Observatory History

Video by Noah Simmons, '21

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 its 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 Pleiad reported:

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 its historical significance if the College ever wishes to dispose of it.

Exploring the Exterior and Interior

The Observatory has changed little in appearance since its 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 its 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. Its 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 its 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.

Renovations 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 its second century of service, it would be prepared for involvement in the new era of astronomy.