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Charles Anthony Federer, Jr. (1909–1999)

Published onJan 01, 1999
Charles Anthony Federer, Jr. (1909–1999)

Together with his wife, Helen, Charlie Federer (who died September 28, 1999) founded Sky & Telescope. The impetus came from Harvard College Observatory director Harlow Shapley, who suggested the Federers come to Cambridge and meld two troubled magazines — The Sky (then produced at New York's Hayden Planetarium) and The Telescope (produced at HCO). Shapley provided office space for the enterprise, and S&T remained under Harvard's wing until it outgrew the available facilities. The staff moved to its present quarters in 1958.

Charlie worked as a marine-insurance underwriter while obtaining a night-school B.S. in math and physics from the City College of New York. A self-taught astronomer, he later was employed as a staff assistant and lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium until moving to Cambridge.

Launching an astronomy magazine was an enormously risky venture in 1941, for there were very few amateurs and almost no commercial vendors (thus no advertising). And the odds of success were lowered dramatically when Pearl Harbor was bombed a month after the first issue appeared. But Charlie's gamble paid off, and S&T quickly became astronomy's magazine of record.

From the beginning, for example, it regularly published "American Astronomers Report," which summarized highlights from AAS meetings (this department was discontinued in the early 1970s when the meetings became too large to allow thorough coverage). S&T also provided the glue that joined scattered members of the astronomical community throughout North America and ultimately the world. In my opinion, Charlie was a giant in 20th-century astronomy because of his vision and evangelism. Even before S&T was born, he was one of the principal promoters of a national organization of amateur astronomers, which we know today as the Astronomical League. The key to S&T 's success was Charlie and Helen's dedication to accuracy and disdain for gee-whiz journalism. Until his retirement in 1974, Charlie controlled everything: from the words, to the selection of images, to the positioning of each illustration and line of type on a page. Even afterward, whenever he saw a word, picture, or design he didn't like, I'd get a phone call and a piece of his mind. To me it was amazing and wonderful that someone could maintain a six-decade-long love affair with an inanimate object.

Charlie was not an easy person to work for, but if you could stand the heat, he taught you a nonpareil work ethic. He was highly opinionated and had zero tolerance for error. And he had one job description for everyone: "Do what I tell you to do and don't ask questions." But that's how our tiny staff got the magazine out every month. Charlie was very conservative, yet he had a keen sense of when it was time to try something bold, such as when he decided to put color in every issue, a very expensive move in the early 1970s. And he was quick to change his mind whenever he felt we could do a better job on behalf of readers& — even when a press deadline would be hopelessly missed or editorial chaos was guaranteed. Long-time managing editor Bill Shawcross dubbed him chairman of our Decision Revision Division. Curiously, Charlie wasn't a hard-nosed businessman; he ran the company out of a "cookie jar" and without any formal business plan. Perhaps that was why working for him was so much fun: no memos, reports, meetings, and other management trappings that sap so much creative energy today.

In 1991 Charles Federer secured a place in the sky when the IAU named minor planet 4726 in his honor.

Photo courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

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