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Edward Arthur Fath, 1880-1959


This page is dedicated to Edward Fath and his groundbreaking work that led to the true nature of Spiral Nebulae, now known as spiral galaxies.

At the end of the 19th century astronomer James E. Keeler began a series of nebular photographs at the Lick Observatory. He found the nebulae had spiral structures, and could not be within the Milky Way.

In 1908, Edward Fath used the Lick reflector to collect spectral data on the nebulae, and determined none had continuous spectra. The only conclusion—they had to be clusters of individual stars, and very far away.

Just a few years later, in 1912 and 1913, Herbert Curtis made more extensive observations with the Lick reflector, and concluded the “island universes” as he called them, were far more distant than originally thought.

Later, Edwin Hubble was convinced he knew how to prove Fath’s and Curtis’ theories. In 1922–1923, Hubble proved conclusively that these spiral nebulae were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, entire galaxies outside our own.

1908 Edward Fath was first to note the nature of spiral nebula, now known to be galaxies. He used the Lick reflector to collect data on the nuclei of "spiral nebulae" and determined none had continuous spectra. The only conclusion... they had to be clusters of individual stars, and very far away.

1908-09 He succeeded to get spectra of the Great Andromeda Spiral that showed absorption lines identical to the solar spectrum. This led to the conclusion that the center of the great spiral was composed of mostly solar type stars.

1/12/1914 Fath published "A Study Of Nebula" in The Astronomical Journal.  This paper was based on one-hour plates taken with the sixty-inch reflector at Mt. Wilson. In this study 864 new nebulae were discovered, with only two noted as definitely "spiral nebula." Today object no. 703 is the spiral galaxy NGC 5892 and is named "Fath 703." However, NGC 5892 was first discovered by Ormond Stone in 1886.  It is interesting to note that Fath described the galaxy as very faint and it is easily imaged with only a 12" amateur scope today.

This work also confirmed Keeler's earlier discovery that spiral nebulae (galaxies) are mostly disk-shaped. Fath also showed that their distribution is more uniform than previously thought and the orientation is random.


1922 As a professor at Carleton College, Dr. Fath won a grant to build a photoelectric photometer. For years this was one of only three such advanced instruments in the nation. Fath did innovative work while using this device in conjunction with one of the telescopes at the Lick Observatory. On his visits to Lick, he often brought a Carleton student along as an assistant.

1926 The first edition of Fath's book, Elements of Astronomy, was published. This was a non-mathematical textbook for use as an introduction to the subject in colleges, universities, etc.

1936 Through the Telescope was published. This book was intended for the general reader, rather than the student.

In summary, Edward Fath made four significant discoveries.

  • Spiral nebulae (galaxies) have spectra like star clusters.

  • As an exception to the above, a few spiral nebulae (galaxies) have broad emission lines.

  • The spectrum of zodiacal light is that of reflected sunlight.

  • There is a class of pulsating variables with more than one pulsation period per star.

The Focal Pointe Observatory Connection I had the good fortune to know this gentleman when I was 12 to 13 years old. Late in life, he moved to Federal Way, WA to live with his daughter Miriam Fath Boom, her husband and four children. I went to school with the grandchildren, lived nearby, and spent many hours at the Boom residence. I remember, in the late fifty's, watching Dr. Fath working on an eight-inch mirror.

After a full and wonderful life, Dr. Edward Fath passed away on January 26, 1959. The mirror never saw first light. The family gave me a few of his books and I still have his...

Sky and Telescope collection
5th edition copy of Elements of Astronomy
11th edition of Norton's Star Atlas (a gift from the family)
1st edition copy of Fred Hoyle's The Nature of the Universe