Observatory History

A History, by Bruce J. Annett, Jr., Class of 1974

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the science of astronomy, while still in it’s relative infancy, caught the public imagination. It was thought that the astronomer could explore deep into space, discover new worlds, and provide mankind with an almost god-like perspective. It was possible, and even probable, for dedicated amateur and academic astronomers to be able to make significant contributions to the field in terms of discovering celestial object, and/or charting and measuring their apparent movement and brightness. This relatively simple method of accomplishing important, pioneering research and discovery, in addition to providing a means of scientific instruction, prompted many colleges and universities of the period to establish astronomical observatories on their campuses. Albion College was one such institution.

The Vision

Old Albion, a college history published by the junior class of 1909, credits Dr. Samuel Dickie, then professor of mathematics, with being the primary promoter of constructing an observatory at Albion. The plan which he presented to the Board of Trustees early in 1882, was to build and equip an astronomy building by obtaining one hundred donations of $100 each. The board voted to put the entire project in Dr. Dickie's charge. In less than a year, the required monies were raised, allowing construction to begin. The cornerstone was laid during ceremonies held on September 8, 1883. The December 1883 Pleiadreported:

The erection of the Observatory is rapidly progressing. Already the walls of the building are nearly completed… The building, when completed, is to cost $3,650. Alvan Clark & Sons, of Cambridgeport, Mass., are the makers of the principal telescope… The entire cost of the telescope placed in the observatory and ready for use, is to be $2,700. The other instruments are to be made by Fauth & Co., of Washington, D.C. They are to consist of a transit circle and telescope, $1,650, a Chronograph, $350, and a Sidereal clock, $450.

Thus, the Observatory was built and equipped for $8,800. The same Pleiad article concludes that the balance of the completely successful "Observatory Fund" was to be expended on pieces of "astronomical appliances," such as celestial maps, charts, and probably books. The sources of the fund were not uncovered during my research.

Upon the completion of the Observatory during the summer of 1884, the College possessed an excellently equipped facility for instruction and research in astronomy. In fact, the building was so well equipped that the Smithsonian Institute recently expressed interest in acquiring the equipment for it's historical significance if the College ever wishes to dispose of it.

Exploring the Exterior and Interior

The Observatory has changed little in appearance since it's opening. It is the only College building of Victorian architectural style. The foundation above grade is cut stone, a prestige feature of the period. The exterior walls of the structure are of red brick, which was a marked deviation from the first three College buildings -- North Hall, the old Central Building, and the Chapel, which had been stuccoed. The Observatory's use of red brick influenced it's use on all succeeding College structures: beginning with the old gymnasium, the McMillan Laboratory, rebuilding fire-struck Robinson Hall, the Gassette Administration Building, and all others built since.

On the first floor today is located a large room housing portions of the College archives and the Methodist Historical Collection. At first, this room was a classroom for physics, math, and astronomy. The first floor room also contained a small raised stage at one time, according to records of the Albion College Players, who consider the room the "birthplace" of their organization on the campus in 1922. During the 1923-24 academic year, the co-operative bookstore was established there, and remained for several decades. Also located on the first floor are several storage areas, and a recently added lavatory.

Climbing up the ornate circular stairway that winds around the inside of the tower, one reaches the second floor. This floor originally contained an astronomy library, a work room, and an office, in addition to an observing room for the transit telescope and related equipment.

The transit telescope is a 4" refractor mounted on a single axis, so that it may be pointed only along the meridian, i.e., a north/south arc. In the eyepiece of the telescope are several parallel spider wires which are stretched vertically and horizontally across it. The transit instrument is used to record the passage of stars over the meridian, and thus enable an observer to find true sidereal time.

Electrically connected to the transit instrument are an astronomical clock and a chronograph. The grandfather-like clock keeps sidereal, or star time, rather than solar time. It's dial is divided into 24 hours rather than 12, and it registers seconds as well as minutes. The chronograph is a revolving brass drummed instrument powered by a falling weight. The drum is covered with paper, on which a stylus records the time. This is accomplished by an observer at the transit telescope pressing a telegraph-like key the instant when a star crosses a spider thread in the telescope's eyepiece. This allows the observer to calculate true sidereal time and correct for errors in the sidereal clock. All of these instruments are in the process of restoration.

A second short stairway brings one to the third floor domed observing room for the 8" Clark refractor. This is the College's primary telescope. The focal distance of the instrument is about 10.5 feet. The telescope rests on an equatorial mounting that tops a brick and masonry pier. This pier is structurally independent of the Observatory itself, and extends into bedrock. In fact, the smaller 4" transit telescope, the sidereal clock, and the chronograph all have their own structurally independent piers. Of no small expense, these architectural features prove that competent and thorough research went into the building's design. The independent piers assure that movement in the structure itself caused by walking or closing a door will not be transmitted to any of the instruments.

The Telescope

Alvan Clark and Sons firm, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the makers of the primary telescope, were probably the most highly regarded American telescope builders of the nineteenth century. Five times Alvan Clark and his two sons made the largest refracting telescopes in the world, including the 40" instrument at the Yerkes Observatory. Their reputation was doubtless the reason for their selection for building the Albion telescope. Old Albion reports that the Albion instrument was made by Alvan Clark himself, and was the last telescope he made before his death. This claim may well be true, for Scientific American, September 24, 1887, (the year in which Alvan Clark died) states in an article about the Clark Company that Alvan stopped building telescopes about four years before he died, or 1883 -- the year the Albion telescope was probably being built. Eighty years later, when the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley of the Mount Wilson Observatory examined the Albion instrument during the mid-1960's, he told the College that it owns a "Rembrandt."

Telescope making was a long and laborious process during the 1880's, and precision was measurable primarily by the craftsman's own eye, and not by the sensitive electronic measuring devices employable today. It was for their uncanny ability to produce high-quality, nearly perfect instruments that the Clarks were made famous, and their work so highly regarded.

Then, as now, the most important part of the refracting telescope was the quality of it's lenses. Initially, the lens began as a lump of glass secured from a glass manufacturer. The best manufacturers of the period were European. The glass lump would be placed on a slab of fire clay within a form of the desired circular shape, and exposed to heat. Slowly, the lump would melt, flatten, and conform to the shape of the mold, thus furnishing the "blank." If the blank proved to be clear and striae-free, it was ground into shape and polished, eventually becoming a lens.

The Clarks used iron filings to grind their lenses -- a technique they adapted from granite polishers -- instead of using emery which was the usual custom of the day. The iron grains would not wear out as rapidly as the emery. Belt-driven machinery provided the rotation of the grinding discs between which the blanks and filings were sandwiched. After several weeks of grinding, the blanks were removed from the discs, polished, cleaned, and checked for defects.

The Clarks tested their lenses by developing a method similar to, but preceding, Foucault's knife-edge test. The image of a point source of light -- either an actual star or an artificial light -- was examined at the focal point of the lens. A perfectly figured lens would appear uniformly illuminated, while an imperfect lens would not. Once found, the irregularities would be marked with a red powder, and the Clarks would them retouch the imperfect areas.

Correcting a defect involved applying rouge and water to the proper area and rubbing. The lens would then have be repolished, recleaned, and retested. Usually, the entire process would need to be repeated several times, and would often involve several months of grinding and testing and retesting before the lens was finished. Alvan Clark's sense of touch was said to be so sensitive that even when a lens appeared perfect to the eye, his fingers could still detect slight irregularities. Several years of effort was often required to perfect larger lenses. The Albion instrument, being relatively small, probably took several months to a year to complete.

Once the lens [sic] were perfected, they would be fitted to a metal telescope tube, dissassembled [sic], and shipped by rail or ship to the proper destination. Often, one of the Clarks themselves would reassemble the telescope and mount it in the observatory. How the Albion instrument was installed is unknown.

Astronomers from Albion College

Evidence is lacking of any important astronomical discoveries at the Albion Observatory. Several Albion graduates in astronomy have made substantial contributions to the science during their lives however. Forest Ray Moulton '94 became director of astronomy at the University of Chicago, and was the author of several books dealing with astronomy, math, and ballistics. One of these books was considered the standard text in celestial mechanics for many years. Wilber A. Cogshall '95 worked at both the Lowell and Yerkes Observatorys [sic] and designed a special reflecting telescope designed to photograph the Milky Way and nebulae. From 1900 to 1941 he located the population center in the United States using astronomical observations and Census Bureau figures.

L. Wesley Underwood '86 discovered an unknown star while still in high school, and built the Underwood Observatory at Lawrence College, housing a Clark refractor. Class of 1914 graduate John A. Aldrich's graduate work in physical astronomy resulted in a better understanding of cepheid variables, which are used to determine the distances between galaxies.

Charles M. Huffer '16 served as secretary of the American Astronomical Society, a professor in the astronomy department at the University of Wisconsin, and authored several books in the science. Marvin J. Vann '40 directs the observatory at Foothill College in California. He is the inventory of a solar prominence telescope now in commercial manufacture. In 1971 he donated the prototype instrument to the College in memory of Dr. Clement Rood '94, professor of astronomy and physics at Albion from 1920 to 1939. All of these gentlemen's interest in astronomy was sparked using the Albion Observatory.

Rennovations and Status

In 1940, the Observatory's revolving dome was electrified. Formerly, rotation of the dome was accomplished by using a hand-powered crank or, as professor emeritus of astronomy Rood told the May 17th Pleaid of that year, the old "armstrong method" was used.

In more recent years the Observatory and the instruments suffered substantial deferred maintanance [sic] and deterioration brought on by the belief that a new observatory would be built as part of the then-planned science center. Campus plans issued during the College's APEX program (Albion Program for Excellence) during the early 1960's reveal that the structure was to be torn down, but an effort to save the building at that time was successful. Shortly thereafter, restoration of the Clark telescope was initiated, as the years had taken their toll on the instrument. In 1965, Dr. Charles Ricker became the new physics department chairman, and continued the efforts of the former chairman, Dr. Robert L. Luttermoser, to restore the equipment. A team from the Yerkes Observatory came to the College to clean the main telescope, and the weight-driven clock drive of the instrument was replaced with an electrical mechanism a year or two later.

In the spring of 1971, the solar prominence telescope donated by Marvin Vann was mounted piggy-back on the Clark refractor. The new solar telescope allows the prominences of the sun to be studied without eye injury. During the summer of 1972, the exterior of the building was restored by the College. Much interior work remains to be done.

Today the physics department and the College maintains a structure and instruments of not only practical value in the instruction of astronomy, but of historical significance as well. Unfortunately, the focus of astronomy has shifted since 1884. The discipline is no longer as concerned with the visual discovery of the existence of celestial objects, as it is with studying their physical characteristics and their relative distances from the Earth. The present equipment is not sufficient for these new tasks.

In April of 1973, in consultation with Dr. John Williams, associate professor of physics, a building plan for an addition to the Observatory was drawn by the author and approved by the College. The plans call for the construction of a new domed tower adjacent and to the east of the existing building, and matching the original in architectural style. This addition would house a 24" reflecting telescope, spectographic [sic] equipment, a planetarium, and a darkroom. Funding is now being sought, and the present building and equipment are slated for complete restoration.

If the addition becomes a reality, it would the College a centralized, updated, and complete astrophysical laboratory, and as the Albion College Astronomical Observatory enters it's second century of service, it would be prepared for involvement in the new era of astronomy.

Physics Seminar: February 1, 2013

Dr. Dave Seely

"Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power"


Proponents of nuclear power argue that nuclear energy is economical, safe, and good for the environment. Critics maintain that fission reactors are neither safe nor clean, and cite the Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl power plant disasters, among others, along with problems that are associated with the disposal of nuclear waste. Some also argue that nuclear power plants that reprocess spent fuel may contribute to the proliferation of fissile material for use in weaponry ("dirty bombs") and that nuclear power plants are a public health risk, at least to people living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants and waste repositories.

In this talk, we will take a brief look at the physics of nuclear energy and then examine elements of the pro and con debate. If there is time and interest, we also will take a brief look at some next-generation nuclear energy technology such as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project at the Idaho National Laboratory and/or the ITER experimental fusion reactor.

Norris 102, 2:15 - 3:20 p.m.

Back to Seminar Schedule >>

Astronomy at Albion College: 1883-present

In June 2006, we installed a stellarium, a 3D map of the closest 253 stars.

Observatory Observatory

The historic Albion College observatory, located in the heart of campus, was built in 1883 and designated a Michigan Historical Site in 1985.

8" Alvan Clark refractorAn 8" Alvan Clark refractor is located in the historic College observatory. Members of the Astronomy Club frequently use this telescope for observing and public viewing nights.








CelestronBill and Lois Stellman donated a 14'' Celestron telescope and associated equipment including cameras and spotting scope to the department. It has been retrofitted with a Byer's, providing very accurate tracking which allows very long exposure photos. Here, Dr. John A. Williams is aiming the 14" Celestron.







New ObservatoryThe Stellmans and Bernard and Barbara Lomas were the major contributors of funds to construct an observatory on the top of Palenske Hall to house the 14" telescope.

This observatory has been replaced by a 16' Ash dome and will continue to house the 14" Stellman telescope.


Physics Department seminars are held on Fridays from 2:15 - 3:20 pm in Norris 102 on the Albion College campus. The public is invited to attend.

Fall 2016 Physics Seminar Series

Sept. 9, 2016 Meet your Faculty: David Seely & Phil Voss
Sept. 16, 2016 Student Summer Research: J. Butler,  L. Chernysheva
Sept. 23, 2016 Student Summer Research: J. Lhamon, B. Good

Sept. 30, 2016

October 7, 2016

October 14, 2016

October 28, 2016

Troy Kase: Career & Internship

Advising: Plan your courses

Robert "Bob" Armitage, '70

Tim Rambo (Class of 2009)

November 4, 2016  TBA
November 11, 2016  Paul Dixon: Inernships at LANL
November 18, 2016  Andrew Sharp (Class of 2010)
December 2, 2016  Physics 291 Students


Fall 2015 Physics Seminar Series

September 25th TBA
October 2nd Stephanie Norwood, '17
October 9th TBA

October 16th

October 23rd

October 30th

November 6th

Josh Cassada, '95, The Road to the Space Station and Beyond!

Elmer Lee, Caster Concepts. Entrepreneurial Engineering - Engineering Lessons from a Startup!

Field Trip to Caster Concepts


 November 13th  Lesley Simanton, '09, The Star Clusters of Spiral Galaxy M101
 November 20th  TBA
 December 4th  TBA

Fall 2014 Physics Seminar Series

October 10th Samantha Strasser, '11: Two Test of Cold Temps.
October 17th Nicolle Zellner
October 24th Aaron Miller, '95: Quantum Opus - A Case Study of Albion Entrepreneurship

October 31st

November 14th

November 21st

December 5th

Jack Minor

Lindsay Ciastko and Jim Davidson - Astronomy Research

Internship Opportunities at Phymouth Technologies

291 Presentations - Matt Prosniewski & Mario Hermina


Spring 2014 Physics Seminar Series

January 20th Dr. Aaron Miller, How Quantum Mechanics Can Answer Questions that are never asked.
February 7th Dr. Zach Constan, "95, A Supernova in the Lab: Nuclear Research at NSCL
February 14th TBA
February 21st Justin Foley, Next Generation Solar Cells and Infrared Imaging
February 28th Dr. Nicolle Zellner, Look out.......above?
March 28th Dr. Nicolle Zellner, Alvan Clark: the Man, the Telescope, the Myth!


April 11th Dr. David Seely, Laboratory measurements of change exhange in collisions of highly charged ions with H and other gases.
April 24th 25th Elkin R Isaac Student Research Symposium

Fall 2013 Physics Seminar Series

August 30th Introduction to Physics Faculty
September 9th Dr. Aaron Miller, Quantum Cryptography
September 20th Dr. Khaled Myanmneh, Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, U of M
September 27th David Anderson, WWII Technology for Artillery
October 4th                  Dr. Nicolle Zellner, To the Moon!  What we know and why we should go back.
October 11 Homecoming: Norma J. Taber, Liberal Arts and Engineering, what you know that ain't so.
October 18th                  Fall Break
October 25th Dr. Dr. Nicolle Zellner, Pre-Advising
November                   1st Mallory Traxler, Research Talk
November 8th Brandan Walters,'10, U of M PhD student. Augmentation of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Derived Cardiomyocyte Organization and Phenotype Using Fibroblast Co-Culture and Mechanical Stimulation.
November    15th               David Anderson, A Nobel Prize has been Awarded because the LHC Discovered the Higgs?  A Translation of Modern Hight Energy Physics.
November 22nd Open
December 6th                 Student Presentations
Winter Break!



Spring 2013 Physics Seminar Series

February 1 Dr. Dave Seely, "Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power"
February 8 Dr. Darren Mason, "Unusual Behavior in a Rubber Cube"
February 15 Dr. Rachel Maitra, "Physics Is Warped: Why Geometry Is Behind All Fundamental Forces of Nature"
February 22 Dr. Zach Constan, '95, "A Supernova in the Lab: Nuclear Science at NSCL"


Fall 2012 Physics Seminar Series

August 31

Dr. Dave Seely, Introduction

September 7

Dr. Nicolle Zellner, "Astronomical Walkabout: Research (and other stuff) in Australia"

September 14

Kelsi Blauvelt '13, "LabVIEW Programming & Instrument Interfacing at NASA JPL"
Olivia Eggenberger '13, "The Efficiency of Microfluidic Devices Over Time"

September 21

Kenneth Sowerwine, "Transition into Engineering and Engineering Internships"

September 28

Dr. Dave Seely, "Studies of Charge Transfer in Low Energy Ion-Atom Collisions at Oak Ridge National Laboratory"

October 5

Joy Achuonjei, Columbia University, "Combined Plan Engineering Program at Columbia University"

October 12

Josh Cassada, '95 (2012 Distinguished Alumni Award honoree), "The Higgs Boson: The Last Piece of the Standard Model"

October 19

Kelsey Morgan, University of Wisconsin, "X-ray Astronomy with Low Temperature Detectors and Sounding Rockets"

October 26

Dr. Charles Moreau, Advising

November 2

Dave Seely, Summer Research Opportunities

November 9

Jenny Tobin, '03 - "My Work as a Nuclear Regulator (and How I got Here!)"

November 16

Larry Molnar, Calvin College, "Collisional History of the Asteroid Belt for Fun and Profit"

November 23

Thanksgiving, no seminar

November 30

Lesley Simanton, '09

December 7

Last day of classes, student reports

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