular studies related to dark matter and the Horsehead.

     Learn about famous astrophoto pioneers William H. Pickering, Edward Emerson Barnard, Max Wolf, Sir Isaac Roberts, Heber Curtis, and John C. Duncan and see their actual photos of the Horsehead. Explore the century of investigation made possible by the new development in science and technology that changed astronomy: photography. Read about the controversy swirling in 19th century professional circles about the possible existence of faint nebulae claimed to be seen only by William Herschel, and whether or not the sky's mysterious dark spots were "holes in the heavens". Find out how astronomers slowly came to understand that there were not only bright nebulae, but also dark ones. And enjoy stories of the personalities of the astronomers: their lives, loves, arguments, resentments, obsessions, and creative insights.

     Learn how owners of even small-aperture telescopes, who are privileged to be able to observe in very dark skies free of light pollution, can see the faint Horsehead Nebula by eye with care and the proper techniques. And enjoy some remarkable images of the Horsehead, both professional and amateur, antique and modern. We hope that even advanced amateur astronomers may be able to learn something new and unexpected, and that beginners will get an overview of one of the most important adventures in the astronomical sciences, leading from the first inklings of the existence of unseen substances in space, to challenging new questions about cosmology.

    In 2012 we undertook a major revision and enhancement of our articles, adding improved new copies of original historical images, and expanding the text with more information. To bring our third article into the 21st century we have added information and links related to digital imaging; new eyepieces now available that will benefit your visual study; and many of the author's own observations after 2005. In addition, our 'update' article features a large collection of reports by amateurs who have successfully used small optics -- even filtered binoculars -- to see the Horsehead. We have also added an article on techniques to be used for drawing the Horsehead, a particular challenge since profound dark adaptation, and often averted vision, are required to be able to see it in appropriate amateur scopes.

During the summer of 2013, we have also reinvestigated our 1989 study of William Herschel's work, using Lick Observatory's historical archives; and have reviewed an alternative opinion about the possibility of a Herschel observation. Our recent work confirms what we concluded nearly a quarter century ago: that there is no conclusive evidence he saw or reported the Horsehead nebula: so the credit for its discovery truly belongs to Mrs. Williamina Fleming. Our extensive comments on this, recently added, have been analyzed by a respected professional astronomer and historian, Dr. Harold G. Corwin, who confirms our point of view: see links below for our "Update" articles.

We sincerely hope you enjoy perusing this wide-ranging discussion of everything related to the Horsehead nebula! - Steve Waldee, amateur astronomer, observer, and astronomical historian.

Click on Links Below:

The Horsehead Project


Pt. 1 19th C. Study of Nebulae: Discovery of the Horsehead

Pt. 2. The Horsehead Is Revealed; Acquiring Its Popular Name

Pt. 3 The 20th and 21st Centuries: Astrophysics of the Nebula; and
Viewing the Horsehead in Small and Large Telescopes

Pt. 4 Detailed Paper: The Horsehead in the 19th Century

NEW!  Pt. 5 Sketching the Horsehead Nebula

Main Articles Above Updated: 2012-2015

Update and Late Developments in Our Research
Full article covers many topics, including our latest 2013 research,
reviewed and confirmed by a leading professional astronomer
and historian, that supports our 1989 investigation showing that
William Herschel did not discover the Horsehead; link immediately below.

William Herschel DID NOT discover the Horsehead

    New, 1/09: Please read: Waldee, Hazen, &
    other collaborators' work published here,
    documenting history of Horsehead, used in
    01/09 issue of Australian Sky & Telescope; but
    credit due to this website & researchers not given!
Recent research citing Caroline Herschel's interest in dark nebulae,
and first catalogue of 33 such objects, added in July, 2007
Using Eyepiece Nebular Filters for the Deep Sky

NEW in 2014:  Should You Buy A Hydrogen-Beta Filter?

Introduction to Dark Adaptation by Kevin Fly Hill

Supercharge Your Dark Adaptation:
Techniques to make sure your retina becomes
highly sensitized to faintest light.

Horsehead Nonsense--and Sense
Alleged 'viewing advice' on forums, compared to systematic
studies with full documentation to aid repeatability.

How Faint Can You Go?:
analyzing self-tests of faint stars, galaxies, and nebulae.

Lessons from Don: a tribute to the late Dr. Donald E. Osterbrock

March, '08:  a little humor related to the Horsehead Nebula,
from California radio hams.

JUST IN, 2015!: I have recently tested the validity of a certain forum's 'meme' about the commonly expected visual size of the Horsehead with a few observers in my local astronomy club: read about the results of observers' impressions in this section of my third B33 article.

Breakthrough!: Now the American issue of Sky & Telescope finally credits Mrs. Fleming with discovery of the Horsehead: see August 2013, p. 31.

NEW URL - see: Observing the Horsehead Nebula by Joe Bergeron, an external link to a fine page on Joe's excellent website.

NEW 2012 - see: Superior New Version of Duncan's 1920 Horsehead Photo; also we have posted new, improved copies of Isaac Roberts' and Edward Barnard's historic Horsehead images.

NEW 2012 - now, Google credits Mrs. Fleming for the discovery of the Horsehead nebula! Click for the Google discovery creditin a screen cap the author made during a Google search for "Horsehead nebula" on 8 July 2012.

NEW 2012 - recently rediscovered cache of early articles related to viewing the Horsehead nebula, dark adaptation, and relevant telescopic techniques. Click for the Introduction and Collection of the author's 1990 publications.

What People Have Said About Our Articles & Research:


Enjoyed the revised version of your Horsehead article... it gives a nice concise history of the object... However you learned to do observational astronomy, you've got it right, at least as far as solving the puzzles of the old sky, and chasing down the things you see right at the limit of your vision. Your methods are as close to "science" as makes no difference, so the end result will hold up... your website is fabulous, so the good stuff is out there, whether or not anyone besides us chooses to read it. Keep it coming!
Dr. Harold Corwin, Jr., Caltech astronomer (retired)

All you need to know about The Horsehead Nebula can be found from an excellent website created and maintained by Stephen Waldee.
Jaakko Saloranta, elite amateur observer, Vantaa, Finland

...the site looks awesome...chock full of astro goodness. My commendations on a most useful resource. It might just inspire me to take the 10-inch out on my next dark-sky foray and hunt down B33.
Brian Tung, University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute

A very extensive web page and research project. The female contribution to astronomy cannot be ignored and is most important. Half of the astronomers that I work with are female.
Matthew Ota, amateur astrophotographer; designer at LA Digital Graphics; telescope operator, Mt Wilson Observatory: 1999-2007

A good piece of work for posterity, and touching.
jw (anonymous usenet poster, sci.astro.amateur)

All very interesting! The nice thing about the web is you can self publish and eventually more people will likely see it than if it came out in a magazine... I think it's well known that experienced observers are able to see more than non experienced observers. It's a learned and practiced skill like anything else. Good luck with your quest to see very faint nebulae.
Chuck Vaughn, world-famed No. California astrophotographer/imager

As for your own project in trying to set history straight, I wish you well. I... was not familiar with the Horsehead nebula discovery story. However, this is the sort of thing that is told again and again. Perhaps you are aware that Fessenden had a similar problem during his career with the U.S. Weather Bureau. His supervisor insisted on taking credit for some of the inventions that Fessenden patented while working there. This is what drove him to leave public service. Best wishes with your own project.
James O'Neal, broadcasting historian and technology researcher

I... had no idea that this was, how should I put it, a controversy. Being the novice that I am, it has lit a fire under me to find the HH and sketch it. Will I find it? Maybe. If not, there is always another night to look. But look, I shall. No one will deter my hunt for it, not even the so called experts... I have years to find new targets and getting excited all over again when I find them. That is what this hobby is all about to me. And I hope, 20 years down the line, I will not forget that feeling.
Cindy, Indiana, USA amateur astronomer, posting on a forum in response to the author.

I'd like to thank Steve for sharing his research with us. It was truly a labor of love, and I think that it surely must be the definitive work on the history of the Horsehead Nebula.
Dwight Huffman, Santa Cruz Astronomical Association

Wow, that's an amazing site. Thanks for pointing it out.
Anonymous poster (John) to ASTRONOMY magazine observing forum

Yes, John, it certainly is. I remember Steve quite well from when he was active on sci.astro.amateur during its heyday.
Dave Mitsky (Delaware Valley Amateur Astronomers; famous amateur deep sky observer), in response to the above post in the same discussion thread.

I am Don Osterbrock's younger daughter, and I wanted to thank you for writing the very touching and beautiful piece...called Lessons from Don...It is just a lovely piece of writing and I am very grateful to have had the chance to read it...Thanks very much for committing your thoughts to the public eye. I truly appreciate it. I wish you the best in all your endeavors, both astronomical and otherwise.
Laura Osterbrock, math instructor; editor and developer materials for mathematics instruction, middle school through college.

Yes, Steve, I encourage you to self-publish: to get this important information out.
personal communication from the late Dr. Martha L. Hazen, Curator of Astronomical Photographs at the Center of Astrophysics at the Harvard College Observatory, Cambridge, Mass.

I must apologize for the long delay, but this was sent via an Astronomy email forum not to my address. Anyway. Your story sounds fantastic... I knew Martha Hazen well, having been at HCO. Best.
Stephen J. O'Meara, astronomical observer, columnist and internationally known author.

Your reports, your web site, and your sketches are fantastic!
Doug Snyder, well known Arizona amateur astronomer,

I found it fascinating to hear about your work. I'm sooooo jealous of your location!!!!
Matt Oltersdorf, Medina County Astronomical Society, Ohio

I can't believe I had not seen your materials before tonight, but find them interesting and even informative!
John Menke, physicist and amateur astronomer

I discovered your website earlier this year while googling for some images for a popular talk I gave (and will give again on 4/5): "The Story of the Horsehead." After my 2003 paper ["Looking into the Horsehead"] I gave a some scientific talks on the work and always had a few introductory slides summarizing the discovery story you uncovered. I'd always wanted to expand that into a talk of its own and had the opportunity in January... your website gave me a lot more background (and a few images...) Of course, I give you due credit in the talk for your detective work.
Dr. Marc W. Pound, Associate Research Scientist, Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland

I really enjoy the historical background information as well as the documentation of your endeavors ... nicely done!
Jim Molinari, Santa Clara, CA amateur astronomer

Mr. Waldee updates his site regularly and I like his Horsehead project.
Joe, 'rathblaster', poster on Cloudy Nights forum

Very interesting, indeed (read on from this link to other pages on the site where he discusses what it takes to see it). Stephen Waldee has put a lot of time into investigating this particular object. -- Jacquie (moniker "BlueSkies") on forum

...that's a good link and a great read -- nightstalker (moniker) on, referring to citation of our website

Very thorough, Steve.
Jay Reynolds Freeman, sci.astro.amateur post in response to author Waldee

This is a wonderful resource for those who question what filter to consider for that specific goal... The use of filters is almost...required... and your website should be a "must read" for those beginning the quests... - StarFarmer, Astronomy Magazine Forum

I 'discovered' his [Stephen Waldee's] page where he has huge numbers of kool targets (much like the above Adventures.In.Deep.Space type targets) Great stuff in the P.1 through P.9 pages, real nice collection with dss images... - Richardn, Astronomy Connection mailing list

The Author is especially grateful to: Stephen Waldee and the late Martha Hazen for their work on correctly attributing the discovery of the ‘Horsehead’ to Williamina Fleming. - Dr. Stefan Hughes, BSc, MA, Ph.D., author of "Catchers of the Light"

...a credible observation of it in H-Beta filtered 8x42 binoculars (LOTS of attention to details in preparation for the observation and the description of it, that's why I believe it)...Stephen a very experienced observer, who has indeed seen the HH countless times, in scopes large and small. - Thomas Jensen, a respected Denmark amateur (on CN forum Horsehead discussion thread)

Stephen Waldee has an excellent discussion on sketching the horse head...Stephen has returned me to focusing on the details more. - JayInUT (Jay L. Eads) on the same CN discussion thread mentioned above)

Way to go...You're a renaissance man with your mechanical skills, astronomy knowledge and interest in music. - Jeff Young, amateur astronomer & member of Santa Cruz Astronomical Club

Quit making so much sense! - Joe Bergeron's facetious post to the author on sci.astro.amateur did a great job. Your long article is very interesting, close to professional astronomy. - Torsten Moldenhauer

Wow, what a great project! - Mike Simmons, sci.astro.amateur

Oh my, congrats...this is wonderful stuff. - Phil Plait, "The Bad Astronomer", on usenet


Not a bad will probably get a lot of consternation from people who try it with the smaller scopes and fail.
David W. Knisely, well known Nebraskan amateur astronomer & reviewer; post on sci.astro.amateur

There is a guy with an extensive web page on the Horsehead which actually is fairly good except for some of the things he says about a few people who just try to cast a little realism on those searching for this ellusive [sic] object for the first time...he kind of falls down a bit by going on a bit too long about it...I just wish he had left out some of his slightly distorted references...That kind of hurts the page a bit....[and in dismissing and denying our sighting of the Horsehead in filtered binoculars:] Small aperture reports aside, there needs to be a healthy dose of reality here.
David W. Knisely, Prairie Astronomy Club, from his numerous astro forum posts critical of this site.

I must say I am a bit confused as to what your purpose is about this LONG rambling rant...
JL, Texas amateur astronomer and telescope maker (with the second largest amateur telescope in the USA); post on Deep Sky Forum

...while it would be important to know who invented a horse shoe nail, the discoverer of the Horsehead is not significant or crucial. - usenet response (by a despicable anonymous troll) to a posted link to this site

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All Contents, Articles, Images in this webpage are Copyright © 1990-2015 Stephen R. Waldee - All Rights Reserved.
All Trademarks or Copyrights are © Copyright or Property of Their Respective Copyright Holders.
First Published on web: 22 October 2005. Last edit: Sunday 27 September 2015 at 12:48 pm.