How Astronomers Digitized the Sky


Starting in the 1960s, astronomers’ analog view of the universe gradually transformed as scientists and engineers introduced digital computers, electronic detectors, and magnetic recording media into observatory domes and laboratories. The advantages of this were considerable: once the underlying technical architecture and social practices were in place, digital data can be more easily analyzed, manipulated, transported, and communicated. As they replaced and supplemented older technologies, astronomers’ basic research practices changed accordingly. This helped reshape norms and behaviors in the research community, altering astronomy’s moral economy. The importance of collecting, processing, and sharing digital data transcended specific institutions, individual research questions, and national boundaries. This article explores this process, using representative examples and the metaphor of data friction, focusing on both the development of hardware and data standards. For astronomers, the transition from analog to digital was, in both senses of the phrase, a universal concern.