How "Astronomy" magazine started — and its history on DVD

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What a fitting way to celebrate my 200th blog! Here is the story of how University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point journalism student Steve Walther started Astronomy magazine 39 years ago.

Kalmbach Publishing Co.
I’ll be sharing the history of the magazine from time to time, a little at a time, in this blog. It’s a fascinating story that has witnessed astronomy grow in leaps and bounds as our understanding of the cosmos has deepened. And you can capture the whole history of the magazine on DVD for your computer — every page of every issue, 449 issues and more than 46,000 pages altogether.

The DVD also includes the entire histories of Deep Sky and Telescope Making magazines, two quarterlies published by Astronomy, 23 special issues published over the past 15 years, and other special features. It comprises a gold mine for anyone interested in astronomy. Check it out here.

As background, here’s the story of the magazine’s genesis:

Little did Stephen A. Walther know that his brainchild would turn into the world’s greatest magazine about astronomy. At 29, the ambitious graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point launched a periodical about his first love, the stars. The enterprise took root in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an unlikely place for a magazine about astronomy. In 1973, Milwaukee was a city of just more than 700,000, a Germanic locale overshadowed by nearby Chicago and characterized — lampooned, in fact — by the four B’s: beer, bikes (Harley-Davidsons, specifically), bratwurst, and bowling. The following year, the city would gain comic fame with the launching of the TV series Happy Days, to be followed by Laverne and Shirley. For now, it was a gritty, economically challenged manufacturing city that had been settled by French fur traders as early as 1818.

Steve Walther’s love had always been the stars. Born July 22, 1944, in Stevens Point, in the middle of Wisconsin, Walther became interested in astronomy as a child and enjoyed taking pictures of constellations with short exposures using a camera and tripod. By the time he was 14, he had an insatiable thirst for observing and astrophotography. Walther enjoyed reading Sky & Telescope magazine as a young man and often recommended the journal to others at star parties. But he dreamed of a different type of magazine for astronomy enthusiasts, one that focused on the wider audience who enjoyed gazing at the sky or reading about the latest cosmic discoveries without the tone of a serious scientific journal. The seeds of Astronomy magazine were sown.

When he reached college age, Walther enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and majored in communications. He chose an independent study course that allowed him to create and articulate a magazine project, in which he defined what would later become Astronomy. The course provided the framework to think about the magazine and exactly what it might contain; Walther laid down a plan to reach lay readers interested in the science, entry-level hobbyists, amateur and armchair astronomy enthusiasts, and those who simply believed the night sky was beautiful.

Walther planned a magazine that was substantial in content but also beautifully illustrated like a coffee-table book. He wanted an open dialog with readers so he could “converse” with them as a community of friends. He wanted to emphasize, as he put it, the sheer joy and excitement of astronomy, and highlight in each issue new wonders of the universe.

The fire growing in Walther’s spirit to make the magazine a reality only increased after his college graduation. Although he worked in public relations, Walther arranged to set up a corporation with his brother David, a Milwaukee attorney. In September 1972, Steve and David Walther established AstroMedia Corp. with the intention of publishing a magazine. And what should the magazine’s name be? There was only one obvious choice — Astronomy.

More to come!

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