Considerable attention has recently been given to the observation of interstellar molecules by radio methods. Interstellar molecules have also been given a boost because of excitation by the 3K black body radiation field (to use a convenient description). Nevertheless optical studies of interstellar lines have reached a very low ebb and, with brighter moments, have remained so since the work of Adams (1949).
The years 1937-1942 were the exciting period for optical studies of interstellar molecular lines. It is interesting to note that it was not molecular lines as such that led to the suspicion that molecules might exist in interstellar space but it was the discovery of the diffuse features at 5780, 5797, 6284 and 6614 by Merrill (1934) that led Russell (1935) to speculate on the possibility of their existence. It was Swings and Rosenfeld (1937) who stressed that likely interstellar molecules would be CH, OH, NH, CN and C2. Dunham, Adams and McKellar did much of the work of identifying interstellar lines in the period 1937-1940 and indeed McKellar (1941) had derived an excitation temperature of 2-3 K for CN - a value subsequently rediscovered.