Teachout Library and Observatory

31 01 2012

Workers at Teachout Library rooftop observatory, Hiram, Ohio, c. 1900. Photo courtesy Stephens Memorial Observatory and Hiram College Archives.

I’ve been slowly updating my public programs page. Just the idea of adding all the available viewing opportunities in California exhausts me, so I keep skipping that state to focus on observatories closer to home. Today, as I was digging through the links and thinking about a road trip, I came across a set of photos showing the construction of the Teachout Library and Observatory in Hiram, Ohio (replaced in 1939 by the Stephens Memorial Observatory).

I like the above photo for a couple of reasons.

First, it would seem that the photographer assigned a random tool to everyone, just in case his audience wouldn’t understand these men were involved in the building trades. We can see, from right to left: a carpenter square; something I’m not sure about but could be a flat construction pencil; a handsaw; a hatchet; a pick; and a hammer. The guy with the hammer is also holding an unknown object, possibly another hammer or a scribe.

The only worker not holding a tool is the one at the far left of the photo. That’s the second reason I like this photo. What’s that guy doing, peeking around the door jamb like that?

For more historic photos of the Teachout Library and Observatory, including a few of the 1939 fire that damaged the building but not the Warner and Swasey telescope inside, click the photo below.

Teachout Library and Observatory, c. 1900. Photo courtesy Stephens Memorial Observatory and Cary Bacher.

Wallpaper Wednesday

9 11 2011
McCormick Observatory

McCormick Observatory, University of Virginia

Today’s wallpaper features McCormick Observatory, located on Mt. Jefferson on the campus of the University of Virginia. The observatory is named after Leander J. McCormick, donor of the 26-inch astrometric refractor still housed under the dome of the building. Usually we see the names Warner & Swasey associated with the instruments (they designed the telescopes for the Kirkwood, Lick, University of Illinois, Theodor Jacobsen, and Yerkes Observatories, amongst others), but at University of Virginia, they were charged with the design of the original observatory dome, a first for the duo.[1] The dome was manually operated, but the track system provided for such an ease of motion that Warner & Swasey immediately applied for a patent for their design.[2] Construction work began in 1882; the observatory was formally dedicated on April 13, 1885.

In addition to the dome room, the original building included a wing that housed the calculating rooms and a bedroom. If you looked at the image above and thought that the building’s detailing looked more suited to a cathedral than an observatory, you would be right: the Medieval Renaissance windows and buttresses echo a similar motif used (more appropriately) on the University chapel.[3] The director’s house (now known as Alden House, or Observatory House #1) was also built in 1882, with additional funds supplied by McCormick.

To download wallpaper (standard sizes) of the above image, click here.


[1] Paul B. Barringer, James M. Garnett, and Rosewell Page, Eds., University of Virginia: Its History, Influence, Equipment and Characteristics (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1904): 9.

[2] After searching the patent registry, I can only guess that they were trying to protect their design for the process of cutting teeth of gear wheels, Patent No. 333, 488.

[2] Richard Guy Wilson and Sarah A. Butler, University of Virginia: The Campus Guide (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999): 144.

Frank K. Edmondson

13 09 2011
Frank K. Edmondson

Professor Edmondson at a telescope. Inset with Dr. Caty Pilachowski. Image credit: National Optical Astronomical Observatory News and Reports.

As you can tell from the last few posts, my book collection has grown a bit in the past few weeks, particularly in relation to the history of Harvard Observatory. My partner has been picking up observatory-related books from the local second-hand shop. As it turns out, the books she’s been sorting through were once part of the collection of Frank K. Edmondson, Professor and Chair of Astronomy at Indiana University. Prof. Edmondson did his undergraduate work at IU before earning his Ph.D. from Harvard University, so it’s not unexpected that his library would cover the history of astronomy at either location.

As an undergrad, Edmondson held an assistantship in astronomy, which meant he spent many hours working as a calculator to earn his 25 cents an hour. He was also responsible for opening and managing the Kirkwood Observatory during the weekly public sessions and nightly class meetings. This was on top of his coursework, which was mostly independent study because he was the only astronomy major at IU at the time. He studied almost exclusively under Prof. Wilbur A. Cogshall (see my discussion of the Knightridge Observatory and the Kirkwood Observatory) because, as he stated in an interview conducted in 1977,  “Cogshall was the astronomy department.”[1] The 1919 University Bulletin bears out this statement: all fourteen course offerings were taught by Cogshall.[2]

I’ve commented before on the tangled relationships between astronomers and observatories in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth-beginning of the twentieth century in the United States. University of Washington had close ties with Lick Observatory; Yerkes, Mount Wilson, Palomar, and Hale Solar observatories were tied together through George Ellery Hale; Alvan Clark & Sons designed refracting lenses for the Cincinnati Observatory Center, Yerkes,  and Lick Observatory; Warner & Swasey Company built the telescopes at the Lick, Kirkwood, Yerkes and University of Illinois observatories; and so on. Edmondson’s description of his student years at IU brings these interconnections to the forefront as well.

When John Miller (director of the Kirkwood Observatory from 1901-06) began to do double star work in Indiana, he brought on board Wilbur Cogshall, who had been working in Flagstaff as an assistant to T.J.J. See on his double star program. Soon after Cogshall’s arrival, V.M. Slipher (an astronomer originally from Mulberry, Indiana, who is credited with discovering rotational motion in spiral nebulae) graduated from IU. Cogshall used his contacts and got him a job at Flagstaff. The next year (1902), C.O. Lampland graduated from IU and headed off to Flagstaff as well, at Cogshall’s recommendation. E.C. Slipher, the astronomer noted for his observations of Mars and V.M.’s younger brother, followed the same pattern: graduate from IU, head to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Edmondson’s interviewer credited Lowell with bringing together a very “interesting” (and productive) group of scientists at Flagstaff, but Edmondson corrected that assumption, noting that “Yes, well, Cogshall — unless Cogshall had been there, Lowell would never have known about Indiana University, or Slipher or Lampland, if Cogshall had not come there.”

[Interviewer]: “I see, so in a way, it was Cogshall who built the observatory, as far as the staff was concerned.”

[Edmondson]: “That’s right. That’s right. — The three members of the staff, really, when I went out there — well, Arthur Adel was there, I guess, and Clyde Tombaugh — but the three senior members, the two Sliphers and Lampland, were all from Indiana. Then Arthur Adel had gone out there to work with Slipher on planetary spectra, and Tombaugh was there, of course. So your senior staff, for a long period of time, were 100 percent Indiana. As you say, Cogshall built the observatory staff, and that’s it.”

Go, Hoosiers!

The oral histories at the Niel Bohr Library and Archives are priceless. I’m looking forward to digging into Edmondson’s transcript more deeply, particularly for the year he was involved with the development of the NRAO and Green Bank as an NSF officer.


[1] Interview conducted with Edmondson by David DeVorkin in Edmondson’s Office, Swain Hall, Indiana University, 21 April, 1977.

[2] Cogshall had a little bit of help with the teaching. As Edmondson recalls, “K.P. Williams, who was in the mathematics department, taught orbit calculation. Agnes E. Wells, who was dean of women, who had a PhD in astronomy from Michigan, was in the mathematics department, her PhD was in astronomy from Michigan, and she taught history of astronomy. So history of astronomy was Agnes Wells, and orbit calculation was K.P. Williams, and all the rest of the astronomy was Cogshall.”

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

25 06 2011

The June edition of the  alumni magazine from (one of) my undergrad institutions arrived in the mail on Thursday. The last inside page (scroll to the bottom of the linked .pdf) was dedicated to a photo of the 6″ refracting telescope in the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the campus of the University of Washington. We’ve been having a discussion about the digital manipulation of the sky viewed through the dome’s opening—while the bottom half of the sky does a good job of representing Seattle’s light pollution, the top half isn’t a particularly accurate rendering of the sky visible above the observatory. Even so, it’s a lovely view of the Warner & Swasey equatorial mount and the  Brashear lens, as well as the Warner & Swasey wood dome.*

Refracting Telescope, Warner & Swasey Equatorial Mount

Refracting Telescope, Warner & Swasey Equatorial Mount. Image credit: University of Washington

Today, the observatory stands next to the campus gates at 45th and Memorial Way. While this part of campus remained undeveloped until the 1950s, by the time I was a student at UW in the 1980s, the woods had mostly been lost to (well-lit) parking lots. Possibly a few of the astronomy classes used the telescope for educational purposes until then, but mostly the observatory functioned for fifty years as a nice historical monument, the second oldest building on campus. Fortunately, the telescope was refurbished in the 1990s and just ten years ago, the astronomy department began using the observatory in its public outreach program.

The early astronomy program at University Washington had strong ties with the work being done at Lick Observatory, east of St. Jose, CA.  Mathematics professor Joseph M. Taylor studied at Lick as a “special student” in 1890 and returned to UW to found the astronomy department in 1891. When the university moved from downtown Seattle to its present location, Taylor spent $3000 allocated to the department by the Regents on a 6″ refractor and a building in which to house it. The original wood frame observatory stood for only three years before Taylor started looking for a more permanent structure.  In 1895, he appropriated the stone and money left over from the construction of nearby Denny Hall and directed it toward the construction of the masonry observatory we see on campus today.

The observatory is named after a later professor of astronomy, Theodor S. Jacobsen, who began teaching at UW in 1928. A graduate of UC-Berkeley, he worked as a Lick Observatory Fellow for two years after completing his Ph.D. Allegedly, he hurt his back moving the Great Refractor one night and decided to pursue a less physically risky career, like teaching astronomy and mathematics (although he continued his research on variable stars, so I’m not so sure about that story). At any rate, Professor Jacobsen had a long career at the university and afterward:  his last book came out in 1999, four years before his death at the age of 102.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Photo credit: University of Washington

The architecture of the observatory is well documented in the Historic Property Inventory Form submitted as part of the application process for inclusion on the State Register of Historic Buildings. Two choice passages:

“Built in 1894-95, this small, stone masonry building is the second oldest on the University of Washington campus. Charles W. Saunders, a leader of the architectural profession in Seattle during this era, designed this building as well as the first building on campus, Denny Hall, and the first gymnasium. Situated at the northern end of the central campus southeast of the NE 45th Street entrance, the observatory was built with stone remaining from the construction of Denny Hall, using surplus funds from that earlier project. The telescope dome sits on top of a two-story tower at the north end of a one0story building with flat roofline and a rectangular plan. Supported by large wooden brackets, a shallow wooden balcony with a low wooden balustrade encircles the northern half of this tower at the second story, ending at a small, enclosed stairwell on the west elevation. Built with roughly cut stone set in broken courses, the structure features segmentally arched door and window openings with radiating voussoirs reminiscent of the Romanesque Revival style. The windows appear to retain their original wooden sash units. Sheathed in sheet metal, the telescope dome rotates on cannon balls left over from the Civil War** and still houses the original six-inch clear-aperture telescope. Well-maintained with good physical integrity, the observatory continues to hold free public showings on selected clear nights with slide shows given on other evenings.”

“Charles W. Saunders initiated his practice in Seattle shortly after the 1869 fire and remained among the leaders of the architectural profession for the next twenty years. After 1898, Saunders was in a sixteen-year partnership with George W. Lawton. Together, they designed an extraordinarily wide range of projects executed in an eclectic variety of styles, including schools, residences, apartments, and commercial buildings as well as several buildings for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Lawton had also come to Seattle in 1889 and had worked for Saunders before entering into partnership with him.”

*If you’re counting, this makes the fifth Warner & Swasey telescope I’ve discussed recently; see the entries for the Lick, Kirkwood, Yerkes and University of Illinois observatories for the other four.

**Similar to the rotating mechanism in use at the Cincinnati Observatory Centre

Kirkwood Observatory

11 06 2011
Kirkwood Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana.

Kirkwood Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana. Photo credit: JR

Well, it’s summer in the American Midwest and that means severe weather is either coming or going, day and night. Even when the thunderstorms are quiet, the skies tend toward overcast here, a fact that must frustrate the students running the public program at the Kirkwood Observatory at Indiana University. In theory, the observatory holds an open house every Wednesday evening. In practice, the weather frequently interferes with the schedule.

Kirkwood Observatory, which stands on the western edge of Dunn Woods on IU’s campus, was named after Daniel Kirkwood, a professor of Mathematics at the university from 1856 until 1886. You might recognize his last name: Professor Kirkwood discovered (and more importantly, explained) what we now call the “Kirkwood gaps” in the asteroid belt.* He also proposed what is now known as (since disproved) Kirkwood’s Law.

Professor Kirkwood retired in 1886 and passed away in 1895. Five years later, construction began on the observatory that would bear his name. William J. Hussey, an astronomer at the Lick Observatory, came to town to give the dedication talk, “Astronomy in Modern Life,” for the opening day of the new building on May 15, 1901. The observatory was outfitted wtih a 12″ (0.3m) refracting telescope, built by Warner & Swasey Company. Sadly, the observatory was almost instantly obsolete, not only because of its instrumentation, but because of light pollution from the growing town. By 1920, university astronomers were seeking a new venue for making observations. Financial difficulties slowed the search down, and it wasn’t until 1936 that Professor Cogshall convinced IU to fund a new observatory at Knightridge.

Kirkwood Observatory has suffered a bit from neglect over the years, as the profession moved on to more sophisticated instrumentation (IU students working on observational astronomy now observe remotely, using the 3.5-m WIYN observatory at Kitt Peak in Arizona). The wood dome was in such sketchy condition by the 1990s that IU’s observational techniques class was held on the roof of Swain Hall West.  Fortunately, the building and telescope received an overhaul in 2001. The telescope is now used for teaching and public programs. Judging from the crowds we’ve encountered at the observatory recently, interest in observational astronomy is alive and well in Bloomington, Indiana.

Don’t forget to the check with the IU Astronomy Department before heading over the other observatory. They’ve been pretty good about keeping their twitter feed updated (@iuastro) on scheduled observing days.

*The main asteroid belt in our solar system lies between Mars and Jupiter. When studying the distribution of the asteroids in this region, Kirkwood noticed that there were several gaps, or empty zones, in the belt.  He proposed that these gaps were caused by the orbital resonance (gravitational disturbance) of Jupiter.

Yerkes Observatory

11 04 2011

Albert Einstein and the observatory staff in front of the 40-inch Refractor, 1921. Photo courtesy Yerkes Observatory.

I like to check into Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, every once in awhile, just to make sure it’s still standing.  The observatory, which houses multiple instruments (a 102 cm [40 inch] refracting telescope, a 102 cm reflecting telescope, and a 61 cm [24 inch] reflecting telescope, and several small telescopes), is one of several founded by the incredibly energetic astronomer, George Ellery Hale (dates).  Although conditions at this observatory are not ideal for observing—they perhaps never were, as Hale eventually left Wisconsin for California in search of skies with less atmospheric turbulence—the observatory still functions as a research space for the University of Chicago.

The 40-inch refractor at Yerkes is still the largest of its kind in the world (the 49-inch refractor exhibited at the Great Paris Exhibition of 1900 was dismantled afterward).  The mirror for the scope was ground by Alvan Clark & Sons from a 42-inch blank that Hale heard about “by chance.”  Some chance!  The scope’s tube, mounting, dome, and rising floor were designed by the firm of Warner & Swasey, out of Cleveland, Ohio.  Hale had been working in his private observatory (Kenwood Observatory), but after some back-and-forth with the president of University of Chicago, secured an associate professorship and the promise of new observatory in which he could install the great refractor.  The money to build the observatory came from the pockets of Chicagoan Charles Yerkes, who allegedly was enamored with the project simply because he wanted to build “the biggest” of some interesting thing.  The scope was in place by 1897, and astronomers instantly put the refractor to good use.  For instance, Burnham’s Catalogue of Double Stars was finished at Yerkes, as was Barnard’s Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way.  A great many of astrophotographic  techniques were pioneered at Yerkes, as well.

One of the strengths of the Yerkes Observatory is the condition of its telescopes, despite their age.  Because of the good state of preservation of the observatory and its continuing relationship with academic institutions, visitors not only have an opportunity to learn about the history of observational astronomy, they can see how observatory and its instruments  contributed to the professionalization of astronomy.  Yerkes runs programs for students of all ages (including the visually impaired!), putting young people in contact with both historical and contemporary approaches to research and development at the observatory.

The R&D program occasionally makes use of the historic instruments at the observatory.  For instance, a project to measure stellar motion takes advantage of photographs taken in the early 1900s and the 1980s with the 40-inch refractor.  Yerkes has over 170,000 photographic plates for use by researchers.

In truth, however, the observatory is mostly important because of its history, not because R&D relies on the original telescopes (University of Chicago does most of its observational astronomy at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico).  Because of this, the observatory is frequently under threat by plans to sell or develop the surrounding property.  Most recently, the property was slated for development for a luxury residential complex, but in the end, an appointed study group felt the observatory had too much potential as an educational center to surrender the property to a private developer (the final report was made available to the public).

As a historian of observatories, I can only be pleased that University of Chicago has re-dedicated itself to the preservation of the property, not just because it played a large role in the development of astronomy in the United States, but because the architecture of and the landscape surrounding the building are unique in their aesthetic. Those of you who have done work at the Newberry Library in Chicago might recognize the design hand of Henry Ivy Cobb in the Yerkes Observatory buildings.

Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay, Wisconsin

Detail of Pillar, Yerkes Observatory. Photo courtesy of Yerkes Observatory.