Thursday, June 16, 2016

100 Years Ago: Connecticut Observatory Opens w/out Telescope!

Van Vleck Observatory
Van Vleck Observatory of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
(Image Sources: , By Original uploader was Daydrmgirl at zh.wikipedia - Transferred from zh.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Shizhao using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, )

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

One hundred years ago today, on 1916 June 16, the Van Vleck Observatory was dedicated on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, just south of Hartford, the state capital. But, there was one problem. Due to the outbreak of World War I, they did not have a telescope!

They had everything else needed for a respectable 20th century academic observatory: a library, lecture hall, clock room, and two “computer” rooms (rooms where men and women “computers” used pencil, paper, and a mechanical calculator to compile data from observations).

In July of 1914, the famous telescope-maker Alvan Clark Company had ordered a 20-inch objective lens for the observatory's primary telescope, from Schott and Company in Germany. Very shortly after the order was placed, with the beginning of the First World War on 1914 July 28, the German company could not fulfill the order.

After the World War I Armistice of 1918 November 11, the order for the 20-inch objective glass was renewed in 1920, and the glass was delivered later that year. Mr. C.A.R. Lundin of the Alvan Clark Company ground the glass, which was installed in a Warner and Swasey mounting in July of 1922. First Light for this 20-inch refractor telescope (with a focal length of 27.6 feet) came shortly thereafter.

During the War, the Van Vleck Observatory made-do with two older telescopes which had been used by the University during the 19th century: a 12-inch refractor from the Alvan Clark Company (1868) and their first telescope, the 6-inch Fisk refractor from M. Lerebours telescope-maker in Paris (1838).

The Van Vleck Observatory is named after John Monroe Van Vleck, an astronomer and mathematics professor at Wesleyan University during the 19th and early 20th centuries (1853 to 1912). Professor Van Vleck's brother, Joseph Van Vleck, donated $25,000 to start a fund to build a new observatory for Wesleyan University in 1903. With good investing of the fund, along with additional donations from other members of the Van Vleck family, the money for the building and equipment was secured and ground was broken for the Van Vleck Observatory in 1914.

However, Professor Van Vleck passed-away on 1912 November 4. Dr. Frederick Slocum of the famous Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin was hired to finish the observatory project, and he became the Van Vleck Observatory's first Director. Dr. Slocum worked with the architect, Henry Bacon (best known for his design of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.), to create a state-of-the-art facility, well-suited for New England winters.

In addition to university instruction, Dr. Slocum, who continued as Van Vleck Observatory Director until 1944, designed the program to use the 20-inch refractor for measuring the distances to stars by taking star field images for stellar parallax measurements. The 20-inch refractor is now used during weekly observing nights, open to students and the general public. A 24-inch Perkin reflector telescope hosted in a separate observatory dome, donated to the Van Vleck Observatory in 1971, is now the Observatory's primary research instrument.

The Van Vleck Observatory's problem during World War I is somewhat similar to a problem Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science experienced during World War II. Buhl Planetarium's third-floor observatory was finished with the rest of the building in 1939. However, the telescope, a rather unique 10-inch Siderostat-type Refractor Telescope (which will observe a 75th anniversary on November 19), would not be ready until 1941. But, Buhl Planetarium managers had a plan for the interim two years.

Along with the acquisition of Buhl's Zeiss II Planetarium Projector (on behalf of the Projector's legal owner, the City of Pittsburgh), the Buhl Planetarium also ordered a portable telescope from the Carl Zeiss Optical Works in Jena, Germany in 1939, for use in the Observatory. To the dismay of Buhl officials when opening the package from Germany, they received a 4-inch terrestrial refracting telescope (which uses additional optics to show a right-side-up image); they had ordered an astronomical refractor telescope (which has fewer lenses to degrade the image and shows an upside-down image).

With the commencement of World War II on 1939 September 1, they could not return the telescope to Germany and have an astronomical refractor sent in its place. Hence, they had to make-do with a terrestrial refractor. So, today the City of Pittsburgh owns a good Zeiss telescope (now used at the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium and Observatory of The Carnegie Science Center) with a very interesting history!

Links to Additional Information ---

More on the history of the Van Vleck Observatory:
Link >>>

More on Professor John Monroe Van Vleck:
Link >>>

More on World War I: Link >>>

More on the Astronomical Observatory of Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science:
Link >>>

Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.
             2016 June 16.

                                                               Historic 10-inch Siderostat-type Refractor Telescope at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.
        2016: 75th Year of Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium Observatory
     Link >>>

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Glenn A. Walsh, Project Director,
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Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
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* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries:
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* Civil War Museum of Andrew Carnegie Free Library:
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Duquesne Incline cable-car railway, Pittsburgh:
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