COMET and NOVA Section
of the Standing Committee on Observational Activities
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Note: Before folks start spending time on this, a warning that most of the stuff is mundane and boring. Only an experienced researcher would appreciate it, as the whole can be used in understanding how the national society "quickly" communicated in an observing program in the 1960s, before the advent of the internet. It can also be used by researchers as representative of how any group communicated, beyond the astronomical aspect. There are some well known names in these files, such as David Levy, I.K. Williamson, Geoff Gaherty, etc. —Jim Low

This CD or data DVD [which formed the basis for this area of the website] contains scanned images of almost all of the paper records of the Comet and Nova Section, prior to disposal of most of these records. All were scanned using a Macintosh G3 computer using PhotoShop and saved in original size, at 144 dots per inch, in "jpg" format at medium quality. Copies were made to CD and data DVD in cross-platform format. A selection of original paper records were kept, mostly reports of observations of comets and novae, along with a few others that may be considered representative for historical and/or scientific value.


The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) created the Standing Committee on Observational Activities in 1961, with a number of observing and other related disciplines created under that committee, with each having a co-ordinator. I (Jim Low, the author of this file) was appointed co-ordinator of the Comet and Nova Section.

Various disciplines had different levels of activity at different times. The Standing Committee was formally disbanded in 1970. The Comet and Nova Section was very active until 1968, then activity decreased after that date, with very little activity by 1970. By 1968, the number of regular observers decreased, and it appeared to me that there were serious problems in trying to get observers to take the time to make copies of reports and submit them. By the late 1960s, I felt the search part of the program, as designed, was not really a good method of trying to find comets and novae. In 1970, the Standing Committee on Observational Activities (SCOA) was to be replaced by the Committee on Co-ordination of Centre Activities (COCOCA). However, it appears this committee never became active.

The files:

Only a very rough organisation of these files was done for scanning purposes, and the logic may not always be apparent, mainly because there is no logic. I filed these records, over the years, in what I thought at the time was reasonable, but over time more categories and different forms of organisation were developed. Thus, what was classified in one category one year was changed in another year. Often, observations were reported in routine letters and it wasn't clear if such letters should be included in the correspondence category or observations category. Thus, many letters and observations are in different categories.

I have organised these into nine main categories in folders (directories) as follows:


This contain routine correspondence from and to individuals in the various Centres of the RASC. They are subdivided by folder, with the name of the Centre being the name of each folder. Some of the correspondence includes reports of observations which do not appear in the folder named "Observations" (see below).


This contains the bulletins, announcements, and forms issued by the Comet and Nova Section.


This contains the annual and other reports, and mailing lists of the Comet and Nova Section, as given to the National Society and/or Chairman of the Standing Committee.


Correspondence to and from the National Society officers or Committee members, or international correspondence related to the program. Included in here are a number of letters to and from Miss I.K. Williamson where topics unrelated to the program are also discussed, as Miss Williamson and I were involved with other astronomical matters unrelated to this program. In the disposal of original documents, I intend to keep the original letters from Miss Williamson, as I regard many of those to be personal correspondence. However, all of her letters have been scanned and are on this media.


In the late 1970s most of the negative search reports were discarded, as they took considerable storage space and it was felt the scientific value of them had long since past. They would be of value only if something was later discovered and we could look back to say "that area was last searched on such-and-such date and was not there at that time." However, some later reports had not been properly filed, and were not disposed of at that time. I have scanned all the remaining negative search reports of David Levy and Hugh Maclean. Of others, I scanned one representative negative report of each individual who submitted reports. No negative search reports were received after 1968.


Most of the original paper records in this folder have been retained. These represent the reported observations received by this section. However, some observations were also received in routine correspondence filed in other folders, such as "Centres" and "Unattached." See the "0README.RTF" in this folder for additional details.


Other bulletins and forms received from other observing programs within the SCOA or other societies.


Correspondence to and from other Astronomical Societies: both Canadian and international.


Correspondence with unattached members of the RASC.

File Names:

I followed a standard format for the file names. In most cases, the file name begins with six numbers in the format year month day (yymmdd). In some cases, exact dates are not available or were estimated. If the format contains double zeros for the month or day, that means the month or day were not known or not relevant. For example, all Negative Search reports show "00" as the day, as those were monthly reports. In the case of observations, if more than one observation appeared on a report, usually the date of the last observation, or date of the report is given. For some files, the date is not relevant, and the name does not contain this date code.

The date part of the name is followed by the the surname of the individual who wrote a letter, the name of object reported on (in the "Observations" folder), or the name of the document.

With the exception of this and other "README" files, all documents end in the ".jpg" extension, indicating this form of graphics files. The "README" files in some folders are in "Rich Text Format" represented by the ".rtf" extension.

Within the file names, I included"_to" when the file was correspondence from me to the person named. I did not make copies of all my replies, but a detailed summary of my replies appears in the files "Reply_Summary" in the "National" folder.


Most of this material is routine and each individual piece of correspondence is not of historical or scientific value. Some reported observations may be of historical and scientific value. Nova magnitude estimates were sent to the AAVSO.

However, the sequence of correspondence can tell a researcher something about the history and development of a sample observation program in the RASC. The style and means of correspondence has changed since this period. Beyond the society, it could be of general historical interest on how communication, on a national basis, was carried out during that period.

About me

I joined the RASC Ottawa Centre at the age of 16, in the autumn of 1956 (for the 1957 calendar year). In 1957, I moved to Toronto for a year, and joined the Toronto Centre for that short period. In 1958, I moved to Montreal and joined the Montreal Centre. Miss I.K. Williamson got me involved in activities, and it was she who asked me to lead the Comet and Nova Section in 1961. I was an active observer from 1956 when I got my first telescope, until 1968 when I moved to Toronto, When I moved to Toronto in 1968 and rejoined that Centre, I became mostly an armchair astronomer until 2003 when I started active observing again. It was during a cleanup of my basement in 2002 when I rediscovered these Comet and Nova records, and almost threw them out. After a discussion of what to do with these with the Historical Committee member Peter Broughton, and on the RASC newsgroup list, I decided to scan these records before disposal. I decided they were too bulky and of limited value to keep all original records, but it was practical to maintain it on CD and data DVD.

Jim Low, 2004-03-28

Last modified: 
Friday, August 7, 2015 - 9:18am