A History of the origins of Atomic Spectrometry Updates


The chain of events leading up to the establishment of Atomic Spectrometry Updates (ASU) began in a Melbourne garden one Sunday morning in March 1952 when Alan Walsh, in his own words1 realised “that there appeared to be no good reason for neglecting atomic absorption spectra” as a tool for spectrochemical analysis. Next day, the essential components of a practical analytical instrument were assembled and consisted of an atomic vapour generator (a flame), a modulated atomic resonance line light source (a sodium vapour discharge lamp), wavelength selection and a photo detector system tuned to the modulation frequency. The experiment was a success and Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (AAS) was born.

The relevance of the demonstration and subsequent promotion of AAS by Alan Walsh to the emergence of ASU lies in the fact that early in the 1960´s workers in the UK who were applying AAS to practical analytical problems were brought together under the auspices of the Physical Methods Group of the Society for Analytical Chemistry (SAC), (now the Analytical Division (AD) of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)) to form, in 1962, the AAS Discussion Group with W. T. Elwell as chairman. The Group thrived and became the Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy Group (AASG) of the SAC in 1964. Again in 1969, the name of the Group was changed to the Atomic Spectroscopy Group (ASG) to reflect the widening interest of members in other spectrochemical methods, particularly atomic fluorescence and inductively coupled plasma emission. Later, X-ray fluorescence and mass spectrometry were included in the remit of the Group. The ASG continues to be active today and has prime responsibility for organising the Biennial National Atomic Spectroscopy Symposia.

The Forerunner

The importance of the early ASG activities to ASU is two-fold, first they were the means of launching the “Annual Reports on Analytical Atomic Spectroscopy” (ARAAS), the predecessor of ASU, secondly they brought together a group of like-minded, dedicated and enthusiastic individuals who created a tradition of commitment and camaraderie which is still the prime motivation of the Board of ASU.

The publication of ARAAS came about as a direct consequence of the highly successful International Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy Conference held in Sheffield in 1969. The Conference was organised by the ASG of the SAC and the Spectroscopy Group of the Institute of Physics and Physical Society under the chairmanship of J. B. Dawson. As a result of the enthusiasm (and profit!) generated by the success of the Conference, the ASG under the chairmanship of W. J. Price looked around for future projects to utilise the enthusiasm and international goodwill generated by the Conference. They concluded that some form of international publication would best meet the needs of the atomic spectroscopy community. A journal working party under the chairmanship of G. F. Kirkbright recommended that the interest in and great rate of developments in analytical atomic spectroscopy and its applications merited an annual publication devoted to reviews of progress in the field. Such a publication would be designed to assist the analytical chemist to keep abreast with his subject and reduce the need for extensive personal literature searches. The proposal for such a publication was put to the Council of the SAC who welcomed it and agreed to support the project for a trial period of 3 years. The publication, which was to appear annually in book form, was entitled “Annual Reports on Analytical Atomic Spectroscopy”.

The first volume of ARAAS was published in Summer 1972 and reported on developments during 1971. The Editorial Board consisted of 37 members, 19 of whom were from overseas; the Editor was D. P. Hubbard and the Chairman of the Editorial Board, J. B. Dawson. The “Reports” was based on over 1,000 abstracts supplied by Board Members. The subject matter was presented under the broad headings of:

  1. Fundamentals and Instrumentation with sub-divisions of: Light Sources, Excitation Sources and Atomizing Systems, Optics, Detector Systems, Data Processing, Complete Instrumentation and Ancillary Equipment.
  2. Methodology: General Techniques (Sample preparation, evaluation), Applications (Metals, Petroleum and Petroleum Products/Refractories and Metal Oxides/Medicine/Environmental Studies/Minerals/Soils, Agricultural Products/Chemicals).

Where appropriate, tables were used to condense and clarify information and then, as now in ASU, the publication details were presented in the reference list.

The book was a success and publication continued under the aegis of the AD of the Chemical Society from 1974 and of the AD of the RSC from 1979 following the unification of the Societies. However, in later years, the increased number of abstracts (about 2,500 annually) led to delays between the appearance of papers and publication of their reviews of sometimes more than a year, with the consequent loss of topicality. Further, the hardback book format adopted by the RSC was expensive to produce and difficult to market. These factors prompted the ARAAS Board under the chairmanship of B. L. Sharp to look for ways of preserving the ARAAS publication in some other form.

The Launching of ASU

Fortunately, at the same time (1984) as ARAAS´s problems arose, the AD of the RSC, on the initiative of J. M. Ottaway (a board member of ARAAS and chair of the Analytical Editorial Board) were considering launching a new international journal for the publication of original papers relating to the development and analytical application of atomic spectrometric techniques. The journal was to be called the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry (JAAS) and published bi-monthly. The possibility of incorporating the material published in ARAAS into JAAS was considered and found to be feasible. The approach followed was to divide the subject matter published in ARAAS into 6 approximately equal sections, one section to be published in each issue of JAAS and to contain review material for the 12 months ending 6 months prior to the publication date of JAAS. This solution to the problems of ARAAS was welcomed by its Board and steps were taken to implement it as soon as possible. The title given to the new operation was “Atomic Spectrometry Updates” (ASU). By incorporating 18-24 months of collected abstracts (~3200 papers) into the first year of JAAS there was no gap in the coverage during transition of the literature reviews from ARAAS Vol.14 (1984) and JAAS Vol.1 (1986).

Of the original members of the ARAAS Board, five were still serving when it was disbanded and they transferred to the ASU Board. During its existence some 83 individuals had served on the ARAAS Board. The new Board, under the chairmanship of B. L. Sharp, consisted of 43 members, the majority of whom (36) transferred from the ARAAS Board including 20 members from outside the UK. Clearly, ASU was built on the very solid foundations laid during the operation of ARAAS.

Operation of ASU

By virtue of being published within JAAS, a primary journal with fixed publication schedules, the ASU production now operates within a tighter timetable than did ARAAS. This has exerted a salutary discipline on the authors of the reviews and on the publishing team! The titles of the initial 6 reviews reflect their ARAAS origin and were:- Environmental Analysis; Clinical Materials, Food and Beverages; Instrumentation; Chemicals, Iron, Steel and Non-ferrous metals; Atomization and Excitation; Minerals and Refractories. The change in the ordering of subject matter in ASU compared with the first issue of ARAAS reflects the greatly increased use of spectrochemical methods of analysis for the determination of elements in a wide variety of materials. After 18 years of publication the present day (2002) subject headings again reflect the continuing changes of emphasis that have taken place over that time with new sections devoted to “X-ray fluorescence” and to “Atomic mass spectrometry” being added and previous sections amalgamated, eg, “Instrumentation” was merged into “Advances in atomic emission, absorption and fluorescence spectrometry and related techniques” and “Minerals and Refractories” merged into “Industrial Analysis, metals, chemicals and advanced materials”.

Over the 18 years of its existence, 126 individuals have served on the ASU Board. Of its present membership of 35, 7 have served throughout this time providing valuable continuity. The regular flow of retiring and new members of the Board has provided the flexibility and stimulation which has ensured that ASU maintains its topicality and relevance to the analytical atomic spectroscopists. All those who have been members of the Board have played important roles in maintaining the continuity and the Scientific integrity of ASU. During that time there have been five chairmen: M. S. Cresser (1986), D. L. Miles (1989), A. T. Ellis (1995), J. Marshall (1998), S. J. Hill (2001), each of whom have shown great devotion to the publication and have introduced improvements to the administrative procedures and to the structure of the “Updates”.

The Board is constantly aware of the need to experiment with new ventures, for example, the preparation and collection of abstracts, which began as a manual system, is now successfully totally computerised and handles closer to 6,000 abstracts p.a. On the other hand, an experiment in the early 1990´s to make ASU abstracts available to scientists in electronic form was discontinued after a few years when it became clear that it was not going to be financially sustainable in the future. However, electronic publishing is a topic under regular review by the Board and, in view of the fluidity in that field, it may be that some day it will become the medium of choice. In the meantime (2003), an ASU web site is being set up. The Board is committed to improving the content and production efficiency of ASU and to reporting promising new developments in atomic spectrometry and in its applications for the benefit of the readership of ASU.

Annual Board Meetings

An important part of the philosophy of ASU (as of ARAAS before it) is demonstrated in the format of the Annual Board Meetings. Most of the members of the Editorial Executive Committee are, necessarily, scientists working within the UK. The Editorial Board, however, draws its membership world wide, and not all of them can attend the annual meeting of the Board. It has always been the practice, therefore, to invite two overseas members to attend. In the past, the opportunity of their presence was used to arrange an open scientific meeting on the day following the Board meeting with the visitors presenting plenary lectures on their own special topic of work. These open meetings are now included within the programme of a larger meeting ie BNASS on alternative years. They have taken place at many venues in the UK., eg, Aberdeen, Ambleside, Bristol, Cambridge, Dublin, Newcastle, Plymouth, Sheffield, Teddington, York, as well as in Vienna.

As far as the Editorial Board is concerned, the greatest advantage of these meetings has always been the maintenance of personal contact with its overseas members, with the possibility of more intimate discussions and exchange of ideas – not to mention the great fun had by all at the annual dinner!


As we have seen in this brief history, the existence of ASU today is a direct consequence of the thoughts of one man and his promotion of atomic absorption spectrometry along with many generations of scientists who, over some 40 years have given and continue to give freely of their expertise to the dissemination of knowledge and also the enlightened support given to their activities by the Councils of the SAC and RSC and their professional staff. Further information on the operations of JAAS, ASU and ARAAS and of the influence of Alan Walsh on the developments of atomic spectroscopy may be found in References 2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively.


  1. Walsh, A.*, The development of the atomic absorption spectrometer. Spectrochim. Acta. Part B, 1999, 54, 1943.
    * Deceased: Correspondence to P.Hannaford, CSIRO, Manufacturing Science and Technology, Clayton 3169, Australia
  2. Harnly, J., and Holliday, B., Interviews with B. L. Sharp and J. Egan- Shuttler, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 1995, 10(1), 2N.
  3. Miles, D., Atomic Spectrometry Updates, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 1995, 10 (1), 6N.
  4. Dawson, J.B., and Price, W.J., A short history of the Annual Reports on Analytical Atomic Spectroscopy, “ARAAS”, 1971-1984, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 1995, 10(1), 7N.
  5. Dawson, J.B., and Price, W.J., Alan Walsh – his influence on the development of atomic spectrometry in the UK., Spectrochim. Acta. Part B, 1999, 54, 2011.