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Finding Aid to the Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan, 1946-2009

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Click here for a listing of the 255 radio astronomers interviewed by Sullivan (plus the 52 individuals he was unable to interview) with links to more detailed information.

Location of collection: National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Archives, 520 Edgemont Rd., Charlottesville, VA. Phone: 1-434-296-0203, email: archivist at nrao.edu

Title and dates of the collection: Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan, 1946-2009

Size of the collection: Currently 57 linear feet plus 188 tapes and corresponding digital files.

Papers/Records created by: Sullivan, Woodruff T., III (1944- )

Short description of collection: Woodruff T. Sullivan III’s book, Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. Sullivan's book covers the history of radio astronomy from its beginning in 1933 through 1953, and represents 30 years of intensive research by him. In 2010 Sullivan donated to the NRAO Archives the 188 audio tapes and related paperwork for the extensive set of interviews he conducted between 1971 and 1988 with 255 radio astronomers around the world. Some were interviewed more than once. In Appendix B to his book, Sullivan writes, "The goal of the interview project was to talk to everyone who had published at least one article in the field of radio astronomy before 1960.... I wanted to talk not just to the 'generals,' but also to the foot soldiers, the 'average' early radio astronomers.... Over the period 1971-88 (but mostly 1973-81) I interviewed a total of 255 persons."

This collection includes the original audiotapes, digitized versions of all tapes, as well as Sullivan's extensive files about the people he interviewed, about 45 people he did not interview, and about radio astronomy institutions and programs.  Transcriptions are posted for many of the interviews. Additional materials include those related to Sullivan's other publications, subject files, reprints, photographs, and books and bibliographies on radio astronomy history.

Selected search terms:

  • Sullivan, Woodruff Turner, III, 1944- .
  • Radio astronomy - History


Biography: Woodruff Turner Sullivan III was born in 1944, received his B.S. in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966, and his Ph.D. in Astronomy with a minor in Physics from University of Maryland in 1971. Following a post-doctoral fellowship at Kapteyn Laboratory, Groningen University, The Netherlands, he joined the faculty of University of Washington in 1973, where he is now a Professor of Astronomy, an Adjunct Professor of History, and one of the leaders of the Astrobiology Program. He has held visiting positions at the Universities of Cambridge, Cornell, Groningen, and Paris

At the University of Washington, he has built and maintained an undergraduate Student Radio Telescope, developed the topic of "life in the cosmos" in the astronomy curriculum, developed and regularly taught "History of Physics and Astronomy, 1800-1940," and co-founded an innovative graduate program in Astrobiology in which six departments now participate.

Sullivan's astronomy research focused primarily on the interstellar medium of our Galaxy and the properties of other spiral galaxies. His work in the history of science has included the early development of radio astronomy, and his current long-term historical project is a biography of William Herschel. His contributions to many aspects of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) led him to astrobiology, the study of life on Earth in a cosmic context and the search for extraterrestrial life.

In astronomy-related fields, he has designed a dozen public sundials in the Puget Sound region, as well as the first extraterrestrial sundial, part of NASA's Rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. He was the first to produce an "Earth at Night" image showing the effects of humankind’s activities at night on our planet, in particular urban light pollution.

He has published 90 scientific articles and five books:

  • Classics in Radio Astronomy (Reidel, 1982), a collection of 37 reprinted articles covering the period 1896-1954, compiled by Sullivan with extensive commentary
  • The Early Years of Radio Astronomy: Reflections Fifty Years After Jansky's Discovery (Cambridge University Press, 1984), a collection of 25 retrospective and historical articles covering the pre-1960 era, edited and contributed to by Sullivan
  • Preserving the Astronomical Sky (Astrononomical Society of the Pacific, 2001), co-editor with J. Cohen, International Astronomical Union Symposium 196
  • Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2007), co-editor with J. Baross, graduate-level textbook comprising 27 chapters by various authors
  • Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009), a detailed monograph on the worldwide development of all aspects of the field through 1953

Sullivan is a member of the International Astronomical Union, the International Scientific Radio Union, the American Astronomical Society, and the History of Science Society. He served on the NASA Science Working Group, and the NASA Investigators Working Group on Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. He has been President of the History Committee of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Astronomical Society Historical Astronomy Division, and International Astronomical Union Commission 50 (Light Pollution and Radio Interference).

In recognition of his research, writing, teaching, and leadership in the history of astronomy community, Sullivan received the 2012 LeRoy E. Doggett Prize from the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society.

[Biographical note written by Ellen Bouton, based on information provided by Sullivan.]


Accession history: The 188 audio tapes were donated to the NRAO Archives in August 2010, and related working files in May 2011 and October 2012. Additional materials, including materials related to Sullivan's other publications, subject files, photographs, books on radio astronomy history, bibliographies, and an extensive collection of published radio astronomy articles were received in September 2018.


Access to collection: No restrictions. The Archives are open part-time; contact the Archivist for appointment.


Restrictions on use of collection: None.


Publication rights: Copyright for his material has been assigned by Sullivan to the NRAO/AUI Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Archivist. Note that much of the material in the collection was gathered from a wide variety of sources, including other institutions and archives, for which neither Sullivan nor the NRAO Archives holds publication rights. Additionally, neither Sullivan nor the Archives hold publication rights to the substantial quantity of published books, bibliographies, and articles.

Use policy for interviews: Sullivan has signed a release as interviewer. We have made extensive efforts to obtain release forms from interviewees or their heirs/next of kin allowing us to open the interviews to researchers and to post them on the Web. In cases where we have been unable to find anyone to give permission, we have allowed access to the interview and posted the transcript with the goal of providing access to the material. For interviews without releases we are unable to grant permission to cite or publish. We would be grateful to anyone who is able to provide contact information allowing us to obtain release forms for the interviewees or their heirs/next of kin listed on this page.


Preferred citation: For material from interviews: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Associated Universities, Inc. Archives, Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III, Sullivan interview of [person, date]; after the initial citation, abbreviations may be used: NRAO/AUI Archives, Sullivan Papers, Sullivan interview of [person, date]. For materials other than interviews: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Associated Universities, Inc. Archives, Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III, <series/unit/subunit/box #>; after the initial citation, abbreviations may be used: NRAO/AUI Archives, Sullivan Papers, <series/unit/subunit/box #>.


Processing notes: Initial inventory of the tapes was done in 2010 by Ellen N. Bouton. Digitization of the 188 audio tapes, including interviews of 255 20th century radio astronomers, as well as audio tapes of lectures and meetings, was done by Sierra Smith in summer 2011; digitization was funded by the Herbert C. Pollack Award received by Ellen Bouton from the Dudley Observatory, with additional funding from NRAO. Sullivan numbered his tapes sequentially through 173; during the digitization process additional unnumbered tapes of meetings and lectures were assigned sequential numbers 174-188.

In 2011, letters requesting permission to make their interviews available to researchers (including Web publication of the transcripts) were sent to all interviewees or next-of-kin for whom we could find addresses; we have continued to send letters as we have found contact information for additional interviewees. A prioritized list for transcribing interviews to post to the Web was developed by Kenneth I. Kellermann, W. Miller Goss, and Ellen N. Bouton. Criteria included the interviewee's contributions to the field of radio astronomy, whether the interviewee had been an NRAO staff member, whether the Archives received a researcher request for a specific interview, and whether we had received a signed permission form for the interview.

Transcription from the audio of 55 interviews with 44 radio astronomers was done by Sierra Smith in 2012, and a grant from the American Institute of Physics, Center for the History of Physics funded Web publication of those interviews between November 2012 and April 2013. Additional transcriptions by Sierra Smith, Ellen Bouton, or TranscribeMe have been made and posted to the Web since 2013.  All interviews have now been transcribed; reviewing, correcting, and posting of transcriptions continues as time allows. Sullivan's files also included transcription typescripts done in the late 1970s of approximately 50 interviews.

For a small number of interviews, including those with Soviet astronomers done during Sullivan's 1980 trip to the Soviet Union, Sullivan did not record the sessions, but only took notes. The notes are available to researchers but have not been posted on the Web.

After consultation with staff at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives at the American Institute of Physics, Center for the History of Physics, we have begun posting with a "take-down" notice transcripts for which, despite multiple efforts, we have been unable to find anyone to sign a permission form.

Arrangement, description, indexing, foldering and boxing of paper material received through 2012 began in summer 2011 and was completed by early 2013, with the processing done by Sierra Smith and Ellen Bouton. Processing of material received in September 2018 was completed in November 2018 by Heather Cole. During the processing, photocopies were made to replace thermofax sheets and newspaper clippings, fasteners were removed, and materials were removed from binders of various types.


Scope and Contents of Collection

Administrative Files Series: This comprises correspondence and notes from Sullivan regarding the shipping and organization of his collection. Included is an explanation of the organization of his subject files and index card catalog. Size: 0.25 linear feet.


Working Files Series: This series contains the 188 audio tapes made by Sullivan during 30 years of research for his book, Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009). The tapes have all been digitized. Tapes 1-173 are interviews with 255 radio astronomers; tapes 174-188 are recordings of 16 conferences or individual lectures. The interviews were conducted between 1971 and 1988, and the conferences were held between 1960 and 1988. In addition, there is a recording of a 1946 Mutual Broadcasting System radio broadcast about Project Diana. One box contains Sullivan's interview summary sheets, a chronological tape log, and general notes on transcripts and interviews.

  • Individuals Unit: This unit contains Tapes 1-173 and the corresponding files of information on individuals gathered by Sullivan in preparation for and during the process of conducting the interviews. Generally there is one file for each person interviewed, with additional files for approximately 45 people who were not interviewed (including Joseph L. Pawsey and extensive information on Karl G. Jansky). Material in the files includes one or more of the following: a "publications card" (a 5x7inch card used during the interviews on which Sullivan listed the person's publications), transcript(s) of interview(s) and associated notes, correspondence with Sullivan, archival material from various sources found by Sullivan or received from the person, biographical material (including obituaries), and photos. Also included is one box of additional material: primarily obituaries of interviewees which were not collected by Sullivan but were gathered by the NRAO Archives after Sullivan donated his papers to the Archives. Size: 11.0 linear feet plus 174 audio tapes and corresponding digital files. Click here for a listing of the 255 radio astronomers interviewed by Sullivan (plus the 52 individuals he was unable to interview) with links to more detailed information.

  • Institutional Unit: Institutional files are primarily photocopies gathered by Sullivan at various archives during his research on history of radio astronomy. Size: 2.0 linear feet. The collection includes institutional files for:

    • The Netherlands, including material on Stichting Radiostraling von Zon en Melweg, on Dutch telescopes, copies of the 21 cm Newsletter, and additional material on Jan Oort and Hendrik Van de Hulst. Included here are VHS and DVD copies of a film (in Dutch) called Bouw van een radiotelescoop, made in ~1957 by Herman Kleibrink, about the building the Dwingeloo 25 meter telescope. Researchers should also refer to the interviewee files for Oort and Van de Hulst.
    • Soviet Union, including detailed notes made of interviews with Soviet astronomers during Sullivan's late 1980 trip to the U.S.S.R. (no recordings were made of the interviews), listings of Soviet astronomers, photographs, and copies of articles on Soviet astronomers and astronomical institutions.
    • CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory.
    • Associated Universities Inc. Advisory Committee on Radio Astronomy materials gathered by Edward F. McClain during his tenure on the Committee in 1956-1959. These files were given to Sullivan by Cornell H. Mayer and Steven Knowles.
    • Sullivan filed Jodrell Bank institutional material with material on A.C. Bernard Lovell, and that arrangement has been retained.

  • Historic Conferences and Lectures Unit: This unit contains Tapes 174-188 which include recordings of 16 conferences or individual lectures and a recording of a 1946 Mutual Broadcasting System radio broadcast about Project Diana. Click here for a listing of recordings. Size: 15 audio tapes and corresponding digital files.

  • Sullivan Correspondence Unit: Whenever possible, Sullivan filed correspondence with or releated to an interviewee in the inverviewee folder. This unit includes general correspondence about secondary materials, correspondence with various archives, and correspondence about radio astronomy history, but also includes some correspondence with colleagues about interviewees. Researchers should look for information about interviewees in both this unit and in in the interviewee files. Size: 0.25 linear feet.

  • Miscellaneous Background Materials Unit: This unit includes general background materials on radio astronomy history such as a listing of pre-1961 radio astronomy PhDs and IAU and URSI material. Size: 0.5 linear feet.


Sullivan Publications Series:

  • Articles Unit: Articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries and conference papers written by Sullivan from 1978 through 2009. Also includes notes, images, correspondence, reviews, conference agendas and publicity related to the publications. Size: 1.25 linear feet.
  • Classics in Radio Astronomy Unit: Research, notes, correspondence, publisher contract, permissions, translations and reviews related to the writing and publication of Classics in Radio Astronomy (Reidel, 1982). Size: 1.25 linear feet.
  • Early Years of Radio Astronomy Unit: Notes, correspondence, publisher contract, original manuscripts and reviews related to the writing and publication of Early Years of Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 1984). Size: 0.75 linear feet.
  • Cosmic Noise Unit: Research, notes, correspondence, possible publishers, publisher contract, chapter notes, original figures, permissions, references and reviews related to the writing and publication of Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Size: 2.5 linear feet plus one 8.25x12" box of 8x5" cards.
  • History of 20th Century Cosmology Unit: Notes and reprints relating to research on the history of 20th century cosmology. Size: 0.75 linear feet.


Notes & Papers Series:

  • Lectures Unit: Original copies, drafts, transcripts, notes, announcements, newspaper clippings, correspondence, brochures, photos, and transparencies of talks and lectures on radio astronomy history given by Sullivan from 1983 through 2010. Size: 0.5 linear feet.
  • Conferences Attended Unit: Notes, correspondence, speaker bios, agendas, photographs and publicity relating to conferences attended by Sullivan from 1980 through 2016. Size: 0.25 linear feet.
  • Trips Unit: Notes, correspondence, itineraries and travel guidelines relating to research trips to Australia (1978, 1981) and the USSR (1980). Size: 0.25 linear feet.
  • Proposals & Grants Unit: Grant applications, proposals, correspondence and notes relating to research funding from 1973 through 2001. Size: 0.5 linear feet.
  • Awards Unit: Notes, correspondence, photographs and publicity relating to Sullivan’s receipt of the LeRoy E. Doggett Prize for Historical Astronomy in 2012. Size: 1 folder.


General Correspondence Series: Correspondence relating to the history of radio astronomy from 1972 through 2018, organized chronologically. Size: 0.5 linear feet.


Collected Publications Series:

  • Books Unit: Books used by Sullivan in his research or given to Sullivan by interviewees. Many of the books are annotated by Sullivan; some have related material (reviews, correspondence) inside. Size: 12 linear feet. Click here for a listing of books.
  • Bibliographies Unit: Published and unpublished bibliographies and literature searches relating to the history of radio astronomy. Includes clippings from the New York Times and London Times. Most bibliographies are in English, with a few in Russian. Size: 1.75 linear feet. Click here for a listing of bibliographies.
  • Subject Files Unit: This collection comprises ca. 2,500 articles, preprints, reprints, reports, pamphlets, booklets and theses collected by Sullivan. Included is almost every published article (worldwide) relevant to radio astronomy and its history through ca. 1955, with an additional box of material from ca. 1956-1965. Articles are mostly in English, with some in French, German, Dutch or Russian. Many of the articles are annotated by Sullivan; some are autographed by the author. Sullivan organized the articles by subject, then author within each subject; we have retained this arrangement. Most of the pre-1956 articles are indexed in Sullivan’s Index Card Catalog (see below). Size: 16.5 linear feet. Click here for a folder listing.
  • Index Card Catalog Unit: Sullivan created an index card catalog for his subject files which is housed in two metal file boxes. The cards are cross-indexed by author, publication year, subject and place. There are ca. 230 items acquired after ca. 1987 that are not cross-indexed and are filed alphabetically by the first author in a separate sequence in the card catalog. Reprints from ca. 1956-1965 and a small number of reprints from pre-1956 are not included in the card catalog. Notes regarding Sullivan’s organization scheme can be found in the Administrative Files Series. Size: 2 metal file boxes.


Photographs Series: Photographs (prints and negatives) relating to the history of radio astronomy in the US, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Holland, collected by Sullivan. Includes line drawings, photocopies of published photographs and identification notes by Sullivan. Also includes a few digital photos of Sullivan himself. Most photographs have captions on the back by Sullivan or others. One folder comprises slide portraits of many of the individuals interviewed by Sullivan for his book. The slide portraits have been digitized; contact the archivist for information and access. The original photographic prints and drawings for Cosmic Noise are filed in Sullivan Publications Series, Cosmic Noise Unit. Photographs relating to radio astronomy in the USSR are located in the Working Files Series, Institution Unit. Click here for a selection of digitized photos. Size: 2.25 linear feet.


Miscellany Series: References and odd items of interest relating to the history of radio astronomy. Artifacts comprise: a book of matches from Jodrell Bank (1970); a metal pin and cloth badge for the RATAN-600 radio telescope in the USSR (1980); and an empty can of Reber Butter Beans. Size: 0.5 linear feet plus one 6x6” box of artifacts.