Paper Observatory Domes

3 05 2017

Digging through notes I made during my research in the Lick Observatory archives in 2013, I found an intriguing letter written by Thomas Fraser, the foreman during the construction of the observatory, addressed to Richard Floyd, the chairman of the Lick Trust. Fraser wrote it while traveling in the spring and early summer of 1885, when he represented the observatory’s interests before various dignitaries and astronomers and studied extant dome designs in various eastern U.S. cities.

The Journey Begins

Fraser’s trip would be the envy of any amateur astronomer now. In New Orleans, he visited “the Exposition” (the World Cotton Centennial, which ran from December 1884 to June 1885 on the current site of the Audubon Park and Zoo) before moving on to Washington, D.C. via Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston. In D.C., Fraser enjoyed Grover Cleveland’s (first) inauguration and visited the Smithsonian Institute before visiting Fauth & Co., where he examined a “dividing engine for circles” and a 6-inch refractor that “beats Warner and Swaisey [sic] all to peaces [sic].” (Spelling, grammar, and punctuation were definitely not Fraser’s strong suits.)

Title page of Fauth & Co. catalogue, 1883, full text available at

From D.C., Fraser traveled with Edward Holden (then President of the University of California, soon to be director of the Lick Observatory) to Charlottesville, VA, where they were met by Ormond Stone, director of the Leander McCormick Observatory at UVa. Fraser wasn’t much impressed with the observatory’s dome, writing that “There is many good points about this Dome for this place, but for our place this is many bad ones which must be remedied before we could adopted such a style of Dome … ” Fraser didn’t like the rigidity of the ring designed by the Warner & Swasey Company, nor did he think the gear for rotating the dome was sufficient to really get the job done. He did, however, like the shutters, even though “they are far from rain and snow proof.”

From Virginia, Fraser traveled to Boston via New York, where he tried but apparently failed to meet with Henry Draper. In the Boston area, Fraser first visited Alvan Clark’s workshop in Cambridgeport, MA (about 2-1/2 miles from where I’m sitting; the Central Square Branch of the Cambridge Public Library now sits on that site) to look at the 30-inch refractor Clark was building for Pulkovo Observatory. He then visited Charles Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory.

Fraser was busy in Boston (but not too busy to take a vacation in Lisbon, Maine, with his wife), wooing potential donors (James Francis up in Lowell), trying to sort out (by letter) issues with the lenses being constructed by Charles Feil in Paris, and so on. It took him awhile to move on. When he did, he stopped in New York and New Jersey to look at Princeton’s dome before heading to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, to study the dome at that school’s new observatory. What was special about this dome? It was made of paper.

Paper Boats and Things

West Point was only one of several U.S. observatories with paper domes at the end of the 19th century. I can see the allure of paper as a building material, at least in theory. It was lightweight, for one, and if you’ve ever played with papier-mâché, you’ll have some idea as to how it would work in a mold. It’s durability was already being tested in other areas of construction. Paper boats really were a thing back then, specifically, boats made by George and Elisha Waters (E. Waters & Sons) in upstate New York. It doesn’t seem like too much of a creative leap, anyway, to think about paper if you’re searching for a thin, durable, dome skin. The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for 1881 indicates that E., C.W., and G.A. Waters filed a patent for paper domes on May 3rd. But were paper domes any good, or did Fraser find they, too, had “many bad points”?

Patent brief from Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, 1881.


“Paper Domes for Observatories,” The Printers’ Circular and Stationers’ and Publishers’ Gazette Vol. 18, 1883.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The first paper dome manufactured by E. Waters & Sons went to the Williams Proudfit Observatory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Waters’ hometown of Troy, NY. Although the manufacturing process was kept a trade secret, the basics were reported fairly widely. The dome hemisphere was divided into sections and built out of molded wood ribs. The ribs were covered with linen paper molded to the right shape and treated with a (secret formula) resin. The individual wood-and-paper sections were then bolted together to form the dome. Allegedly RPI’s dome, which rotated on oversized ball-bearings on an iron track, worked just fine.

Part 1, “Paper Observatory Dome,” from Scientific American, February 22, 1879.

Part 2, “Paper Observatory Dome,” from Scientific American, February 22, 1879.

West Point

Given its proximity to RPI, it’s not surprising that the United States Military Academy (West Point) also ended up with a paper dome at its new observatory. West Point’s original observatory was part of the “old” Cadet Library, built in 1841.

William H. C. Bartlett, “Account of the Observatory and Instruments of the United States Military Academy at West Point; With Observations on the Comet of 1843,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society
Vol. 9, No. 2 (1845), pp. 191-203.

This library observatory was described well in “Observatories of the United States,” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for March 1874 (West Point is covered on pages 539-541). The same article announced that the observatory was in peril, for the West Shore Railroad Company had purchased the right of way to build a tunnel directly beneath the observatory property, necessitating the moving of equipment (the 12-inch Clark refractor, specifically) to a new site. The new site turned out to be a knoll on the east shore of Lusk Reservoir.

Landscape program proposed by Olmsted Brothers, from Sylvester Baxter, “The New West Point,” Century Illustrated Monthly Vol. 69, no. 3 (July 1904), p. 338.


I’m surprised how little has been written about the “new” West Point observatory, particularly since Holden ended up there as a librarian — or maybe that’s the reason. After Holden’s acrimonious departure from Lick in 1897, he more or less abandoned astronomy, taking up a librarian position at West Point in 1901. Or possibly it’s because the heavy-lifting was done by the U.S. Naval Observatory, not at West Point. At any rate, images of the observatory are difficult to find. A report on the observatory published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1891 describes the instruments, but not the building. I found a campus map in the West Point archives that shows a cruciform floor plan, as well a photo-engraving that shows the exterior of the building.

Observatory footprint (3) from West Point yearbook, the Howitzer. Image: West Point Archives, U410.N5.H84 1946.


From Aldolph Whitman, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.: photo-gravures, 1896. Archives identifier U410.L3 W783 1896.


Detail from Aldolph Whitman, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.: photo-gravures, 1896. Image: West Point Archives, U410.L3 W783 1896.


It’s difficult to tell anything from that image, but that should be the paper dome, since the photo was taken only 13 years after the observatory was built. Was that paper dome great? Fraser didn’t seem to think so. This quote comes from the letter he wrote to Floyd, dated April 28, 1885, just two years after the observatory was built. The passage is a bit long, but interesting (if only for the spelling):

“I have been at West Point today to see the 30 foot Paper Dome covering a Clarks 12″ Objective I am free to say that Paper Covering for Domes is a failure in the full sense of the word the paper althou almost new is now cracked in lots of places and has pealed of in other places the paper was never pressed to the shape of the Dome but is a flat surface between the wooden ribs the shutter is hung inside of the Dome on a centre pivot at the top and swings round on a track or rail inside the dome it leakes and works bad the live ring is all rong and works with a watch takel and is awful hard they had a rope to revolve it but it worked so bad they toke it off [1v] you can’t reach the end of the tube frome the floor as the floor is too low they have a great big chair that costs heaps of money to make revolve around the pier on rails, they have a transit circle roome for a 7 ½” or 8” Repsolds Circle the Roome is not larger than our Transit House about 15×20 inside with 3 feet sonte walls and small windows there ventilation will be simpley horiable I should think money has been badely wasted here just the same as all the Observatorys I have seen ours beats them all to peaces there instrument the 12” and its mounting is rusty just like all the rest I expected better of the West Point boys I wonder will Prof Holden have his in good order if not we better never turn our Observatory over to an astronomer from what I have seen of them”

Ouch. Fraser expected better of the West Point boys, and judging from his evaluation, I would’ve expected the dome to fail a week or two later. Of course, it didn’t, and we know Fraser was a bit … hard to please … when it came to domes, so it probably wasn’t the disaster he described. Although the dome was repaired at one point in its long life, it was never replaced.

According to Jim Chung (Astro-Imaging Projects for Amateur Astronomers: A Maker’s Guide, Springer 2002), the observatory and refractor were restored in 1938 by a sophomore cadet named Alan Edward Gee, but after Gee graduated, no one used the observatory. I dug deep into the S&T archives and found a mention of a visit to the West Point Observatory made by members of the Amateur Astronomers League of America (A.A.A.) in May 1941 (“Notes on the A.A.V.S.O. Spring Meeting,” The Sky Vol. V, No. 9 (July 1941): 16). The group operated the “fine 12-inch refractor which is unfortunately not used at the present time” during their visit, as well as the dome, though no one described the dome in print. The author of an article on paper canoes in the February 1951 issue of Popular Science claimed that the West Point dome was “still good as new.” However, a 2004 historic structures report on the redoubts of West Point noted that the observatory was demolished in the 1950s, so it seems unlikely that the dome was in pristine condition at that late a date.

Other Paper Domes

At least two other college observatories sported paper domes: Beloit College and Columbia. Beloit’s Smith Observatory welcomed its paper dome on September 6, 1882. The dome apparently stood until the observatory building was demolished in 1969.

Smith Observatory
Image: Beloit College Archives

The dome for the new observatory at Columbia (then College, now University) necessarily needed to be lightweight. The observatory was built on top of the college library, 110 feet above grade, on iron girders “entirely independent of the floor.” According to the Printers’ Circular reproduced above, Columbia’s dome was 20 feet in diameter and 11 feet tall, “yet so light that it [could] readily be turned with one hand.” That would certainly be handy. But a historical sketch of Columbia, written in 1893, noted that “the position of the observatory in the middle of a city block close by one of hte largest railroads in the country, and surrounded by smoky chimneys and brilliant electric lights, makes it a poor place generally for observation.” Plans were already in the works for a new observatory at 116th Street. So the longevity of the paper dome was probably the least of the university’s worries.


Did the paper dome “craze” last? Not in a professional context. Certainly it wasn’t practical for the large-scale domes like the one at Lick (interested parties can send me their calculations for live loads on a paper observatory roof — could it hold the snow?). But I recently came across this thread on Cloudy Nights, and it seems the paper dome still has a place in amateur astronomy.

Washburn Observatory

26 10 2011
West Facade, Washburn Observatory

West Facade, Washburn Observatory

I was in Madison, Wisconsin, for a conference last week. I took advantage of the beautiful autumn weather to pay a quick afternoon visit to the Washburn Observatory on the University of Wisconsin campus. The observatory stands on top of Observatory Hill, at a point from which visitors have a fantastic view of Lake Mendota. Unfortunately, I only had my iPhone camera with me, so I couldn’t do the building justice in terms architectural documentation (and didn’t even try to make an appointment to view the instruments inside, where I was sure my camera would disappoint me), but did manage to capture a few interesting exterior details.

The observatory exists because of the generosity of former Wisconsin governor Cadwallader C. Washburn, who donated the money and selected the site for the building. Washburn was apparently motivated by a desire to show up those hotshots at Harvard College Observatory—he agreed to fund the project, but required that the instrument to be acquired for the observatory be larger than the 15″ refractor then in use at Harvard. Work on the observatory began in May 1878 under the supervision of architect David R. Jones (also selected by Washburn), and Alvan Clark and Sons built a 15.6″ refractor for the new observatory, temporarily putting Harvard in its place.[1]

What stands now on Observatory Hill bears a close resemblance to the original observatory. Even before the formal dedication in 1882, the building had been expanded beyond the original program, which had called only for a domed space for the telescope, with two flanking wings to house a meridian circle and other equipment.

Shutter Doors

Shutter Doors for Meridian Circle Telescope, North Facade, Washburn Observatory

The first director of the observatory, James Craig Watson, requested that calculating rooms and living quarters be added; the addition, built to the east and connected to the first building by a short passageway, was completed in 1881. Watson also provided funds for a second observatory, intending to train students with the telescope in that space rather than with the refractor under the main dome.

In one of those tragic twists of fate, both Washburn and Watson died before the observatory’s dedication (Washburn in 1882 , Watson in 1880). Edward S. Holden (b. 1846-d. 1914) transferred from the U.S. Naval Observatory to Wisconsin, where he served as director of the observatory from 1881-1885.[2] By the end of Holden’s tenure, the observatory’s architecture was largely set in place; only a few small changes took place over the next 50 years or so. For instance, the porch on the east wing was enclosed in the 1920s.

Porch, northwest corner of east wing

Porch, Northwest Corner of East Wing, Washburn Observatory

A wrought-iron balcony was added to the main dome (only accessible from the telescope room) at some later date, and the interior of the building was reconfigured at various times to accommodate changing needs for office and classroom space.

”]TransitionLike most observatories of its age, its instrumentation is useful for lessons in the history of astronomy and public outreach. The real astronomical research at University of Wisconsin has moved on to other spaces and other pursuits. The building was completely renovated in 2008-09 so that it could be given over to the UW College of Letters and Sciences Honors Program. Public viewing sessions with the 15.6″ refractor are still held every other Wednesday (or so); otherwise, anyone is free to walk around and enjoy the observatory’s exterior at any time of the day.


South Facade

South Facade, showing tooled edges of quoin at corner transition to entrance


[1] This post relies upon information included in the the Feasibility Study for Washburn Observatory conducted by Isthmus Architecture, Inc. in April 2004.

[2] Holden left Wisconsin in 1885 to become the president of the University of California. In 1888, he became the first director of Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory

22 05 2011
36" Lick Reflector

36" Lick Refractor. Photo Credit: JR.

Life unexpectedly detoured me through central California last week, so I thought I would take advantage of its (relative) proximity to visit Lick Observatory. The observatory is draped across the uppermost peaks of Mt. Hamilton in the Diablo Range east of San Jose. It’s open to the public on most days of the year, but hours and days are restricted during the winter months, so check the opening schedule before making the drive.

The daytime public program is focused on the historic instruments of the observatory, especially the Great Refractor installed under the dome custom-built for it in 1887.  This 36″ telescope, the lenses for which were ground by Alvan Clark & Son (the same workshop that ground the lenses for the refractors at the Yerkes and Cincinnati observatories), lives in the largest of two domes flanking the Main Building of the observatory.  A 12″ reflector that had been purchased second-hand from Alvan Clark originally lived in the smaller dome at the opposite end of the building; it now houses the 40″ Nickel Reflector. One has to wonder what instrumental astronomy would have looked like in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth century had Alvan Clark not been around to polish the needed lenses and mirrors.

Interior, Dome at Lick Observatory

Interior of Great Refractor Dome, Lick Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

As you can see from the photo above, the Great Refractor was protected by a dome that was designed with a concern for aesthetics as much as functionality. The underside of the dome was tinted with a color meant to evoke the heavens and the walls were finished with California redwood paneling. James Lick might’ve been an odd guy, but he knew his woodworking.

Observatory floor and gears, Lick Observatory

Observing floor and vertical gear, Lick Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

The floor of the observatory, which was finished with mahogany and ringed with brass railings, was designed to move up and down along a vertical system of spur gears. This cleverness allowed observers to stand on a solid surface while looking through the eyepiece of the telescope, rather than on top of a ladder as was customary with large instruments.

Looking East to Shane 3-meter Reflector, Lick Observatory.

Looking East to Shane 3-meter Reflector, Lick Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

In addition to the guide-led program in the Main Building, there is also a small viewing gallery open to the public in the dome of the Shane 3-meter Reflector. I thought the gallery was under-used, in that the interpretive materials were limited, and public view of the instrument was partially blocked by unidentified objects. The most interesting part of the display was the absolutely ancient black-and-white publicity movie that talked about the early history of the instrument. The corners on Mt. Hamilton Road are so tight that they had to use a relay system to get the 120″ glass for the mirror to its destination, using a crane to transfer the glass from the bed of the truck approaching the corner to the truck waiting on the other side of the corner. You can see below that many of the corners are more than just simple switchbacks, they actually start to double-back on themselves.

Approach to Lick Observatory.

Approach to Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton Road. Photo credit: JR.

As an architectural historian, I thought the public program was fascinating; I stood through it twice, in fact. As I was wandering around the larger complex, however, I couldn’t help but wish that public programs spent more time explicating current research and observing practices. I suppose it’s not very practical to demonstrate the Automated Planet Finder or the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope; most observational data is crunched with computers manned by tired postdocs. (Take a look at a panoramic view of the control room for the Shane 3-meter during an observing run, for instance. Not enough drama for tourists, I’m pretty sure.) But sometimes I wonder if programs focused on the historical leave the public with the feeling that little has changed in instrumental astronomy in the last century, or if it has, that those changes aren’t important or comprehensible. There are at least ten domes at Lick Observatory and new instruments are being added or adapted on a regular basis. I think if the University of California is depending on public dollars to fund the research at the observatory, it might be good to put more information about current research in visitors’ hands. I enjoyed the slide displays of recent discoveries and accomplishments that lined the halls of the Main Building, but I think it would be more effective to have some of those research goals articulated by the guide during public presentations.

Just a side note: if you’re driving up to Lick Observatory from San Jose, be careful. This is a very popular training route for cyclists (in fact, the Amgen Tour of California passed through the day before I went up), so don’t whip around those blind curves—it’s not nice to run over cyclists with your car.

Cincinnati Observatory Center

7 05 2011

Cincinnati Observatory (Herget) Building. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Observatory Center.

My partner and I stopped by the Cincinnati Observatory Center the last time we were in town, even though overcast skies meant conditions weren’t ideal for viewing. Sometimes observatories cancel their public programs on cloudy nights, but the Cincinnati group tries to find something interesting to substitute for a viewing session.  So, if you show up to find clouds, you won’t get to use the Merz und Mahler 11″ refractor, but you might hear a good presentation by one of the undergraduate students on her research, look at some of the new images from the observatory’s astrophotography program, or take a historical tour of the main building. The historical tour is also offered every other Sunday afternoon (or so). [Side note:  there’s a 16″ refractor, built by the same company that built the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes Observatory, Alvan Clark and Sons, but public education programs usually use the Merz und Mahler telescope.]

Going on that tour is a good idea since Cincinnati is the oldest professional observatory in the U.S. and houses the oldest telescope still in use nightly by the public.

That brings me to my real interest in the site–the Herget building. If you walk around the outside of the main building (the Herget building), you may notice this cornerstone:

Original Cornerstone of Cincinnati Observatory. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Observatory Center.

Cool, huh? Laid by John Quincy Adams in May, 1843 CE. The only problem is, this is the stone from the original observatory building that was constructed on Mt. Ida (renamed Mt. Adams).  The observatory existed at that location until a few years after the end of the Civil War, when the University of Cincinnati took responsibility for the observatory and its existing instruments. Over a period of two years, beginning in 1871 CE, the observatory was moved to its present location on Mt. Lookout, where the old cornerstone was incorporated into a new structure.

Main (Herget) Building, Cincinnati Observatory. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Observatory Center.

The new building was designed by Samuel Hannaford and Sons, a local but prominent architecture firm. If nothing else, the observatory’s Greek Revival design demonstrates the firm’s incredible versatility.  Around the same time, Hannaford designed the Renaissance Revival (aka Italianate) Cuvier Press Club Building (1862), his own late Victorian house (1863), the Neo-Romanesque St. George Parish Church (1872), the Neo-Gothic Music Hall (1878), the Neo-Romanesque Nast Trinity Church (1881), the Second Empire Palace Hotel (1882), the god-knows-what-but-looks-vaguely-Pugin-esque Elsinore Arch (1883), and the Queen Anne style Balch House (1896).  Sure some of his aesthetic adaptability came from his early training at the firm of Edwin Anderson and William Tinsley (compare Hannaford’s work with Anderson and Tinsley’s Romanesque Revival buildings) and some came from a temporary partnership with Edwin Proctor. Most of his creativity seems to stem from his work with his own sons, though.

Note the original solution for the rotating “dome.”  The flat-sided/flat-roofed cupola rotated on bearings fashioned from cannon balls left over after the Civil War.  The cupola was replaced with a dome in 1895 CE. Today it rotates electronically, although the viewing door is still operated by rope and pulley.

Cincinnati Observatory Mitchel Building. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Observatory Center.

There’s a second building on the observatory campus, the O. M. Mitchel building. When the 16″ Clark telescope was installed in the main building, the 11″ Merz und Mahler was moved into the Mitchel building. The conical roof on the Mitchel building opened to allow for comet hunting. Nifty, especially in the snow.

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.