Joel Stebbins

Joel Stebbins


Date of Birth
July 30, 1878
Date of Death
March 16, 1966

Born in Omaha, Joel Stebbins earned his B.S. at at the University of Nebraska. After some graduate work there and at the University of Wisconsin, he earned the third Ph.D. in astronomy granted by the University of California, where his advisor was Lick Observatory director W. Wallace Campbell. Stebbins directed the University of Illinois Observatory from 1903 to 1922 and the University of Wisconsin’s Washburn Observatory from 1922 to 1948, then spent another decade on research at the Lick Observatory. Starting in 1907 with selenium cells so insensitive they could barely detect the moon, Stebbins developed photoelectric photometry to the point where it succeeded photography as the photometric standard. He and his colleagues, especially Albert Whitford, used the new technique to investigate eclipsing binaries, the reddening of starlight by interstellar dust, colors of galaxies, all kinds of variable stars, surface properties of the jovian satellites and Uranus, and the Sun.

Presentation of Bruce medal

Shane, C.D., PASP 53, 5-11 (1941).

Other awards

American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Rumford prize, 1913.
American Astronomical Society, Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1956.
National Academy of Sciences, Henry Draper Medal, 1915.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1950, presented by W.M. Smart, MNRAS 110, 179-95 (1950).

Biographical materials

Bitterman, Jay, Lake County Astronomical Society
Illinois Distributed Museum
Whitford, A.E., Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 49, 293-316 (1978).


Kron, Gerald E., PASP 78, 214-222, (1966) [errata].
Whitford, A.E., Sky & Telescope 31, 268 (1966).


AIP Center for History of Physics
University of Wisconsin-Madison Dept. of Astronomy

Named after him

Lunar crater Stebbins
Minor planet #2300 Stebbins


Papers, etc.

Stebbins’s papers are at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Archives and the University of Illinois Archives.

Other References: Historical

Search ADS for works about Stebbins

DeVorkin, D.H., “Electronics in Astronomy: Early Applications of the Photoelectric Cell and Photomultiplier for Studies of Point-Source Celestial Phenomena,” Proc. IEEE 73, 1205-1220 (1985).

Genet, David R., Russell M. Genet, & Karen A. Genet, Photoelectric Photometry Handbook (Fairborn Press, 1987), 9-12.

Hearnshaw, J. B., The Measurement of Starlight: Two Centuries of Astronomical Photometry (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1996).

History of the University of Illinois Observatory and 12" Refractor

Huffer, C.M., “The Development of Photo-electric Photometry,” Vistas in Astronomy 1, 491-98 (1955).

Huffer, Charles M. & Edith Flather, “The Washburn Observatory, 1878-1959,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 48, 249-59 (1959).

Osterbrock, Donald E., “The California-Wisconsin Axis in American Astronomy,” Wisconsin Academy Review 23, 1, 2-8 (1976).

Svec, Michael T., “The Birth of Electronic Astronomy,” Sky & Telescope 83, 5, 496 (May 1992).

Tenn, Joseph S., “The Rise and Fall of Astrophotography,” Griffith Observer 53, 8, 2 (1989).


Other References: Scientific

Search ADS for works by Stebbins

Stebbins, Joel, “The Measurement of the Light of Stars with a Selenium Photometer, with an Application to the Variations of Algol,” Ap.J. 32, 185-214 (1910) [excerpted with commentary in Lang, Kenneth R. & Owen Gingerich, eds., A Source Book in Astronomy & Astrophysics, 1900-1975 (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1979), 39-45].

Stebbins, Joel & Albert E. Whitford, “The Diameter of the Andromeda Nebula,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 20, 93-98 (1943).


Other Works: Popularizations, Fiction, History, etc.

Stebbins, Joel, “Power from the Stars,” PASP 53, 84-97 (1941).

Stebbins, Joel, “The Constant Stars,” The American Scholar 12, 339-51 (1943).

Stebbins, Joel, “The Law of Diminishing Returns,” Sky & Telescope 3, 4, 5-8 (1944).

Stebbins, Joel, “The American Astronomical Society, 1897-1947,” Popular Astronomy 55, 8, 404-13 (1947) [reprinted in DeVorkin, David H., ed., The American Astronomical Society's First Century (American Inst. of Physics, Washington, DC, 1999), 53-57].