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.”

Knightridge Observatory

30 05 2011
Knightridge Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana.

Knightridge Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana. Photo credit: JR.

In my earlier post about (then upcoming) events at the New Jersey Astronomical Association, I mentioned that the telescope at the Paul H. Robinson Observatory used a frame and mount acquired from Indiana University in the mid-1960s.  The images of the frame in its previous home on the NJAA website inspired me to make the ten-minute trip over to Knightridge to inspect the abandoned IU observatory.

As you can see from the photo above, the rather squat building is now surrounded by a small, young wood in suburban Bloomington. At the time of its construction in 1936-37, however, this was a relatively remote site. In fact, it’s far enough outside the (then) city limits that I was surprised to see the obvious signs of electrical connections on the outside of the building (below).  My neighborhood, which is closer to town, didn’t get electricity until 1960, so I guess I’m envious that IU managed to run a line out into the fields of Knightridge.

West approach, Knightridge Observatory.

Approach from West, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

The building is in remarkably good condition.  The mortar between the bricks is holding up well, and although the roof is highly oxidized, it’s still keeping the rain water outside where it belongs—for the most part, that is.  The southeast roof of the building, including one of the shutter doors in the dome, was hit by a falling tree, unfortunately. If this hadn’t happened, the interior would still be dry and tight. Now, as you can see, not only are daylight and water making their way inside, so are plant seeds.

Storm Damage, Knightridge Observatory.

Storm Damage, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

From the outside, the dome looks truly round, but the construction details inside tell a different story. Underneath the sheet metal is a dome constructed of jointed wood ribs in-filled with flat lumber that diminished in length as it approached the apex of the dome. It’s not quite a corbeled beehive vault, but it gives a good approximation of the effect, rendered in wood.

Wooden dome, Knightridge Observatory.

Dome Interior, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

The dome was raised on steel tracks that rested on wheels attached directly to the brick walls of the observatory.

Wheel, Knightridge Observatory.

Wheel, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

All of the wires and most of the mechanics that supported the rotating dome have been stripped from the observatory, leaving behind interesting but non-functional bits and pieces on the second story of the building.

Abandoned Knightridge Observatory.

Abandoned Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

Because the dome is no longer water tight, this upper floor is starting to rot. The rectangular opening that once held the mount for the telescope frame is dangerous territory, and I can only hope the people who’ve been using the observatory for late night séances are being very, very careful.

Second Floor, Knightridge Observatory.

Second Floor, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

Despite the weather damage, it’s clear that this is one sturdy little building. It’s also clear that Professor Cogshall wasn’t all that concerned about aesthetics.  Reconsider the Lick Observatory: a dome painted to resemble the heavens, walls finished in California redwood, floor finished with a high-polish mahogany. This modest university observatory bears no trace of a finish plaster or floor varnish. Cogshall was here to get the job done, apparently, and saw no need for embellishments that probably wouldn’t look like much under a red light at night, anyway.

You can view a few more photos of the abandoned building on my flickr site.

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