Oral History Transcript — Dr. Paul Herget
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Paul Herget; April 19, 1977
ABSTRACT: Traces origins of family in Germany and family move to Cincinnati; early schooling in Cincinnati through graduation from the University there; work at Cincinnati Observatory as computer; Morrison Fellowship at Lick Observatory, 1935; work and study at Berkeley; contacts at Yerkes; return to the University of Cincinnati in 1936; work during World War II; removal of Rechen Institute from Germany to Cincinnati after World War II; Nautical Almanac Office; Minor Planet Center; Research through 1950s; family and future.
Session I | Session II
DeVorkin:Dr. Herget, I know you were born in Cincinnati in 1908, but I don’t know anything else about your family other than your father was an immigrant from Germany in the 1890s, I believe.
Herget:Yes. He was an orphan and in 1893, when he was 18 years old, an older sister helped him to come to America, alone.
DeVorkin:Who were your parents and what did they do?
Herget:Well, I don’t know any more than that. I know little genealogy, going back. My mother’s parents both came from Germany, and I don’t know where in Germany, and she lived in what was called the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati, a German community downtown. And when I was a boy we lived in Oakley, which was a suburb, named after Annie Oakley actually. I only went to three schools -- the Oakley public school for eight years and Withrow High School for four years and the University of Cincinnati.
DeVorkin:I’d be interested in your early home life. What were the names of your father and mother?
Herget:His name was Conrad Fred and her name was Clara Louise, and her maiden name was Brueckner.
DeVorkin:What did your father do?
Herget:Well, he had no education but I remember that when I was a boy he was a laundry foreman downtown. That job disappeared with the First World War. There had been a number of small independent laundries, and they lost so much business when the men left the city to go to war that they formed into a combine and he was frozen out of a job. So then he worked in a factory in Oakley the rest of his life, and there he had a unique kind of a job. He wasn’t a machinist or anything, but he had a very good handwriting, and they put him in charge of the jigs. He would write the records of how many pieces were missing and who was supposed to have the jigs and when they were supposed to give them back and all that kind of stuff.
DeVorkin:Jigs were forms for certain operations?
Herget:That’s right. They would fit over the work piece and the holes were only where you were supposed to drill them and not anyplace else.
DeVorkin:This was metal fabricating?
Herget:Right, they made drill presses primarily.
DeVorkin:What was the name of the company?
Herget:Cincinnati Bickford Tool Company. I worked there myself in the summer time at least two different years when I was a kid in high school and college. I forget exactly what years they were, but it was sort of fun. I knew all the men and they knew that he was my father, and they were nice to me.
DeVorkin:What did you do while you were there?
Herget:For one thing I made what they called work tags. A particular piece would come in and have to be cast cleaned. You know what that is? They have a grindstone knock off all the sharp burrs and everything from the casting. Then, depending on what shape it was and what machining it needed, it was supposed to go to the planer department where they put a base on it, then to the drilling department, where they put certain holes in it, or may be it wouldn’t go to drilling -- it would go to the lathe. They had two lathe departments -- a turret lathe and a regular lathe. So you had these department letters, and you put them down on the tags so it was kind of a check-off system. As a piece went through the factory, it got checked off and they would know where it went next. And if they were going to make 50 machines, there would be 50 of whatever they needed one of. There would be 250 of whatever they needed five of, and the idea was to see that they went on their way so they all ended up finished at the same time when you were going to put the machine together. That was in the assembly department. Usually the last place they went was to department “I” -- that was the assembly department.
DeVorkin:Did you have anything to do with this routing, these routing slips, or you just did the tags?
Well, they were already predetermined. All I had to do was follow the pattern. They kept their records on blueprints actually, and you had to follow the pattern to find out where in the sheaf of papers that one was. Every piece had a part number. I was sort of amused because by the end of the summer I knew nearly all the part numbers. I didn’t have to, but I did. Then in another summer I was assigned to the fellow who was called the paymaster, but actually he was the general office flunkey. He had to take care of the time clock, took care of the employment office. I remember one time I was so surprised. I was sitting there and he was talking to a man on the other side of the counter who was applying for a job, taking down his name and address and everything; and when the fellow left, he throws it right in the wastebasket. Well, I looked at him real funny and I said, “What the hell are you doing?” And he says, “Well, we don’t want anybody like that. That guy came down from Detroit. He’s not a machinist.” In the machine tool industry in Detroit they would have what they called set-up men. They were the real machinists.
They would get the machine set to gauge and size and everything. These other guys would just watch it so that nothing went wrong, you see; or if it did, they’d push the button. And that’s all they knew. And then they’d come down here and try to palm themselves off as machinists because they watched the set-up man. And they wouldn’t hire guys like that. And he spotted him and so he just threw the thing in the wastebasket. That was the end of him. He didn’t tell him to get out or anything. He chose the easy way to get rid of him. Cincinnati had an industry of expert machinists, and they didn’t want it different. I don’t know whether you realize that the owners of the machine tool industry in Cincinnati prevented Cincinnati from becoming Detroit, deliberately, right after the beginning of the century. The Studebaker Wagon Works was in Cincinnati, and they just wouldn’t have that kind of manufacturing here after they started making automobiles. They had expert machinists and tool and dye makers, and they didn’t want to have what they foresaw was coming to Detroit. So I guess we can be glad Cincinnati isn’t as bad as Detroit now is.
DeVorkin:I see. They didn’t want the mass production.
Herget:Yes. And the large amount of unskilled labor. They also had strong feelings against unions, and as far as I know the Cincinnati Milling Machine Company still doesn’t have a union. They treat their people well and they want good people. The Milling Machine Company is the largest machine tool company in the world, right here in Cincinnati. You can see it from the edge of the hill. I know a lot of people who work there because I went to school with them in Oakley. They were primarily interested in having good machinists.
DeVorkin:Were you interested in these industries when you were in school?
Herget:Yes and no. I was good in mechanical drawing. I liked that. At one time when I was about 12 years old my father told me I was going to be a pattern maker foreman because he thought that was the best job in the factory, you know. So that was okay with me at that point. I guess the best educational toy I ever had was an erector set, and I got a great deal of benefit out of that without any doubt.
DeVorkin:What kind of machines have you built? Do you recall any of them?
Herget:Well, the thing I recall the most because it was the largest, was an elevator I made where one car went up and the other one went down, and it was 14 feet tall. I had to take it apart, into two pieces, in order to bring it into the house every night. I did this in the summer time and I played with it in the back yard. It was all the girders that I’d had. If I’d had more, it would have been taller than 14 feet. But I had to arrange it so that I could take it apart in the middle and carry the two pieces into the house so it wouldn’t get rusty in the rain overnight. I remember having made two fire engines. One big ladder wagon and one hose wagon. I had pictures taken of them. And considering that in those days erector sets only had a very small number of basic parts, they were pretty good-looking fire engines. They had two small wheels up in front for the headlights. Oh, another thing I made: the streetcar in those days used to have a work car which had a large open derrick right on the flat base of the car. I made one of them, and the derrick would turn around. It wasn’t too great, but at least it was an open—bedded streetcar with a derrick on it and a cab up front where the motorman sat when he ran the car. They’d take it to wrecks when they’d get de-railed and put the car back on the track.
DeVorkin:Did you work on these toys alone or did you have brothers and sisters?
Herget:I had two younger sisters but I did all that alone.
DeVorkin:Two younger sisters. What did they think of some of your 14-foot elevators and your family in general?
Herget:Well, my mother made sure that I brought it in every night so it wouldn’t get rusty. She would keep telling me: “You’ve got to take everything apart and put it away neatly before you start making something new.” That was a certain kind of inculcation of discipline, if you will. But my mother always supported me. Her father had impressed on his children, all of them, the importance of education, as much as you could possibly get, and she always stuck up for me in school.
DeVorkin:Any sort of direction in education?
Herget:No. Just go to school. Neither of my parents were educated, so all they wanted was: “You go and do the best that you can.”
DeVorkin:This is your mother supporting you. What about your father?
Herget:Well, after I got older, I had a feeling somehow that every one of the advances which he saw me make he probably resented in the fact that he hadn’t had the same opportunity. I remember when I was about 16 years old, he said, “Your legs are pretty long under my table”. He was the kind of German that was the master of his own home. Well, my mother stuck up for me. She went up to the high school and found out that there was a scholarship available. I got a job in the lunch room at noontime. Instead of having my lunch period I worked in the lunch room. And then I got 25 or 35 a day and meals would cost about 15 in those days -- 6 cents for ice cream, 8 cents for meat, 2 cents for potatoes. So I was able to earn a little money that way. In the end he was satisfied that I did all right, you know, except he died when I was 30 years old so he really never saw much of what came.
DeVorkin:Did you need this money to continue in school? How was your family financially?
Herget:Well, we were never destitute but we were poor in a sense. My father was never able to buy a house until I was 16 years old, and he just barely got the mortgage paid off before he died. I know that during the Depression and around 1931 or ‘2 he only worked 15 hours a week at the rate of a dollar an hour. The Building Association couldn’t have done any good by foreclosing on the mortgage that we had on the house because they had thousands of them, you know; so they simply let the interest drag on without principal payments. I don’t know how my parents ever did it, but we survived and we never went hungry. We were frugal but not hungry.
DeVorkin:The money you made when you were in high school helped a little bit? Or helped your self-esteem?
Herget:No, it helped. And in the factory where my father worked, they worked until Saturday noon, and he got himself a job as the night watchman on Saturday night, which was the regular night watchman’s night off. And then there would be times when he wanted to go to a lodge meeting and I was the night watchman. And this big long factory was more than a quarter of a mile long, and you were supposed to carry a kerosene lantern. You had to carry this box around to where they had six different keys all over the place so you’d be sure to make the circuit. I guess the most memorable thing of that experience was something that you probably wouldn’t expect: in the spring and the fall as the temperature changed around 10 o’clock to midnight, one of those castings would fire like a cannon. You’d be walking through that factory and they would have contraction from the change in temperature and the shape of them, and they would fire like a cannon shot. And of course, I figured: “Who’s going to try and steal something here? What good is it (laughter) and nobody’s trying and don’t worry?” But anyway I was alone. But he worked hard for us and so I did likewise. I can remember in the Depression of 1921 he made it a point to try to get extra jobs where he would clean up people’s basements and paint their pipes for them, paint them aluminum. That was good protection, and he did a good job. I was just a kid but I had to help him. And, of course, if he was doing that extra work, why I couldn’t very well say no. I think that kind of discipline comes much better in hard times than affluent times. You can’t expect a kid nowadays to do that, you know. He wants the keys to the Cadillac, and he knows there’s one out there or two of them. We never had that problem, because my father never owned an automobile.
DeVorkin:Do you have any recollections of World War I?
Herget:Yes, I remember Armistice Day very well. I’ll tell you something which interested me very much as I got older. I was nine years old and my mother made me go off to school a half hour early one morning and sent me up to the railroad station before school because the soldiers were going to leave to go to camp. These soldiers were the fellows in the church’s young people’s society that played baseball when they had a church picnic, and I saw them around in the neighborhood. I knew them from Sunday School and church. They and other people in the town of Oakley that were prominent characters were all going off to war, and they all had assembled at the railroad station about a half hour before school started. So my mother sent me up there to see that because that was an historic occasion, and she wanted me to see it. I was just a kid, you know, and you don’t know what war is on foreign soil when you’re a kid. But anyway here were these fellows, these soldiers, and their sweethearts and their mothers were crying and they were kissing them goodbye. But my mother sent me to see that. I remember that very well. And then I remember Armistice Day when they blew the whistles and rang the bells. And, of course, I remember they used to have Liberty Bond parades, and I’d go downtown and see the parade and that was great stuff. I was just a little kid, and I always wanted to grow tall so you could see the parade even if you had to stand in the back.
DeVorkin:Was there any feeling against your German ancestry that you recall?
Herget:Yes but not in our family. In the factory where my father worked they called him “Fritz”. And “Fritz” or “Fritzie” was equivalent to the word “Hun”. But everybody in the factory knew that Fred Herget was all right, you see. When they called him “Fritz”, this was with their arm around his shoulders. My father was always very -- I don’t want to say sensitive: he was always very cognizant of his citizenship. Wherever we lived we had a flagpole. He was married on Flag Day -- June 14th I think it is. And every day on the 4th of July, Decoration Day, Labor Day -- we were the first ones on our street to have the flag out. My father made sure of that. And then he’d look up and down the street to the houses of the Junior Orders and the rest of them, and those fellows hadn’t gotten out of bed yet, but we had our flag out. I’ll tell you another interesting story to show you how all this fits together. When I was already more than 16 years old (because I remember which house we were living in) he came home one night around election time and he was “madder than hops” because he went in to vote and they asked him which ticket he wanted. He didn’t understand a primary, and you have to declare your party in a primary, but he wouldn’t declare anything. He was going to have a secret ballot because he didn’t understand the system. But he had gone to vote. And since he wouldn’t declare his party, they wouldn’t let him vote and he came home madder than “hops”. (laughs) He was always active in the church, and it was a German church where they had German services in addition to English. And there was a pair of old—maid schoolteachers who were also of a German family. And for some reason he had occasion to call up one of these women on the telephone about some church business, and when they answered he said he’d like to talk to Miss Clara Siehl, and she said, “This is she”, and so he conducted the business. And when he hung up he turned to my mother and he said, “That dumb thing. She’s supposed to be a schoolteacher, and you know what she said? She said, “This is she”. Well, by this time I was far enough along in school, I had had grammar and everything, and I realized that my father wasn’t educated, because he had never gone to school in this country. And since everybody said, “This is her”, then that was right to him; and then it was impressed on me that my father wasn’t educated, see.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about that?
Herget:Well, you know, I never realized he was a foreigner when I was a little kid. He didn’t have an accent. The only other thing I ever noticed was when I was a small child in the early grades of school: he was the secretary of the church and he was forever asking my mother how to spell a word. And when we had spelling lessons and spelling bees, I began to think to myself, “Why the hell doesn’t he spell his own words?” I didn’t realize until later on when she said, “This is she”, then I realized, you know, that my father was completely uneducated. He had picked up everything by osmosis. But he was interested in his lodge, and I think he was terribly disappointed that I never took any interest in the lodge. I had other things to do, and I didn’t care about that.
Well, actually in Cincinnati he originally belonged to a German lodge. It was Hanselmann Temple. And then when we moved to Oakley he transferred to the Oakley Lodge, which was a Masonic Lodge. I don’t know one from another even today. But it was the Masons. But I can remember distinctly that he was on the Welfare Committee. If anybody got sick, he would get somebody that had an automobile and they’d try to go out on Sunday afternoon and visit these people. There was one fellow in the factory I remember distinctly because his boy caddied with me at the local country club. By visiting them, presumably with the pretext of a sick visit, you know, they would see the condition and they would recommend some help like buying the kids shoes or something like that. And he was the one who took the initiative on that. I don’t know exactly how much of this he did, but he did it. I remember the case where this kid caddied with me in the Country Club, so I knew him. He had other brothers and sisters that were still smaller and the father got TB or something like that. I think that the climactic story in this general direction was when they had the flood here in Cincinnati in 1937. As I say there were about 400 men that worked in that factory, and the water was nine feet higher than had ever been recorded before in the history of the city, and there was a tremendous thaw and rainfall simultaneously, so the water that came down from upstream was just enormous. And if you contemplate what nine feet of water does in the city, there were at least nine men in the factory who had been affected by this flood in one way or another who lived in perfectly respectable areas.
It was not as if they were river rats or anything like that. Their places had never been flooded before, and they owned property. In one man’s house the water just came a couple inches over the first floor. They had to remove the entire flooring from his house after it dried out. It warped and everything, you know. Another fellow had taken his refrigerator and put it out on the porch with the intention of getting a boat. By the time he got back, somebody had beat him to the draw and the refrigerator was gone. So my father went around the factory when he got back to work. Really the biggest trouble was with water, so that they closed factories and schools for about two weeks, as I remember. But when he got back to work, he found out about these men that had this trouble, so he went around passing the hat in the factory, and he collected $800. And he would take a sheet of paper and write down every name and be prepared to account for every penny that he got. So he collected $800. Well, he put it in a great big brown bag and walked into the president’s office and stood it on the table and said, “If the men can do this, the company can do the same thing, can’t they?” So now they had $1600. Well, the factory next door wasn’t nearly so big, but they heard about this and they sent $100. So they formed a little committee of about a half a dozen people and they asked each fellow what he had lost just directly from the flood and they partitioned out this money amongst these men in order to help them over the hump, which was no fault of theirs, you see. He did that singlehandedly by himself. When he was committed to a righteous cause, he feared no man. And I know some of the men in the lodge told me that he was never afraid to stand up and speak his mind on whatever the lodge’s business was if he didn’t like what was going on. They could take it or leave it, you know, but at least he told them what he thought.
DeVorkin:That was within a year of his death.
DeVorkin:And you already had your Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Let’s go back to your childhood again. I’m interested in what type of preparation in your family life or your early schooling that you think might have set you on a scientific career.
Herget:Nothing in particular I think, because as I grew older I also considered being a lawyer. Even later when it was too late, I thought that if someone had taught me to cut up cats I could well have been a surgeon. But my mother was very fastidious and we shied away from everything, even dogs. She didn’t like dogs. So I just never got an urge there. But I was good in math, and that’s where I sort of actually gravitated, you know. But I think mainly the fact that in school I was always good in arithmetic and algebra and high school math, that that was about the only directing force. When I was in the eighth grade and looked forward to going to high school, I decided to take Spanish for two years because by that time we were going to be great engineers and go to South America; so I took Spanish. And I got very good grades in Spanish because I was so good in Algebra. Spanish is such a regular language. There are very few irregular verbs. There are almost no exceptions to the rules of grammar for the structure of words and for pronunciation. So since I was good in algebra, I could learn a formula and I could do Spanish. Then I was very much inspired by the teacher that I had for math in the third and fourth year of high school. She was a marvel.
DeVorkin:What was her name?
Herget:Her name at that time was Helen Swineford. So I decided when I left high school and went to the University, to take what they called in those days a minor in education, and I got a high school teaching certificate, because I was perfectly satisfied that if I could be as good a high school math teacher as she was, that was worth my life. Then, after I got to the University and had taken several years of math, the professors held up the idea of going to graduate school. It was the Depression, of course, but by that time I was I guess you might say committed to both teaching and to math.
DeVorkin:That was in high school.
Herget:Yes. I was a senior. I never took Latin in school. I wish I had, but I didn’t. But anyway one day the fourth year Latin teacher was sick, and a number of these fellows who were in my fourth year math class were also in that Latin class. And when they came into the room, they saw Miss Swineford sitting at the teacher’s place; so they figured they were going to get a study period, you know. They told me the story afterwards. She asked the first guy, “What page were you on?” and she said, “The next fellow start in.” And every time they made a mistake, bing-bing-bang, she knocked them down and they were all surprised, but she kept on going. It turned out that she had had seven years of classics in the University, and this school that I was in -- Withrow -- when I entered it was only three years old. She had wanted to come with that principal to teach in that school, but there was no place for her except if she would teach math, so she took the job of teaching math and she went to the University of Michigan every summer until she earned a master’s degree in mathematics. So she really was a marvelous teacher. I think that I was more influenced by her than any other single person in the school, including the University. In the University you meet a lot of professors and they have a large influence on you, but as a single individual, I think she was the one that I was most impressed by.
DeVorkin:Did you talk to her about careers in mathematics or in science?
Herget:No. She told me “Paul, it’s all right if you want to teach, but don’t take that teachers college stuff too seriously.” That was in 1926.
DeVorkin:Well, when do you think that you became aware that you were going to go the University of Cincinnati or did you think of going elsewhere at any time?
Herget:No, I never thought of going elsewhere because I couldn’t afford it. When I graduated from high school I got a job that summer working for the gas and electric company as a surveyor, and I signed up to go to the engineering college in civil engineering because then I could get a co-op job, and that was the only way I could afford to go to college. Well, I worked all summer on this surveying job, and that was very good, very nice. But then when I went to school, when I got into the University, by the time I’d been there three weeks I decided this was foolishness. “This isn’t what you wanted to do. You’re only doing it because you haven’t got any money and the heck with it.” I kicked it over; I withdrew and I went to work for a year and saved a thousand dollars, and then I went back to the liberal arts college. This was where I wanted to go in the first place. We never had anything like career guidance or anything. I’m not sure that a lot of that isn’t baloney and does more harm than good sometimes. At least the way I look at it in retrospect, you saw what the world was like. You observed what you were going to choose to aim for. Those that didn’t have any perception didn’t choose very much and the devil take the hindmost. I’m not sure but what that’s better -- instead of egging kids on just because you have to be egged into something. For example, the teacher that I had in English: she was a very fine little old lady. She also told me: “Don’t do any more of that teachers college stuff than you have to. You have to do it -- that’s the way it’s set up. But don’t do anymore than you have to.”
DeVorkin:By teachers college, is this liberal arts that you were talking about?
Herget:No. Well, at the present time it’s the College of Education, but in those days it was what you might call another department in the liberal arts college. It was a curious set-up because they had their own dean but they weren’t their own college yet. They eventually became a separate teachers college. But as far as I was concerned, if I majored in math I could minor in education and I could get a teacher’s certificate. So I had everything I wanted right there. I was qualified to teach in high schools and I had had a mathematics education as an undergraduate. So that’s what I aimed for. But let me come back to this little English teacher. I had her for the third year. There were no foreshadowings of this during the year because all she did was teach us English. But it came to the end of the year and she arranged that our class would have a picnic, and she also found out that one of the girls had a father who belonged to some small country club or something, and we went out there and had a picnic. Many of the students in the class, including myself, didn’t partake of social activities the way some of the other ones did. I just went back and forth to school each day.
DeVorkin:This was high school.
Herget:Yes. And the next morning we all came back to class. “Oh, there still was a week of school. Couldn’t we have another picnic because we had such a good time?” So she listened to all of this and then she stood up -- and she was pretty small -- but she stood in front of the class and she said, “Don’t you realize that we can never do that again?” I never forgot that. You know, you couldn’t go back and have the same picnic as the first time the second time. There was a lot of philosophy in that. I never forgot that. So when I left high school I went to work for a year and I was going to be a teacher. And, as I say, by the time I graduated I had a teaching certificate, and I taught one semester as a Cadet Teacher in high school the year that I was a senior.
DeVorkin:This is a senior at the University of Cincinnati?
Herget:Yes. I had a misfortune after I went back to school and I was now a year behind all my friends from high school. At the end of the first semester I had a mastoid operation, so that I lost the entire second semester. And then when I went back to school in the first semester for the second year, I was all mixed up, because I had taken the first semester, but I somehow had to finish the courses I had started. I had to be doing something to catch up and at one time I carried seven courses at once. But I really only went to school for six semesters, because I went one and I missed one, and by the time I was in what would have been my eighth semester if I had gone straight through, I was a Cadet Teacher, and I really only had one course to take to fill out all my requirements. I only went to day school full time six semesters, but it was broken up with this operation, and I did go to summer school and get a couple of courses that would get me some more credits. But then when I graduated, and it was the Depression in ‘31, I had a chance to get this job at the Observatory. It only paid $1020 a year. I figured that was a real good fellowship -- don’t fight it, you know. So for all practical purposes I had a full time job here and I was a sort of part time graduate student.
DeVorkin:Did you have any previous experience with science or astronomy before you got that job? Did you have science courses?
Herget:Oh, yes. I had physics and chemistry. I wouldn’t call it science, but I had taken what they called the industrial arts course, which would have been a legitimate precursor to engineering. We had cabinet making and we had sheet metal work and pattern making. One summer in 1925 I got a job in the high school because in those years the public schools organized a half a dozen industrial, arts teachers plus all the students that they could hire and they manufactured equipment for the public schools. We made kindergarten furniture; we made little tables; we made work benches. I remember we had hard maple flooring to put over the top of these work benches, and they had an inch and a half or two-inch pipe for the legs and the struts and so on. And this was both a means of providing students like myself with a work experience, providing the teachers with an income during the summer, and getting the Board of Education equipment at a lower price than if they went out and had to pay the going market price.
DeVorkin:That was a very nice idea.
Herget:Well, today they won’t let you do that anymore. It’s one of those things. You can’t even let a kid work anymore. I remember one time I got a job somewhere -- I forget now what the job was -- but I had to go and get a work permit, and I went down to the City Hall and they didn’t have my birth records I thought, “Gee, I don’t see how that can be.” And so I knew who our family doctor was, and I was 15 years old. I went over and told him -- I said, “Look, you never put my birth certificate in the City Hall when I was born.” And so he said, “Okay, what’s your birthday?” And he wrote it out and I took it back. And years later -- I don’t know how this came up in a family conversation -- I related this story, and my mother said, “Why, he was in Austria when you were born.” He was our family physician, but he hadn’t been the one when I was born. He was studying in Europe then. Anyway nowadays it’s terrible that they don’t let kids get work. But anyway that’s the way it is.
DeVorkin:What about your science experience? Anything that you recall from your college?
Herget:Well, I took physics and chemistry in high school along with all this industrial arts business. In industrial arts you had to make drawings of what you were going to do. You know, this involves a certain amount of mathematics in order to make things come out right. As a matter of fact, as I think back, I’m quite surprised because we made drawings on how to get various different sized sheet metal pipes, for example, to fit together. Suppose, for example, you had an eight-inch cylindrical pipe and you’re going to go with a four-inch one into that at right angles and make a solid connection. We could draw those up and cut them out and make them fit. We also made patterns of gears with teeth. When I look back on it, that really was a good education and not to be sneezed at. I had an interesting experience when I was a junior in the pattern shop. The Board of Education was going to put on a show downtown for the benefit of businessmen on how good the public schools were. Among other things (I only know the one I worked on), we started out making six of these big gear patterns, and we stopped each one of them at a different stage, so only the last one went to the bitter end. And then we put up a big panel. The panel was bigger than this table.  And we had those six on there and we had explanations with it, you know. The Superintendent of the Industrial Arts Department came to me about a week or so before the show was supposed to go on down in the Chamber of Commerce building and said, “How would you would like to get out of school for a day?” Well, obviously anybody with my intelligence would be suspicious of that proposition. He wasn’t a very jovial guy anyway. So I didn’t answer. I wanted to know what was coming off. And he said, “Well, you know that display we were making: how would you like to get out of school and go down there and explain that to the people that come?” So I said, “Okay, that’s all right with me.” I enjoyed that. Not that I was so all that anxious to get out of school for a day, but anyway I agreed to go -- ‘it was something different’. Well, I get down there at nine o’clock in the morning and pretty soon they started bringing school kids through -- six and eight-year-old kids because they’re in the neighboring school, you know. Well, that wasn’t what I had bargained for. They couldn’t understand what we were doing.
DeVorkin:These were the dies and the patterns.
Herget:Yes. So around 11:30 a group of men came in and they started asking me all kinds of questions and bugging me, and I figured, “Boy, I’ll pour it on. I’ll show them how good we are in our industrial arts class.” Well, when it was all over a couple of days later the superintendent came over to me and said, “I understand you did a very good job down there.” I said, “What do you mean?” Well, it turned out these guys were the industrial arts teachers from the other high school. I didn’t know them at all. But I gave them the full business and they went back and told him.
DeVorkin:Your primary interest then seemed to be in the industrial arts area. Is this correct?
Herget:Well, I had had that erector set and I liked to make things. These were men of practical experience. The pattern maker teacher had been the pattern maker foreman of the LeBlond Machine Tool Company. They make lathes. I don’t know what all they make now, but they’re within a mile of this place here. He also was the scoutmaster type, so he was a good fellow to be a teacher for boys. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know the real world -- he had been there, you see. I respected those men and they held us up to high standards. We had a mechanical drawing teacher. You had to do what he told you and pay attention to what he tried to teach you. Some of these kids were sort of rowdy and pretty indifferent, and they’d bring up a drawing and hope that he would pass it so they could go on the next one, and he’d get a hold of the thing and say, “You see, that line you put here was wrong.” And by that time he had the drawing torn in half and they’d have to start over.
DeVorkin:He was a perfectionist.
Herget:Yes. But I don’t know; I just sort of went along. School was obviously a place to learn and try to do good work, so I just tried.
DeVorkin:When did you become aware of the pure sciences?
Herget:Well, I don’t quite know how to answer that, because I’m not sure I know when I became aware of them. I believe that I remember when the word “technocracy” was first introduced into the language. I was in high school then. In those days when I listened to the predictions that were made I couldn’t possibly believe, you know, that that was the way it was going to be, still somehow this intrigued me. I don’t know as I ever had an occasion when you might say I became aware of the pure sciences. Chemistry overwhelmed me. I enjoyed it; I got good grades in it. By overwhelm, I mean I realized what a vast amount of detail there was just in chemistry. But I really wasn’t bent on being a chemist. That was just something you knew for the good of knowing something and it was interesting, but I never got captivated by it.
DeVorkin:How about physics and astronomy?
Herget:Well, you see, I never took astronomy. Well, I should say this: I suppose if you had to find a turning point or a great divide,…
DeVorkin:I want to find out if one is there or not -- that’s all.
Herget:Well, I was at the Observatory for two years, employed here, and still looked upon myself as a graduate student in the math department. This was up to ‘32.
Herget:Yes. Well, at the Observatory I was able to see and become interested in the problem of computing orbits, and I liked that and I worked at it, and eventually I learned it. So then I just decided to do it. Well, by that time I had learned enough astronomy. One of the things I did when I first came here, whenever I had spare time, I would simply thumb the Astronomical Journal and be attracted by some abstract or some lead paragraphs and read them.
DeVorkin:Anything you recall?
Herget:No, not particularly. In fact, I wish I recalled all of them, because there are a lot of things I wish I knew how to find. I’ll give you an example. I remember reading that the Astrographic Catalogue (this was a statement that was made by C.D. Perrine) had cost $10 million in gold.  Now, the work had been done more than 20 years previously to when I read that statement. I would like to find it, but I don’t know where it is. I never have found it. But at any rate I remember reading that. And in particular I was attracted to the articles that were written by Leslie J. Comrie, because he was revamping the British Nautical Almanac Office. He was really the leader in the use of punch— card machines in astronomy. He was earlier than W.J. Eckert.
DeVorkin:He was doing this by 1931.
Herget:Oh, yes. Somewhere I remember Eckert saying that E.W. Brown had been to Europe around 1928, and he saw the use that Comrie was making of punchcards in computing the Lunar Ephemeris and this impressed Brown very much, and therefore he always supported Eckert in the early years when Eckert started to use punchcard machinery. But Comrie did an interesting thing. Again I remember reading it but I’m not sure I could lay my hands on it now. The various terms of the Fourier series Brown had arranged into tables, and the tables are periodic with different periods for the total length of the table. What Comrie did was to make a deck of punchcards which ran through the cycle of the periodic term. There would be a large number of terms, but the periods were all different. However, he was interested in a 12-hour Ephemeris. So what it comes down to is he converted each table into a whole pack of cards, and what the girl did was to take the top card off of each pile and add them up, and that constituted the sum of a certain number of terms in the Fourier Series. Now, some piles are higher than others, because he counted only in units of 12 hours. Some periods are longer, you see. Well, whenever she got a pile down to the bottom so that it was empty, she had to take all the cards that had been put through the tabulator and put them through a sorter so that they could be put back underneath where they belong. And that was the limit of what he did in the beginning. You see, he could sum the Fourier Series that way at a fixed interval, at a 12-hour interval of the arguments, even though the periods were of different length. And Brown saw this, and therefore Brown always supported what Eckert wanted to do. And Comrie was before Eckert’s time in that respect.
DeVorkin:Who brought you to the Observatory here? Who did you work for?
Herget:Well, nobody brought me, I was sent. My math professor, Dr. Hancock.
DeVorkin:Why did he send you?
Herget:Well, there’s a curious history connected with that. When Hancock first came to the University between 1900 and 1905 -- I forget exactly -- Dr. Porter at the Observatory wanted a girl as a computer, so he asked the mathematics professor.
DeVorkin:This is J. G. Porter.
Herget:Yes. Incidentally, there are two J. C. Porters. The living Porter is also J. G. But his name is not Jermaine Guildersleeve. So Dr. Hancock picked out a girl who had just graduated in math and who would be willing to take the job, and she was sent out here to do computing work. Well, one of the young astronomers married her. So Porter had to go back and ask Hancock for another girl. And so he got a second one -- this was now a year or two later -- and it turned out she also married one of the young astronomers here. So Porter decided that wasn’t a very good idea, and he never went back to ask for any more. That was around 1910. Dr. Porter retired in 1930. Dr. E. I. Yowell was the one who had married the second girl. So he again goes back and asks Hancock for somebody, not necessarily a girl, and so Hancock sent me. So that’s how I got the job, such as it was.
DeVorkin:What were your responsibilities?
Herget:Well, they were engaged in a meridian circle observing program, and if you have a meridian circle, you start by deriving what engineers would call the calibration coefficient; the astronomers call it the instrumental reduction. And what it means is that in addition to getting the instrument into the best possible adjustment that you can, you still apply formulas such that you can by an algebraic law force the instrument to be an ideal instrument, by determining how much was it really out of level, no matter how much you tried to level it -- how much was it really out of level, how much was it really out of collimation, and how much was it really out of azimuth, and then you apply these corrections to reduce the actual instrument to an ideal instrument.
DeVorkin:Were these reversible transits or full meridian circles?
Herget:That was a full meridian circle. It had been obtained by the Observatory by Dr. Porter in 1888. So I was the one who was supposed to make all the computations for the meridian circle observations.
DeVorkin:And not the observations themselves.
Herget:Not the observations themselves, at least not in the beginning. But then in addition to that there were other computations that go with the observations. For example, the instrument is sitting on the actual earth which has the actual axis of rotation, and so you have to make the computations from what’s called the apparent place to the beginning of the year and eventually back in those days to 1925, which was the equinox of the Catalogue. And these apparent place reductions were part of the work, and you had to compute refraction depending on what the barometer and the temperature was and all those kinds of things. And that was supposed to be my job. And Dr. Smith was the observer on the meridian instrument, Elliot S. Smith.
DeVorkin:Was this actually a time service or were you doing astro-graphic work?
Herget:No, we were doing neither. It was a differential meridian circle observing upon a program of stars which had been selected because they were suspected to have proper motions. And so they were getting a catalogue at the epoch around 1930 which would be used in combination both with a previous catalogue that had an epoch around 1910 or ‘15 and with whatever older positions they could find, and then they would try to get the proper motion. As I say, this was a program that was started by Porter clear back in the 1880s. Their objective was to get the accurate proper motion for a certain number of stars that were suspected of having an appreciable proper motion so that you would get something for the work you did. If you observe a star that’s so far away it has no proper motion, why you “could have stood in bed”. But they thought they had a program of several thousand stars that had proper motion.
DeVorkin:This is a very interesting question because I know from the history of astronomy there has always been a difficulty comparing photographic long-focus values of position to meridian circle values of position. There have always been errors associated with the two. Is this why the meridian circle project was maintained for such a long time?
Herget:No, I think it was maintained because of Porter’s obsession with proper motions. Now, this is not without perfectly good justification, because at that time in astronomy proper motions were on the frontier of astronomy, because they were the basis of understanding galactic structure and stellar motions and star clusters and so on. So it was a legitimate enterprise. There are several things that can be said pro and con. One of them is that the observing staff was so small as compared to six or eight men that they did not do fundamental work. If they had had a larger observing staff so that they could have taken azimuths every day and that kind of business, they could have observed fundamentally, and they could have made a much larger contribution from the same instrument. On the other hand, he was satisfied just to get the proper motions. As far as he was concerned, that was the whole story and the rest was someone else’s affair. And we reduced every night’s observations on the basis of what were called the Clock stars, and they were already given in the BERLINER JAHRBTJCH, -- in the system of the NFK or “NEUE FUNDAMENTAL CATALOGUE.” He was willing to work differentially on the basis of the NFK. The apparent places were published in the BERLINER JAHRBUCH so that each night we determined the equator point from the Clock stars, and that determined what the declination of the program stars was, you see. However, there were disadvantages to this. One can always criticize the program, and it could have been better. But he was satisfied that he was getting out the proper motions of his program stars, which was really all he wanted.
DeVorkin:Was the accuracy greater in right ascension than in declination?
Herget:I don’t think so. There wasn’t much difference. They were careful to use a screen. There were two screens. One was twice as thick as the other, and they used the thin one alone or they used the thick one alone or they used the two of them. So the brighter stars got what amounted to a triple coverage, and the next brightest double coverage and on to the single coverage. The program stars were usually down around a 9th and 10th magnitude.
DeVorkin:These were the ones that Porter had selected in the 1880s?
Herget:Well, I’m not sure he selected all of them in the 1880s, but the principal criterion for getting on the program was that there was a high probability that they actually had an appreciable, observable proper motion.
DeVorkin:What was this based on?
Herget:Well, parallaxes for one thing. If you could discover proper motions, then if there was any reason to suspect a proper motion from older observations, you would put it on the program because you’d get a more accurate proper motion if you observed it again.
DeVorkin:Were there any lectures given on basic astrometric techniques with meridian circles, fundamental astrometry, when you came here?
Herget:No. I just read the book. W.W. Campbell had a book and I forget what the other one was. Well, Newcomb’s Compendium.  That was the main one.
DeVorkin:This is Campbell’s Practical Astronomy from 1889.
DeVorkin:Did you read any books on astrophysics?
Herget:No, because I didn’t know enough physics to keep up with that. Actually, I took a graduate course in quantum mechanics, and that taught me that I’d better stay away from that. I really wasn’t prepared or motivated for that, and furthermore it struck me that they were pretty far out. So I never took an interest in that. I guess also I had a kind of conscientious feeling that I’d better do what I’m able to do and not fritter my time away on things that I had no assurance that I’d get anywhere.
DeVorkin:What about classical mechanics in physics, gravitation theory?
Herget:Well, it was possible to read. As I say, the papers by Comrie impressed me because, you see, the 1931 edition of the BRITISH NAUTICAL ALMANAC is the first one that Comrie brought out under his revision program, and it was already out when I got here, and it has a rather extensive explanation at the back. And then there were a few orbit books, particularly the one by Crawford. And I was only here about a year or two when K. P. Williams came over from Indiana and wanted us to look over the first chapter of his book because he was strictly a mathematician and he wanted to be sure he didn’t have any flubs in his first chapter on practical astronomy or interpolation of solar coordinates or something like that. Stracke had a rather elaborate book out by that time and I got a copy of that.
DeVorkin:He was in Germany.
Herget:Yes, Gustave Stracke.
DeVorkin:So these were the books and sources that you had read while you were an assistant here for the two years?
DeVorkin:And you got a master’s degree in 1933.
DeVorkin:And what was that in?
Herget:Let’s see. I’ll have to think about that. I can’t remember.
DeVorkin:Was there a graduate program in astronomy at all?
Herget:Well, yes and no. The graduate school wasn’t all that big. The total enrollment in the graduate school of the University of Cincinnati in those years was 350 in all departments. I was recognized as a graduate student in the math department. I really can’t remember what I did for a master’s degree. But it was passable; that was the most you could say for it.
DeVorkin:In this early period of your published record you began by publishing tables of sines and co-sines. 
DeVorkin:And then the Theory of Orbits. 
DeVorkin:Was this done before your Ph.D. in 1935?
Herget:Well, the first paper was done very early. I guess I should mention that when I was an undergraduate student and we came to the part of calculus where you have Taylor Series Expansions, I was intrigued by the idea that you could compute pi with one of these arctangent series. I remember that I saw immediately the possibility of using the one that’s called Machin Series. It involves only the arctangent of one-fifth, which is 2 to the nth over powers of 10, which is nothing but the decimal point, and the arctangent of one over 239, which is going to give you very rapid convergence, you see. You get more than four decimal places every next term, because it’s the square of that number that determines the power series. So I actually took a sheet of wrapping paper. I guess it was about two feet square. And I computed the value of pi with a lead pencil and nothing else to 32 decimal places using that series, and I kept a record of it -- I kept a copy of it -- and years later I was able to establish that the first 28 places were correct.
DeVorkin:What happened to the 29th?
Herget:I don’t know. I never looked. By that time I didn’t care anymore. And I also remember reading a paper in the MATHEMATICAL SOCIETY BULLETIN while I was still an undergraduate, in which some guy had concocted what he thought was a very bright idea and of course it was new to me, and so I pursued it. He essentially expanded the formulas for sin(A + h) and cos(A + h), where A is any angle and h is a small interval. He used h=0.001 radians. Thus if C = cos h, S = sin h, you have sin(A + h) = C sin A + S cos A and cos(A + h) = C cos A — S sin A. He was going to construct a table of sines and cosines by ping-ponging back and forth between the sine and the cosine at this interval and generate the whole table. Well, the idea just intrigued me. I fiddled around with it enough to understand it and then I let it go. But just the same I’m sure that a lot of math majors wouldn’t even have bothered to read it. I took it up and showed it to my professor -- not Hancock but a different guy who was more pure, Charles Napoleon Moore -- and he says, “Oh, yeah, that’s practical.” That was a sufficient disgrace that you didn’t bother to read it.
DeVorkin:But that didn’t bother you.
Herget:No, that didn’t bother me. I figured: “Well, if that’s the kind of a guy he is, okay.” But it did appeal to me, you see. So then after I came to the Observatory Dr. Yowell was good enough to buy a desk calculator, which they hadn’t had when I got here. At the time, Comrie was bewailing the fact that PETER’S TABLES were only a table of sines and tangents, but they were in decimals of a degree. And the reason for this was that they were subsidized by some optical firm, and there were no 8 place tables. He anticipated that it would be impossible to afford to publish it, because there’d be small demand, you see, even though he would have liked them and a few others would have liked them. There weren’t enough, considering the type setting and everything. There just wasn’t going to be any 8 decimal place sines and cosines.
DeVorkin:They didn’t foresee a need for this degree of accuracy?
Herget:It’s not that. There was a very limited number of people who were interested in having that degree of accuracy. And so the market wouldn’t support the cost of publication is what I’m trying to say. However between reading some orbit papers and I forget what else gave me the idea when I caught onto the idea (I understood higher order interpolation by that time), of the properties of the circular functions, the fact that the second difference is a constant times the function itself, which most people don’t ever learn in school, then I saw that you could get an entire 8 decimal place sine and cosine table on two sheets of paper. I guess that was either my first or second year here. And I had not been without some previous computing experience, you know, as an undergraduate. I’ll tell you an interesting story if you don’t mind taking the time for this.
DeVorkin:By all means.
When I was a sophomore in a course in educational psychology, which was a prerequisite to taking your regular education courses, we had a young professor who had just come from Chicago, and he fancied himself as a great experimental psychologist. I must say that I really appreciated this course but only in retrospect, not when I was taking it. Naturally since this was a prerequisite to the teachers college courses, the whole class was full of girls. There were probably not more than two or four boys in the whole class, and I was one of them. Well, one day he came to the subject of mental fatigue, and he was going to prove to us that there is no such thing as mental fatigue; “you’re just using that as a crutch and don’t give me that kind of stuff.” So he starts to tell about a Chinese girl who was a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia and for her doctoral thesis, to test mental fatigue, she undertook to practice the multiplication of four digit numbers in her head, and if you do this, you reach a learning plateau after a certain amount of effort. And after she reached her learning plateau, she then arranged a session to begin early in the day in which they provided her with a supply of soda crackers and peanut butter and milk and problems, one at a time, of four by four digit numbers to be multiplied together in her head, and they would keep a record of the time and the accuracy and she would do this for 12 hours.
Well, just about that time the bell rang, so everybody gets up to go to the next class. Well, that night when I put my head on my pillow I thought of this dumb, idea and I picked out two numbers in the darkness of my bedroom and multiplied them together in my head until I had what I thought was the answer, and I knew that there was a pencil and paper on my table, so I scribbled down the answer in the dark and turned on the light and worked it out and sure enough it was right. So I looked at the clock and turned out the light and I did the same thing over again -- picked out two other numbers. I worked them out with just a mental picture and I had the sequence of what the answer was, and I wrote it down in the dark, and I turned the light on and looked at the clock, and it was 7½ minutes. So the next morning he opens at the same place in his notes where he left off and we’re going on with this lecture on mental fatigue. I innocently put my little hand up and got his attention. I said, “When she reached her learning plateau, what was the rate at which she was able to do these problems in her head?” And he thumbed in his notes and said, “Seven and a half minutes.” I said, “Why, I did that the first time.” And all the girls began to titter. They wouldn’t think of challenging the professor, but here was some kook who was going to give them a good time today. So they all begin to titter. And he looks at me sort of funny and he says, “What do you mean?” So I told him what I had done. He closed his notes and that was the end of the importance of mental fatigue. We went on to the next subject and we never heard anything more about it.
DeVorkin:That’s a very interesting ability, to be able to do that.
Herget:Well, I couldn’t do it now, but I could then. Partly I was motivated and partly I realized that if I really wanted to do this as a perfected stunt, I would learn to multiply from left to right instead of from right to left. But I just kept the mental picture of what was supposed to be going on, you know, and the fact that it came out right is just sort of lucky I think. But at any rate I had my fun out of that 7½ minutes.
DeVorkin:About your graduate years at the University of Cincinnati, who was at the Observatory in addition to Yowell that you would have studied with?
Herget:Smith. He observed on the meridian circle. When I came here one of the first things he did was to measure the division errors on the Meridian Circle. Now, this is a tedious job, and it’s a somewhat difficult thing to explain conceptually, but the Meridian Circle is mounted with four microscopes, the idea being that if you read all four of them and there is an eccentricity to the mounting of the circle, the average of them will take it out. Well, if you want to know what the division errors are, that’s a complicated thing to explain, but anyway you have to read and read and read in all different possible positions. Since I was there to be his recorder, we would spend whole afternoons in about four—hour sessions. He would do the reading and I would do the recording. When we got all the readings that he needed -- I can’t remember how many sessions there were, but there were quite a number of them; if we had four-hour sessions, I’m sure we had on the order of magnitude of eight or ten of them in order to get all these readings in all different combinations -- then he concluded from his analysis of these readings that the division errors followed the pattern of the sine curve; so that when you had four microscopes, they were self-correcting. They were automatically eliminated.
DeVorkin:Each in a different quadrant.
Herget:Well, no matter where on the sine curve you picked out four readings separated by a quadrant, they will cancel out. So he was satisfied, even though I don’t remember what the amplitude of the errors were of the sine curve, but he was satisfied it was a sine curve. So that was all you needed to know. And that was one of the things we did as soon as I was here to be his recorder, you see, because you could hardly do that yourself, read and record at the same time, you know. That would have been a preposterous business. I think he took every five minutes of arc around the circle, and you would get four readings on each setting.
DeVorkin:And he’d take differences from that?
Herget:Well, there’s a whole scheme set-up. I guess it amounts to a type of harmonic analysis, to take these readings in all different positions.
DeVorkin:This work that you did then with Smith was between ‘31 and ‘32, or did you continue to work through ‘35, your graduate years?
Herget:Well, I worked for him until 1940, strictly speaking, but two things happened. One of them was that because of the deteriorating quality of the atmospheric site, his observing diminished and I got more proficient. I could do an equal amount of work more readily, so I had more and more time left to myself; and that’s the part I used on computing orbits.
DeVorkin:Was this all self-taught?
DeVorkin:There was no one else here who was doing orbits.
Herget:That’s right. When I wrote my thesis there was nobody else to criticize it.
DeVorkin:This was a significant change or seems to be a significant difference in your experiences at the time, and I would be interested to know how you became interested in the computation of orbits.
Herget:Well, I guess just because I saw it.
DeVorkin:In the literature.
Herget:Yes, and in books.
DeVorkin:Could it have had anything to do with the final discovery of Pluto in 1930?
Herget:No, because I didn’t know enough to comprehend the problem when they discovered Pluto. It was only years later that I really realized that the trouble with Pluto was that it was the same relatively as if you had observed a minor planet for only three or four days.
DeVorkin:Yes, of course. The motion is so small.
Herget:Yes, the amount of arc that was traversed was trivial. That’s why so many people batted the wind with their efforts in those days, but I still wasn’t prepared to engage in that. I want to tell you another thing that was an impression I had: the HARVARD ANNOUNCENENT CARDS came in. They would carry comet orbits, you see, and I would see them, and I would see who computed them, and it was F. Whipple and L.E. Cunningham at Harvard and A.D. Maxwell at Michigan. Sometimes you’d get something from the Students’ Observatory at Berkeley, and I could read the LICK OBSERVATORY BULLETINS from former years when the department at Berkeley had a better group of students and a prouder record.
DeVorkin:And these interested you directly -- the computation of orbits.
Herget:Yes. Well, I just looked up how you do something like that, what do you have to do to get one done, and I tried it and eventually I got onto it.
DeVorkin:Had you observed any comets or minor planets there?
Herget:We never observed any minor planets here. Yowell set up one time to try and observe a comet with the 16-inch,  but I forget which comet it was now, but I could see right away that we were much better off using observations from good observatories and good o1servers and not trying to do our own, because we weren’t set up very well for it. It wasn’t an efficient process, and even though we had the 10-inch telescope here, we didn’t have any photographic capability because you would have needed to use this instrument for the guide telescope. And I decided it was better to take the observations off the HARVARD ANNOUNCEMENT CARDS and let it go at that.
DeVorkin:These usually gave just a very few observations, usually no more than three or four observations.
Herget:Well, they gave them as fast as they came out and could get transmitted, and sometimes you would have the discovery observations before you had enough of them to compute an orbit. Sometimes the orbit was easy, and sometimes it wasn’t so easy.
DeVorkin:Well, you needed at least three.
Herget:You needed at least three, yes.
DeVorkin:It was an interesting feeling to be able to compete with everyone else, to analyze an orbit and be the first to come out?
Herget:Well, yes, I realized that it was a game with them, and they were anxious to see who could come out first. But in the beginning I knew that I couldn’t really be more than just an onlooker or a hanger-on. I’d never be right in the game with them. But anyway after I learned, I was as confident as I needed to be.
DeVorkin:By “they”, do you refer to Whipple and Cunningham and Maxwell?
Herget:Yes. And I got to know Maxwell because we had the Ohio Neighbors Group around here, and he used to come to that.
DeVorkin:Did you get to know them before 1935 while you were still a graduate student?
Herget:Not really, no, because those Neighbors meetings started about ‘35.
DeVorkin:How did you come to go to Lick as a Morrison Fellow?
Herget:Well, that’s a curious story. There were two young fellows in the math department in 1933 and ‘34 who had been National Research Council Fellows. I’m not sure how much money was involved in this, but presumably you got enough money to live for a year. And so after I was approaching the place where I would have gotten my Ph.D., I talked to both of these fellows who had been my teachers, and I put in for a National Research Council Fellowship. Well, when you get the papers and when you do that, you have to put down two places where you intend to study, in order of preference, and what you will do if you go there. And I guess whoever read that realized how naive I was because I didn’t have too much experience and nobody coached me on how to fill this thing in. But at least I was smart enough to put down that my first choice was to go to Yale so I could study under Brown and the second choice was to go to Berkeley because you had to put a second choice down. So out of simple courtesy and also so as not to be caught short, I wrote to each of these places and told them what I had done. Well, F. Schlesinger wrote back and said that Brown was already retired but that he would be around if I came and he was willing to have consultations and conferences informally. When I wrote to Berkeley, I had to write to A.D. Leuschner and I had never met him -- I’d only read his name in publications -- and this was in March. Well, in April 1935 I get a formal notice from the dean of the graduate school of the University of California at Berkeley that I had been appointed the 1st alternate on two fellowships -- the Morrison Fellowship and the Kellogg Fellowship. Well, I figured, “This is just a political trick -- that Leuschner is trying to shore up my weak position with a little accolade that’s meaningless”, and so I quickly set a memorandum after my papers to the National Research Council Fellowship Committee pointing out that I had received the appointment of 1st alternate on these two fellowships. I thought that might help matters a little bit. I thought that was what the intent was in the first place.
DeVorkin:You hadn’t known about these fellowships at that point?
Herget:I knew about them but I had no intention of applying for them. I had no expectation of getting them. So I figured after I had written to him that this was just a way to shore up my weak position. Well, that was in April and in May I get another communication from the dean of the graduate school, which says, “You were previously appointed as a 1st alternate to the Morrison Fellowship, and a vacancy now exists in the Fellowship, and so you succeed to it, and will you please sign the enclosed card and return it?” That’s all I ever did to get the Morrison Fellowship, and it was $1000. The other one was only $600, but I was lucky I got the one for $1000. So what happened was that the fellow they gave it to had the good fortune to get a real job, so he took it and left the fellowship open.
DeVorkin:Were you looking for any other jobs at that point?
Herget:No. What could you hope to get? I at least was eating; I wasn’t going hungry.
DeVorkin:How were you actually supported during your graduate student years? You worked.
Herget:Well, I got a salary of $1020. There’s an interesting thing. You talk about impressions in youth. I never will forget the story that I heard when I was very young. Some famous newspaper editor was mentioned as being the leading character in this story, and a young reporter came in and said that he just had to have a raise. His salary was $10 a week, and he couldn’t live on $10 a week, and he had to have a raise. So the editor said, “You mean your salary is $10 a week and you can’t live on it?” He said, “Yes”. He said, “You’re fired. Get out.” And I never forgot that, because there’s an important basic truth there. If you can’t confine yourself to the realities of life, you just are never going to make it. I never forgot that. So I lived within my means. My parents had done that, and I could do likewise.
DeVorkin:Were you living at home?
Herget:Yes, I was living at home. I did have a Model-A Ford. I had to have that to get back and forth to the University, because I would take a two—hour lunch period, and I always took one graduate course every day. Monday, Wednesday and Friday would be one course and Tuesday and Thursday would be another one. So I could take two math courses all the time, see. For example, they had real variables the first semester and complex variables the second semester. And I took advanced calculus and the theory of equations and things like that as they came. And they came at the 11:30 hour. I was just lucky in that respect. And so I would take a two-hour lunch period every day. But then, you see, I sort of worked off my compensatory time by showing visitors at night time. So everybody was happy, the best you could. The Observatory wasn’t complaining. So that’s the way it went.
DeVorkin:Your degree was in math and astronomy.
Herget:Well, that’s sort of a nebuluous affair. At the examination the mathematics professors and the staff of the Observatory were there to examine. That’s about the most you could say. The mathematics department was willing to abide by whatever the astronomy department would accept. So I snuck through between the two camps you might say.
DeVorkin:It seems like the thesis you wrote was the beginning of a tremendous amount of work.
Herget:Well, I must admit that I was at the time very determined that I should never have to be ashamed of what I did, and I never have been.
DeVorkin:When you went to Lick, you lived on the mountain?
Herget:Yes. There’s some more to this story actually. When he said, “Just send in the card and you’ll get the fellowship”, it turned out that the fellowship was really controlled by Professor R.G. Aitken, who was the director of the Lick Observatory, and not by Leuschner. And so I wrote and explained that my principal purpose in coming to California would be to study orbits down in Berkeley, particularly general perturbations which I had had only a very small cursory exposure to up to that point. However, I also wanted to go to the mountain. Well, during the time of this correspondence, Professor Aitken was perfectly amiable about anything I wanted to do because just about the time I arrived in Berkeley was the time when he retired as director of the Lick Observatory and moved down to Berkeley himself. So I went to Berkeley for the first semester, but by this time W.H. Wright was the director of the Observatory, and he got all of this dropped on his table with no effort on his part. He wasn’t a party to any of these arrangements, you see. Well, at the end of the first semester I had anticipated that I would spend the second semester up on the mountain, but then I was advised that there was practically no observing during March and April and it was futile to go up there, and so I stayed in Berkeley. But at the end of the first semester I wrote a report on my fellowship work and sent it to Wright as the director of Lick Observatory. Well, he wrote back a very nice acknowledgement in which he said this appeared to be an enormous amount of work and I undoubtedly was applying myself and all that. I thought that was fine. But then I did go up to the mountain during May and June. The other thing that had happened: during all these four years from ‘31 to ‘35 and because I had such a measly income, I had postponed getting married, but I couldn’t possibly envision myself going to California alone and then coming back and getting married, so I got married before I went to California.
DeVorkin:You were married in 1935.
Herget:Right. So fortunately we were able to live in Berkeley on $1000. We paid $27 for a little apartment, and if you bought a nickel’s worth of vegetables, that was plenty. A dime’s worth was too much for two people. We didn’t get very much meat because that was expensive in California, but we survived.
DeVorkin:I’d like to talk to you about how you met your wife in a second but I’d like to get back to one point. Your first choice was Yale, the NRC program. What became of that?
DeVorkin:You would have taken that if it had come through.
Herget:Yes. But I never did get the NRC business.
DeVorkin:Did the NRC people stop considering you when you mentioned to them that you had the Morrison Fellowship?
Herget:I never bothered to write to them. Well, I don’t know what they did. I never got a show out of that. In fact, I have no idea who got the award either. I had no way to learn in those days. And since I didn’t need it, I really didn’t care that much.
DeVorkin:Had you talked to Schlesinger before that? Did you know him?
Herget:No. I only knew Brown by reputation. And I really didn’t know anybody except the ones that I read about in the books.
DeVorkin:Okay. Well, let’s move back then to your marriage. How did you meet your wife?
Herget:Well, her father was Dr. Smith and she lived in a house back of the Observatory, and she had been in my same high school class. Of course she lived there and went to Withrow and I lived in Oakley and went to Withrow. I didn’t actually know her then, except, you know, I knew who she was as another girl in the class. But then after I came to the Observatory we got to going together, and we postponed our marriage for almost four years. But then I couldn’t see myself postponing it and going out to California alone.
DeVorkin:Did you know that you were coming back after the Morrison was over?
Herget:Well, I intended to. I didn’t know too much, but I intended to. Well, it was agreed that I wouldn’t lose my position. In other words, I was on leave of absence.
Yes. And so I really didn’t have to worry about that part too much. So we lived in Berkeley through nearly a year, and then we spent two months at Mount Hamilton. But then her brother was graduating from West Point at the end of June in 1936, and she had been all alone in California for a whole year, and I knew she didn’t want to miss her brother’s graduation. Two things happened. One of them was that there was a vacancy for an assistant director or just a lecturer at the Griffith Planetarium -- I don’t remember -- and D. Alter was the director of the Planetarium, and he had come up to Berkeley once during the time that I was there and talked about the Planetarium. And I guess the reason for his visit was that he was scouting the country for whom he would choose for this vacancy, and so I put in that I wanted to have a chance to buck for the vacancy at the Griffith Planetarium. And while I was living on Mount Hamilton, one Saturday morning I got a hurried message that there was a telegram for me at the telephone operator’s desk, so I went out there and I didn’t know what it was. As a matter of fact, I thought it was that my cousin had died because I had a cousin here who had tuberculosis.
Well, it turned out it was a telegram from Alter in which he said he would allow me $40 expenses for a week to come to give what the Protestants call a “trial sermon”. And it was still a little bit before noon, and I read this; so I rushed in to W.H. Wright’s office and I asked him if I had permission to go down there for a week. Well, the first thing he said was: “You don’t want to go down there.” I said, “Well, sir, I’m sorry, but I have to earn a living and I have to try every possibility I can get, and I have to go and try for this one the best I can; and although I appreciate what you meant by what you said, but may I go?” “Well,” he said, “the rules of the University are that if you are on a fellowship and you wish to be away for more than a week, you have to have written permission of the board of directors.” By this time it was 12 o’clock on Saturday noon. And I said, “Very well, I will promise you very faithfully that I will leave tomorrow night at 7 o’clock, that I will guarantee to be back before 7 o’clock on the following Sunday.” And so he sort of smiled, and that was the end of that. Also it already had been agreed, entirely unrelated to this, that I would show the visitors the telescope that Saturday night.
DeVorkin:This was at Lick.
Herget:Lick. But there was an entire busload of school children, and this was a big bus, a full-sized bus.
DeVorkin:Did it get up that mountain?
Herget:They got up the mountain, and they were from Santa Rosa, I believe, which is north of the Golden Gate somewhere, and I was assigned to that bus- load of school children for that night. So I went and got lunch, and about 2 o’clock I got a message that Dr. J.H. Moore wanted to talk to me. The school bus was supposed to come at 4 o’clock, and they would be there till after dark. So I and J.H. Moore sat on the steps of the Lick Observatory for an hour and a half while he tried to persuade me not to take a job at the Planetarium.
DeVorkin:What were his main arguments, and also W. H. Wright’s arguments?
Herget:Wright didn’t argue, but Moore did. I don’t know what passed between the two of them between 12 o’clock and two. But Moore simply said, “You don’t want to go to one of those planetariums and decay there. If you want to be an astronomer, you don’t do that.” After all, they figured that anyone who got the Morrison Fellowship was too good to go to a planetarium. And I said, “Well, look, you can’t believe how much I appreciate your taking such an interest in me. But, I’ve got to go just to find out what the pickin’s are.” So I went and I didn’t get the job, but I let it be known in Cincinnati that I had gone there and applied for this job, and Dr. Yowell took the information over to the University, and I got my salary raised to $1650. So then I came back to Cincinnati.
DeVorkin:What do you think you would have done if you would have gotten the job?
Herget:Well, I would have taken it. It was for a lot more money. I don’t remember how much, but it was more. After all, Ernest Clair was there. You don’t know him very well?
DeVorkin:I’m trying to recall the name, but I don’t.
Herget:Well, he was a curious character. He worked for a while at the Naval Observatory around 1925. He was the one who proposed the scheme which has been in use since 1925 that the first minor planet discovered in any given year is AA, the next one is AB and the next one is AC, and in the middle of the month you change it to BA, BB and so on.
DeVorkin:In order of discovery?
DeVorkin:He was working at Griffith Observatory?
Herget:He was then, yes. He had been a graduate student at Berkeley at the time that Pluto was discovered, and if you look in the LICK OBSERVATORY BULLETIN, you will find that Bower and Whipple tried to compute the orbit of Pluto. And furthermore Bower had the same perspicacity about computation that Comrie had. He was exceedingly competent, but he was a very curious character. I won’t say he was like T.J.J. See, but at least his off-base direction was as far off as T.J.J. See’s. The people at the Naval Observatory told many curious stories about things he did.
DeVorkin:And so Bower was at Griffith, and did you see some possibility of research while at the Observatory?
Herget:You mean at the Planetarium?
DeVorkin:Yes, at the Planetarium. I call it the Observatory because I worked there myself about four years, and they were calling it the Observatory at that time.
Herget:Yes, well, there’s another thing about it. You have to realize that even after I had a Ph.D. degree, the Depression being what it was, it was not possible to look forward with any degree of confidence to anything that you were going to do.
DeVorkin:That was even though you had the position back here at Cincinnati? You weren’t sure that it would remain open for you?
Herget:No, I don’t mean that. It would remain open for me. But there never was the possibility in those years, at least the way I looked at it, to plan what kind of career you were going to have. You were just damn lucky to have a job that provided an income. As a matter of fact, when we came back to Cincinnati, we purchased a small house for $6500. I went to get a mortgage with the people in the Building Association that were known to my father. I asked them “What’s the interest rate?” They said, “Six per cent”, and I said, “Well, now, that’s all very fine, but in this case I work for the University, and I will get my pay every month and you will get your pay, and therefore I think the interest ought to be five and a half per cent, because this is not the same risk that you have in other loans.” And so they agreed to that. So right away before we changed the subject, I said, “Now, how much do I have to get paid off so that my interest will go down to five per cent because I have diminished your risk?” Well, they didn’t answer that question, but when the war came it didn’t make any difference anymore. But it was enough just to have a job at all. So I can’t say that I was a bit worried. I would have been glad to take the money, and my uncle lived in Monrovia, and it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, you know.
DeVorkin:To be in Los Angeles.
Herget:Yes. And it wouldn’t have necessarily been forever either. But it really was sort of preposterous to try and plan too far ahead the way things were in the Depression, and I never gave it a thought. But the upshot of this was that when my brother-in-law was going to graduate at West Point, I went and told Wright that I wanted to attend the ceremonies for my wife’s benefit because it was once in a lifetime for her -- he was her only brother. I had enough work to be done that I could complete the term of my fellowship and I would do the work here at Cincinnati. He agreed to this. So I was quite appreciative, and it came to the last day, and I went in again on a Saturday morning to have a formal courtesy goodbye, you know. So he said, “Sit down a minute”. He was doing something, and he finished it in a few minutes. And the things he told me so overwhelmed me that I forgot almost every one of them, but the one thing he said that I remember was: “If you ever make up your mind to do something, go ahead and do it no matter what anyone else thinks.” I had a feeling that he was glad that I was willing to buck the Berkeley Department while I was down there, because I didn’t kow-tow the way everybody else did down there. But at any rate, it gave me a degree of confidence from nearly a stranger, you know, and, as far as he was concerned, I hadn’t done anything all that great. I didn’t do any observing to speak of. Well, there was a comet discovered, so I decided since I was at the Lick Observatory, I would take a couple of plates and I could compute the orbit without too much trouble.
DeVorkin:What instrument did you use to take the plates?
Herget:Well, after all, the comet didn’t need too long an exposure, and N.U. Mayall had the 36-inch Crossley for the night, and so I agreed to meet him shortly before dawn, and I went down there and I had my plates. When I came in the room was dark, and I wasn’t too familiar with the whole set-up because I hadn’t used it that much, and he was up on the observing platform. So he said, “Come on up here,” and I climbed up. And he said, “You’ve got your plate?” I gave it to him and he put it in, and he said, “What’s the setting?” and I told him. So he wiggled the instrument around. And he said, “How long an exposure are you going to give it?” I told him. I forget what it was: three minutes or something like that; it wasn’t too long. And so he says, “Okay”. He says, “I might as well expose it for you.” So when he closed the shutter on the plate again, he says, “That was observing de luxe.” I hadn’t done a darn thing, you know -- he did all the work. But I took the plate back, and in those days they had Chappell for a photographer, and he developed the plate for me. So I measured it and got off the position, and we had some other ones from the discovery, and that must have been Thursday night. I got the plate all measured up and everything, and I had everything written up by Saturday afternoon like they put on HARVARD ANNOUNCEMENT CARDS. So Saturday evening when they had the visitors I had this all ready to go into the mail, and it said “Dr. W. H. Wright, director of the Lick Observatory, transmits the information so-and-so,” you know, in the form that was always used. So I showed it to him and I said, “I’ve gotten all this ready, and I’m pretty sure that it’s in good shape and all that. Will you please send it off?” He started to read it, and he said, “No, you scratch my name off there. I didn’t do anything.” I said, “But that’s always the way they write them up.” He said, “I don’t care. Scratch my name off and put yours there and then you send it in.” To me he was a great guy, and he gave me a lot of self-confidence. I always appreciated that.
DeVorkin:Who else did you work with on the mountain and at Berkeley?
Herget:Well, at Berkeley, the first semester I was there Leuschner was away, so that Crawford was about the only one that was there, and again I attended C.D. Shane’s lectures on Astrophysics I, but I was not what you would call an apt student. I was simply getting exposure. Do you know astrophysics?
Herget:Well, then I’ll tell you a good joke that everybody can’t appreciate. There is this temperature quantity which is always divided by 5,040.
DeVorkin:The Saha Equation.
Herget:Yes. And Shane was going along in great style, so toward the end of one of his lectures when I knew it wouldn’t impose any distraction, I said, “Is there any reason why that number is factorial seven?” I knew there wasn’t, but anyway I decided I would throw this bomb into his class. And he first looked at me and he looked at the blackboard and he went and he divided it out and determined to his satisfaction that it was factorial seven, and he said, “No.” Well, I knew there wasn’t any physical reason, but anyway that was a good joke I thought. But I knew factorial seven by heart, because in various things I had done trying experiments for computer planning and organization -- this comes in as a term in the sine series, you see. You get factorial three, five and seven, and you don’t need to go much farther than that. So I happened to know that number, see. But at first glance Shane didn’t. He went and figured it out.
DeVorkin:Did you have any contact with Jerzy Neymann or Elizabeth Scott or F.J. Trumpler?
Herget:No. I attended Trumpler’s lectures also and they were illuminating to me because I had never had any previous exposure to statistical astronomy, and I realized that while I was not going to bear down on this whole subject, that certainly he was a man who had a command of it, and if you wanted to get broken in well, why that was the way to do it. So I attended Trumpler’s lectures, although I never pursued the matter in any great detail. But at least it made realize what people are talking about when they discussed those kinds of problems.
DeVorkin:What was your impression of Trumpler?
Herget:Well, in what way?
DeVorkin:Did you ever have any talks with him and find him to be a certain type of a personality?
Herget:Well, I learned the type of personality he was from all the stories that were told.
DeVorkin:I would like to know some of these stories. I’m interested in Trumpler myself.
Herget:Well, I don’t remember them very well. He had very curious pronunciations, and when I got up to Mt. Hamilton, Chappell told me that there had been a French astronomer there and he commented on Trumpler’s very curious accent in French. Of course, we were able to appreciate Trumpler’s very curious accent in English. You would “distribute the function,” and that kind of thing. There were a number of “Trumplerisms” where he got a little bit mixed up in the correct use of the King’s English. But I could see that he understood statistical astronomy, and there was no point in making fun of his foreign language. Whether he could speak German correctly or not, I don’t know, because I never tried to speak German with him. I figured a Swiss could speak German and French probably. I didn’t know that he couldn’t speak French, because I couldn’t speak that well myself. But I never did speak German with him, so I can’t tell for sure about that.
DeVorkin:Did you find him an outspoken person? Would you have had the chance to find out that sort of a thing about him?
Herget:No, because I didn’t really pursue matters that closely. I forget what it was I went and talked with him about one time, and he was very amiable. Actually, I thought he was a very good teacher if you were a graduate student and you wanted to learn that subject. I never knew him to become impatient in the class. In fact, as I recall, he was rather meticulous in going back over things if people asked questions about it or something. And he obviously knew the literature, and he had made a number of important discoveries in open star clusters. And while I wasn’t in a position to pass judgment on this, I had a kind of a respect for my betters -- and that’s about as close as we came.
DeVorkin:Do you recall at the time any discussions about the clusters, the HR Diagrams?
Herget:No, this was a beginning class. It may be that they got into that the second semester when I was gone. I shouldn’t make too many statements about it. But it was a beginning class. And actually at that time there was practically no text-book in that subject.
DeVorkin:You didn’t use Russell, Dugan and Stewart? 
Herget:No. Well, I knew that book because I had used it when I was an undergraduate.
DeVorkin:You used it here?
Herget:Well, you see, the year I had that mastoid and then had to have a mixed up arrangement, I took one semester of astronomy just to get some credits in. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. And Yowell taught the class. I think there were only four students, even though it was undergraduate. We used Russell, Dugan and Stewart. So I was familiar with that book, especially the first volume. I can’t recall that Trumpler particularly used that as a reference, but, later on he wrote his own. 
DeVorkin:STATISTICAL ASTRONOMY with H. Weaver.
Herget:Yes. We were essentially the guinea pigs. I’m not sure we were the only class. The book was in preparation during those years, let’s say. That’s the best way to make a book in my opinion. You don’t say, “Now I shall sit myself down and conceive a book.” He taught this course a number of times, and by the time you get all those notes and the experience, you almost get the book for free except for a little proof reading work. And I think that’s the way books should be written. That’s the way my book was written. I taught the course several times, and I had the notes.
DeVorkin:This is THE CONPIT1ATION OF ORBITS?
Herget:Yes. And this came about because we had a Neighbor’s Meeting here in Cincinnati very shortly after the war was over, and so that evening we were sitting around talking and the subject of discussion was: what were the astronomers going to do for textbooks? Because there had been an interval of 10 years almost where nothing had been done.
DeVorkin:This is post-World War II now.
Herget:Yes, 1947 and so in the course of the conversation, down at my home this subject of my lecture notes came up and I had them available, and they were all quite insistent that I should write that book. Well, I didn’t take a very serious view of that until sometime later I thought it over and I thought: “Well, why not? The only books that are in print now aren’t very good.” Even Stracke’s book was written in trigonometry, you know. One of the things which I learned in college which I appreciate very much was vector algebra and vector calculus, and I think it’s fair to say that I was the first one or among the first ones who wrote astronomy in vectors, and I can document the fact that after I did it the Russians began to copy it. You just look at the dates at which their publications appear which contain vector notation.
DeVorkin:That’s very interesting. Vector calculus is extremely important.
Herget:Yes, well, to me it’s so simple, you see. Dr. Brand was my teacher, Louis Brand. And he said, “There’s no such thing as the subject of spherical trigonometry.” He said, “You have these two vector equations, and that contains everything that there is in spherical trigonometry. You don’t need a big thick book like Chauvenet.”  And whenever I do a problem in spherical trigonometry, I do it in unit vectors. That’s the way I visualize it, and the way I think. And if I’m stuck, that’s the way I can figure it out. So I started doing orbits that way, too. It’s true that everything doesn’t go in vectors, but the things that go in vectors go better that way than any other way, at least in my opinion.
DeVorkin:Well, we’re jumping a bit ahead on that. Could we go back actually to that year where you did read Russell, Dugan and Stewart? Do you recall your recollections of that course you took under Yowell?
Herget:Well, just that it was hard and if you bore down, you could follow it. After all, he couldn’t make it too hard. It was an undergraduate course in a liberal arts college, and these weren’t necessarily astronomy majors. I don’t even remember who the other students were. One of the girls turned out to be a nurse and she married a doctor. But it was just another course to me at that time. During the time that I was taking summer school courses, one of the courses I took was called “Astronomy of the Stars”; it was essentially Sidereal Astronomy. But it was aimed at the kind of people who come to summer school, which was mostly school teachers. So it wasn’t all too difficult, you see. It was just a little more exposure. But neither of these had any influence in directing me toward astronomy. It was just another course because I needed credits.
DeVorkin:It was really your work with Smith?
Herget:Yes, after I came here I was already a graduate student by that time.
DeVorkin:This would be the period that you would consider to be your orientation.
DeVorkin:When you went to Lick and to Berkeley I should say, of course Aitken was already known for his book on double stars”,  and there was a good amount of double star work being done there. Did you become involved at all with that kind of work?
Herget:No. Somehow that never appealed to me. There wasn’t enough accuracy in that. There wasn’t enough challenge in that. You were working with two significant figures. That didn’t send me. I never have worked out a double star orbit.
DeVorkin:Aitken was working mainly with visuals?
Herget:Yes. And, of course, in double star work, the principal exponent in those years was still G. van Biesbroeck. He both observed and computed.
DeVorkin:He was at Yerkes?
DeVorkin:Had you had any interest in working with him, or you were not interested in double star work?
Herget:Well, the first time I ever met van Biesbroeck was in 1934 when I visited the Yerkes Observatory and he showed me around, and he showed me the work he was doing. But I can’t say for sure. I guess by 1934 we really hadn’t had any correspondence yet. But then in the years immediately following he used to send me observations and I’d send ephemerides. And he had a very small field in his telescope. He used a 24—inch reflector, and he showed me this instrument when I was there. In fact, he was ready to observe, it was a very cute instrument. It was real small, you know. You’d just stand on the floor and walk around it. The plate holder was down where you could reach it. We became good friends, because any time I sent him an ephemeris it was a good one, and a lot of ephemerides that were published had been done in a slip-dash fashion, and sometimes they were off his plates, and that would make him angry after he finished the whole exposure. He did his part. He told me he lost half of his plates by believing in the MINOR PLANET EPHEMERIS volume in those years.
DeVorkin:Why was he using the 24-inch and not the 40-inch refractor?
Herget:Well, because you actually can get fainter magnitudes in the reflector. You see, the refractor had a very long focal length and this other one was easier to work with. They probably didn’t give him the observing time on the big one. You didn’t need that anyway. It’s true that if you had wanted to do parallax work, you could benefit from the accuracy of the long focal length.
DeVorkin:But you still need positional accuracy.
Herget:Well, what you need most of all is comparison stars on the same plate. And since his field was small already, it would have been smaller in the refractor, and he would have had to take field plates.
DeVorkin:The refractor has about a one degree field. You needed a larger field than that?
Herget:Yes, because sometimes you only get one catalogue star per square degree. But, on the other hand, I believe you can get a faint object in shorter time on that fast “f” number in the 24—inch in a shorter time than you would get on a much larger “F” number on the refractor. And you wouldn’t want to guide that thing for more than an hour anyway. That’s a big job.
Herget:This is one of the stories of the kind that used to be told at the Astronomical Society banquets when the Astronomical Society wasn’t so big.
DeVorkin:This is AAS.
Herget:Yes. It was in the days when Philip Fox and Oliver J. Lee were young graduate students at Yerkes. They had gotten the instrument into position, and here the thing started to swing away and Lee grabbed onto the eye end with the hope that he could pull it back down, but Le just kept going up and up and up and up. So Philip Fox grabbed on Lee’s ankles and they still kept going up and up except it started to slow down and gradually they came down again. But they would have crashed the lens against the pier.
DeVorkin:Was the telescope out of balance for some reason?
Herget:I don’t know whether they just put too much momentum to it or something, but that was their story, and Fox was a great story teller. He was the usual after dinner speaker. In 1939 we had the Astronomical Society meeting at Ohio Wesleyan, and it was in the winter time. I remember it on account of the snow. D. Brouwer wasn’t able to make the train connections and didn’t get to the meeting. But we drove up. They decided at that meeting for the first time that in addition to Joel Stebbins and Philip Fox and a couple of other of the usual raconteurs, one of the younger members would also have to be on the program, and I was the one who got suckered in. So I started out by saying I was at a tremendous disadvantage because I was unable to take a poor, weak story and stretch it as thin or as long as Joel Stebbins could. Well, that brought the house down, and Stebbins never forgot that. I’ll bet you a half a dozen times when we would see each other afterwards, and the very last time I saw him in 1960, he still remembered that incident and chuckled about it. But anyway that business of almost ruining the 40-inch was one of these after dinner stories. I guess there was something to it -- I don’t know.
DeVorkin:Did they ever talk about conditions for research at Yerkes? Did van Biesbroeck talk to you, confide in you on any problems he might have had obtaining telescope time?
Herget:No, I was just an outside observer of conditions at Yerkes. I do remember one thing very distinctly. I can’t point to the time except that it must have been about 1948 or ‘49 when O. Struve reorganized the Yerkes Observatory into departments, and everybody was a department head. And the next time I saw F. Edmondson he was just beaming at this great organization that Struve had set up. Well, I took a dim view of the whole business. I figured they had overplayed their hand. The Yerkes Observatory was no bigger after that than it had been beforehand, and Struve had assembled an enviable collection of astronomers -- G. Kuiper, S. Chandrasekhar, B. Stromgren, W. W. Morgan and others who were there, and J. Greenstein. And I don’t quite see the point of fluffing up the organization. Well, it turned out that this was the beginning of Struve’s nemesis at Yerkes. You know, they had a terrible -- what would you call it? I wasn’t actually there -- but everybody wanted to be his own empire builder, you see, and the upshot was that Struve got sick and tired of the whole business and went to Berkeley. But I never really was a party to the politics nor the life. I was there a few times. I was entertained very hospitably, and we had several meetings there. There was one of them in September of 1941. They had that college camp so that it was a nice place to have a meeting, except I had driven there and it rained something fierce during the whole meeting, so I was a kind of permanent chauffeur between the camp and the observatory.
DeVorkin:That was only about a half a mile.
Herget:Yes. But another thing I remember: they had the meeting on the Dome Floor. They just put folding chairs up, and on one of the sessions Stebbins was the chairman and Brouwer gave a paper, and it was a very abstruse paper and it was very highly condensed to remain within the time limit. So he buzzed through it as fast as he could and poured it on as hard as he could in the ten minutes he had. When he got finished Stebbins asked for questions and comments, and there was a very loud silence -- nobody had a word to say. And finally Stebbins says, “I think it is excellent that we have had this paper. It is good for our souls, and we should have one like this about once every 15 years.” And that was the end of that. (laughs)
DeVorkin:Brouwer, of course, is very highly respected.
Herget:That’s true. However, the paper was out of place, you see. Brouwer tried to accomplish too much in too short a time, and it was the wrong audience. But he came to the meeting prepared to give a respectable paper, except that it didn’t fit very well. But Stebbins was a great card.
DeVorkin:I’m very interested in the year that you spent as a Morrison Fellow. You’ve talked about a good number of names, of people on the mountain, Mayall, and then you took lectures from Shane.
Herget:Another name which hasn’t been mentioned was S. Herrick. It was Herrick’s last year as a graduate student. He had been there for several years, and I was just a newcomer. The Berkeley department under Leuschner had a very curious characteristic. I’m not quite sure what word to use to describe it. Are you familiar with the department the way it was then? Have you ever seen the little brown buildings that we had?
DeVorkin:Yes, I did see those buildings.
Okay. Well, that was the department. And the wisteria over all the doorways and everything. Anyway you were supposed to realize within the confines of these buildings that Leuschner was the Lord God. However, he wasn’t there that first semester that I was there. But I had a conversation one time with Bill Meyer. He was a teacher; he didn’t do much in astronomy, but he taught the elementary courses. But anyway I had an office right next to his and we were in a discussion one day and by this time I had about four years’ experience. I thought it was better to begin the teaching of orbits with minor planet orbits because they are nearly circular; you can develop the theory from simple Taylor Series without any special considerations. Whereas they started with cometary orbits, and there are special considerations to parabolas, and you don’t get the broad general picture of mathematical conic sections. You only get one, you see. Well, he took this as being a criticism and he went and reported it to Crawford, and Crawford called me and started to give me hell for criticizing, the department. I remained standing because I didn’t know what the subject was for which I was invited, but I remained standing and finally I said, “Look, if you think I came out here just for the purpose of making trouble, you’re making a bad mistake.” I said, “I have heard of Bower and the kind of difficulties he got into, and I don’t intend to follow such a pattern.” I simply offered an opinion which I still think is correct.
At the time Crawford was giving an orbit course, and there were quite a number of people in this course. Dan Popper and Conrad Swanson had taken the course the previous year. But no more than I got out there than van Biesbroeck discovered a comet, and at that time the comet had the largest perihelion distance or the second largest perihelion distance of any comet that had been known up till then. Anyway since school hadn’t started yet and here was a comet discovery in August of 1935, I thought now I was where the game was played, you see, and I would get in on the act, and it was arranged that before midnight H. Jeffers would telephone down the third observation that was needed. He would get it early in the evening and reduce it immediately as fast as he could and phone it down.
So this was great. And then about 4 o’clock Popper and Swanson, who were both graduate students, came to me in a kind of a supplicant manner and said did I mind if they would take over this job because even though they were in astrophysics, they knew they had to do one orbit some time in order to get through the department, and would I let them do this one because school hadn’t started yet? Well, I had only walked in the place a few days beforehand myself, you know, so I said, “Sure, that’s all right. When you are going to do the work, I’ll just come along and watch.” So they said they had to wait till about 10, 11 o’clock till they got the telephone message from Jeffers, whenever he would phone. So I said, “That’s fine -- I’ll come back”. So I came back that night and they got the telephone message and they started in by turning to the front page of Crawford’s book and looking at the first formula and decided what they should do with that one. And after about two hours of that stuff, I got so sick and tired I couldn’t restrain myself. And actually, if you look at the principle that is used for the way Crawford tells you how to compute an orbit, it’s kind of a Newton’s Method. You choose an approximation -- you get a function -- but you also choose the derivative so you know where to go to choose the next one. And finally I just broke out and I said, “Jesus Christ, put in the distance equals 1.0 and see what you get.” Well, it turned out that from the observations they had, the distance was .9998, so they got it the first time, you see.
They had been following the rule of thumb through all these stupid logarithmic formulas which didn’t apply when you had a desk calculator. And so they hit it right on the nose the first time, you see, and I said, “That’s the way we compute orbits in Cincinnati.” Well, that was just plain dumb luck, but any way they did their work and they got it all in a nice, neat arrangement and they turned it in, and by that time a HARVARD ANNOUNCEMENT CARD came and van Biesbroeck had a very similar orbit to what they had. One or two days later another HARVARD ANNOUNCEMENT CARD comes from Cunningham in which the orbit was altogether different. It looked like different comets. Crawford brings this stuff to class and shows it around. They had gotten 1.57 or something like that for the perihelion distance. And Cunningham had about 4.5 or something like that. So in the course of his remarks Crawford said, “The perihelion passage is different by two months.” And I spoke up and said, “That’s not two months -- that’s ten months. You’re in the wrong year.” And he looked and sure enough he was, you know. It was altogether different. So Crawford begins to berate these two fellows -- Popper and Swanson. They should find out what they did wrong that they didn’t get the orbit that Cunningham had. Well, I looked at their work, and I had looked at it in the first place. I said, “I don’t see anything wrong with that. We don’t have Cunningham’s work to look at.” But it turned out that the arc was so short and that the variation in the one observation which had come from van Biesbroeck, small though it was, was enough to make all this difference. And neither of them were wrong, you see.
It was just that much indeterminate from that short arc from those few days. But Crawford tried to berate those fellows and they should find their mistake. I said, “I don’t know what you can tell Crawford, but I’m telling you: I don’t think there’s anything wrong. You make what you please of it.” Well, it turned out that Cunningham’s orbit was the right one, but the work which they had done was not wrong considering the few observations they had and how close together they were. But here were these two poor fellows -- they didn’t know how to defend themselves, because they went by the formulas in the book. It was kind of a pity. But anyway when I was in front of Crawford, I said, “Look, the students come to me,” and they did -- not only these two but when Crawford started teaching this class. And they’d say, “Do you use Leuschner’s method? Does everybody use Leuschner’s method? Is Leuschner’s method the best one?” And I told Crawford, I said: “Look, the students come to me and they ask me these questions. Do you want me to lie to them?” Well, that shut him up, you know, and he either decided he had too hot a potato or he was going to let me alone, and we didn’t pursue the argument anymore. But they taught Leuschner’s method, and that was the law and the gospel, and I didn’t go along with that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was persona non grata, but at least I was under suspicion or under surveillance. I never could quite see how Leuschner got such a great reputation as he had.
DeVorkin:When he did come back the second semester, you were not there.
No, I was there for two or three months during that time. That’s when Adonis was discovered, and I worked out the orbit of Adonis. We had another experience that night, because S. Arend was a visiting astronomer from Brussels, and he and I became good friends. He had some difficulty with speaking English, and I helped him as much as I could. And then there was Dorothy Davis. She was also an astrophysicist, but she wanted to compute an orbit with me some time. So when Adonis was discovered, I believe it was the day that Herrick was having his Ph.D. exam. But at any rate we had the three observations in the afternoon and we couldn’t make any decisions because everybody was in Herrick’s Ph.D. exam. They came out about 4 o’clock, and so then we had to decide what to do with these three observations. Well, S. Arend was there, and he wanted to work on it, and he went and spoke to Leuschner, and actually the observations had come from Brussels, you see. Delporte discovered the object and Delporte and Arend were co-workers in Brussels. So Arend wanted to do the orbit; Dorothy Davis wanted to work with me; so the three of us agreed we would do the orbit. So we started in. We were following Leuschner’s method.
She wanted to do that and that was the thing to do, and Arend did, too, I guess because he was a guest there. So we started that and we started working along with the hand calculator business. Around 6 o’clock or so the two of them went out to supper. Well, I stayed there, and I saw right away as soon as they left that we’d gotten far enough along that I saw we were going to get into a terrible bind, and I said, “The hell with it.” I laid all the papers aside and I started over with the same observations from scratch, and I used the method which I had just gotten done publishing in my thesis, you see. By the time they came back from supper, I practically had the answer. Now, the circumstances are a strong case in point. By using Leuschner’s method, which is an expansion about the middle observation, there were residuals even though it was only a day apart. The residuals were ten minutes of arc in each of the observations -- in each of the coordinates or each of the residuals. And if you go to correct something like that, you have to divide by this very short time interval. I had stubbed my toe on cases like that before when I was still here at Cincinnati and alone, and when it didn’t work, nobody knew it except me. So that’s why I scrapped it as soon as I saw that. But when I did it my own way, I got the right answer very directly; and the main reason is that in the Gaussian method you have two unknowns and so you can home on those two better. The other way you have four unknowns. You have the distance and the velocity vector, which has three components, because you don’t have any lock on the velocity vector, you see.
DeVorkin:With only three observations looking at the end points -- is this what you mean?
Herget:Well, no. You don’t look at the velocity vector at all. You get it by mathematical inference from the observation. But if you use the Gaussian method, the two extreme observations both have no residuals -- only the middle one does. And there are only two unknowns, see. And that’s why I prefer that. And that’s why I did my thesis the way I did. So anyway here I had this orbit, and they came back and were a little bit horrified that I’d cast Leuschner’s method aside. I said, “Look, I got the right answer. Nobody can argue against that”. And I set her to work on computing the backwards ephemeris. Well, she started this and in about a half hour she sort of screamed: “Oooh, I got the wrong sign.” I’m not sure exactly that that’s what she said, but she said she had the object in the direction of the sun, I guess. I said, “Oh, you just make a mistake in the sign. Go back and find it and correct it.” She went back and it came out the same way. What happened was that if this is the orbit of the earth coming along like this, Adonis was discovered right here.  And as soon as you go backwards a little bit, it was in the direction of the sun.
DeVorkin:So Adonis was discovered…
Herget:Just after it crossed the orbit of the earth from the inside to the outside. But if you go backwards just a little bit, Adonis is on the inside of the earth’s orbit, and you would have to look in the direction of the sun to find it. And that’s what she screamed about, and I thought it was wrong because she had a minus sign wrong somewhere. That will turn you around, you see. But she hadn’t and that’s the way it was, so we saw that and we went on. Well, we made predictions and later we got observations and I produced an ephemeris which eventually extended over two months and S.B. Nicholson used the 100-inch telescope and we got observations up into April. But the next morning when we went to class, Leuschner wanted the observations. He put them on the board, and he started to difference them and analyze them. Finally he said, “What was the value of Kappa?” Now, Kappa is the curvature of the apparent path, and if it’s zero, you’re sunk. And he wanted to know what was the value of Kappa. Well, I had thrown that business away and Kappa didn’t show in the work that I did.
DeVorkin:Is that a test for how close the observed path is to a great circle?
Herget:Yes. And in the Gaussian method you can find it, but there’s no place that you can put your finger on it, you see. But, at any rate, I had to explain to him that we hadn’t used Leuschner’s method. Fortunately, the bell range and all the undergraduate students got up and left the room, and then I showed him what had happened. As much as he may have boiled inside, he couldn’t say anything because there was nothing wrong with what I had gotten there, you see. So we came pretty close to the precipice at that point.
DeVorkin:Do you think he would have reacted differently if this would have come out in front of the students?
Herget:He might have. There’s another story I want to tell you about Leuschner when we get on to the next tape.
Okay, we’ll stop it right here.
Approximately four by ten feet.
Its projected cost (circa 1911) was 500,000 sterling. cf. H.H. Turner The Great Star Map (London, 1912) p. 72-73.
S. Newcomb. A Compendium on Spherical Astronomy.
Astronomical Journal 42 (1933) p. 123, p. 196.
Astronomical Journal 44 (1935) p. 153.
Computation of Orbits.
Astronomy I, II (Ginn, 1927).
R.J. Trumpler and H. Weaver STATISTICAL ASTRONOMY (U. Cal. 1953).
ref. G. Stracke, Bahnbestimmung der Planeteu und Kometeu (Springer, Berlin, 1929).
W. Chauvenet, A MANUAL OF SPHERICAL AND PRACTICAL ASTRONOMY (Dover, 1960) orig. pub. 1891.
R.G. Aitken, THE BINARY STARS (New York, 1918).
George William College Camp.
In astronomical units.
A minor planet.
Opposite from the Sun.
Session I | Session II