Scripting the History of Astronomy at the Van Vleck Observatory

For months it seemed as if the museum exhibit at the observatory was just a mirage on the horizon, something we knew we were all working towards but didn’t really know exactly what would be when we actually got there. At last, we’re so close to the opening of our exhibit! We have a finalized list of objects that Matt’s been laboring over and a script that Roy, Amrys, and Paul have been slaving a way at for weeks!

Writing a script for a museum exhibit comes with its own quirks and challenges. We’re not writing a history report or a critical essay; we’re trying to communicate to a public audience the significance of the Van Vleck Observatory to Wesleyan, Middletown, astronomy, and even the arts by showing some of the coolest objects we have around.

So, with some objects on the shelves and a draft of the script in all of our hands, we started to “run-through” the exhibit at our weekly Monday meeting.

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library–future site of the permanent exhibit. Photo by the author.

Some shelves look just about museum ready!

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition.

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition. Photo by the author.

cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books

One cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books, layout to be finalized. Photo by the author.

And some shelves are still being used as office supplies storage space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space. Photo by the author.

Amrys and Roy project to camp out in the library up until the opening of the exhibit.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library. Photo by the author.

Now what would a run-through of the exhibit be without a consultation of our exhibit-creating Bible, Beverely Serrel’s second edition of Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach?

Michaela reads from Serrel's "Exhibit Labels"

Michaela reads from Serrel’s “Exhibit Labels” reminding us that word count for each Introductory Label, Group Label, and Caption Label is extremely important! Photo by the author.

We’re really getting down to the nitty-gritty of the exhibit now! More to come soon!

One for the money, two for the show…

Although the two phases of our exhibit planning overlap a great deal, at some point in the past several months, the Under CT Skies project transitioned from its research phase to its implementation phase. This means we’re starting to make the decisions that will definitively determine the form of our exhibit. It also means there are more power tools involved.

And so, last Friday, Tom Castelli of the Wesleyan Science Machine Shop (located in the basement of the Exley Science Building) paid a visit at the Van Vleck Observatory. Tom has been mocking up potential panels for the exhibit using lexan sheets and leftover wood from recent construction at the Usdan Student Center. The wood is quite lovely and matches that of the VVO library very well.

Tom showed us what he’s been up to, and now I’m going to show you!

Mock-up panel in library

Ta-da! This is a mock up panel that Tom made for the exhibit. Note: the protective sheet is still on the glass! (Photo by the author).

It might not look like much yet, but this is quite an important step in this phase of our exhibit-making. Just one panel raises a whole set of questions about the shape the exhibit will soon take.

For example, how are we to best protect what goes on the other side of the glass? Do we need to use material that filters out UV light so we can preserve our historical artifacts and, perhaps a bit less-importantly, our exhibit labels?

Library window facing college row and the 20-inch dome

As far as windows go, this is a pretty great one. And just look at the view! (Photo by the author)

We ruled out using UV-filtering window shades because the Van Vleck library has rather lovely windows that we wouldn’t want to hide completely.

Other questions that I had included, “What is in Tom’s mysterious bag that he keeps going back to??”

Tom searches his bag

Tom searches his seemingly magical bag. (Photo by the author)


What was in Tom's bag

Nosey author discovers what magic was indeed inside Tom’s bag.

And with that mystery, and a few others solved, Tom went on his way to search for UV-filtered panel options.


I’ll leave you with this artsy picture I took of Tom, Amrys, and Roy investigating the  wooden overlay to the glass plates on the opposite wall of the library.


Roy, Amrys, and Paul in the library

Tom, Amrys, and Roy in the library. (Photo by the sometimes artsy author)

Bonus points if you noticed that the glass plates are missing. The reason why? Stay tuned for more exhibit updates!

A very dirty Mann

In a previous post, I revealed several behind-the-scenes pictures of our film shoot with Linda & the Mann Measuring Machine. If you’ll humor me, I’d like to give some more background on the state in which we found the Mann–a sort of behind the scenes of the behind the scenes if you will.

First off: the Mann Measuring Machine was very very dirty when we first encountered it.

Clutter on the Mann Measuring Machine

The Mann led quite a cluttered existence before we got our hands on it. Photo by Paul Erickson.

Naturally, Matt and I ended up on cleaning duty. Per Roy’s suggestion (and supplies), we used lint-free cloth towels and sometimes very little water, which we never applied directly to the machine. The Mann looked a lot better in a matter of minutes, but we spent several hours total over a couple days getting the machine to shine a bit again.

The Mann Machine at the start of the film shoot

The Mann Measuring Machine is ready for its close-up, Ms. Sullivan. Photo by the author.

The clean-up duty was not yet over however. We had to move the Mann because it had been on a diagonal for some time now so that it wouldn’t jut out and get in the way in the plate room where it had spent most of its “retired” life. When we returned it to its original orientation, we were not surprised to find more dirt and dust underneath.

Dirt and old punched card on the table of the Mann Machine

The spot on the table where the Mann used to rest (you can guess what the rest of the machine looked like when we started cleaning). We were able to retrieve an old punched card that had been stuck under the machine, too! Photo by the author.

On the other side of the machine, which was also exposed anew, we found a dead bug. I made Matt dispose of it. You can also see the remains of an old punched card that is somehow fused to the table.

A dead bug on the Mann Machine Table

Grosssssss dead bug. Also punched card. Photo by the author.

Soon enough, the Mann was ready for action, film shoot-wise.

Melissa films a close-up of Linda using the foot pedal with the Mann Machine

Linda pretends to use the foot pedal that she used to punch her measurements onto IBM cards (later to be read by a card reader in the Exley Science Tower). Melissa captures a close-up. Photo by the author.

The next day, Matt and I conducted an oral history interview with Linda. We asked her about the current condition of the Mann Machine, and she said it’s not too too different from the original. She also told us that there was a picture of her with the Mann in a textbook from the ’80s. After a little hunting around the basement library, we hit the jackpot!


Linda with the Mann Measuring Machine in an old textbook! Note the chapter title and graphic description of parallax measuring. Photo of Linda, courtesy of Art Upgren (see photo). Photo (of the textbook page) by the author.

I am very proud of our Mann and very very proud of Linda. All this leads me to say is: fresh.

Telescope Green and other custom paint colors for a custom telescope

What color is a telescope? And what does it matter anyway?


Although old photographs in black and white might not be the most convincing evidence, at least this photo shows that the telescope paint was dark. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives.

Back in the day (AKA 100 years ago), the 20-inch Van Vleck telescope was painted black. I believe the rationale was that astronomers wished to keep the space in the dome as dark as possible; naturally a dark paint was in order. More scientifically, the color black absorbs light. Stray light in the dome is something to consider and painting a telescope so that it can absorb stray light to the maximum seems rather logical.

Today the telescope is painted white–or more specifically, a slight off-white. The rationale here is that white reflects light. Because white does not absorb light like the color black does, a white telescope will be cooler than a black one. This is important to regulate the temperature of the instrument. The mount however is still kept at a dark hue. As for why the dome itself is painted white outside, well the story is not too different.

Now for all you extreme telescope enthusiasts out there who want to know the specific paint colors, I’m talking color codes and more here, you are in for a fun story.

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

A while back, Bill Herbst, his wife, and a consultant from the Wesleyan Art Department decided on the colors to paint the telescope: Dakota Shadow for the mount and North Star for the tubes. The Dakota Shadow was a bit too light, so a request was put in for Dark Dakota Shadow with no white added.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

Over the summer however, while working on the telescope restoration, Fred received a mis-mixed batch of paint. To remediate the error, the Cromwell Paint Spot shop named a new paint color–with the proper mix of green, yellow, black, and white–for Fred and put it in their system as “Telescope Green.”

Matt and I called the Paint Spot to investigate further. We spoke to a very nice sales representative who looked up the paint color for us. He didn’t recognize “Telescope Green” off the top of his head, but when we gave him the custom code he found it immediately! The rep said that the shop still has Telescope Green paint in stock, but because it is a custom color, we would need to bring in the can with the lid and the code to actually get the paint.

Fred points out the coats of paint on the mount. Photo(s) by the author.

Fred points out the multiple coats of paint on the mount. (Photo by the author)

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi suggested the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!”

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi joked the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!” In any case, Avi was working on the telescope restoration with Fred over the summer and he’s the one who tipped me off about Telescope Green in the first place. Thanks Avi! (Photo by the author)

Avi laughing

And to round out this post, here is a picture of Avi laughing, maniacally probably (not). Could he be wearing a t-shirt in the tone of Telescope Green?? And will this become the trendiest new paint color?? Only time will tell…

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Freddy!

Roy and Amrys in 20th century garb

The two stars of the evening. (Photo by Avi Stein)

Like many other curious spectators last Saturday night (6 February 2016, exactly a week ago today), I walked up the icy path to the Van Vleck Observatory at a couple minutes past 7pm, and I almost couldn’t get my foot in the door there were so many people. Squeaking open the door cautiously so as not to push anybody into the mounted Fisk Telescope that stands just a couple feet from the doorway (I mean I didn’t want to push anybody anyway…), and with a few “excuse-me’s” and “I’m-sorry-thank-you’s” later, I was in. And then, I saw two long sheets of brightly-decorated birthday-cake.

Frederick Slocum's birthday cake

One of the two birthday cakes, soon-to-be-consumed in Frederick Slocum’s honor. (Photo by the author).

But that’s just the beginning of the story. We were all there to celebrate the birthday of the first director of the Van Vleck Observatory (Frederick Slocum), eat birthday cake, and attend a circa-1916 astronomy lecture delivered by Roy with assistance of Amrys at the projector. In period costume. With authentic lantern slides. Luckily the cake didn’t also come from the year 1916.

Authentic lantern slides

Lantern slides used in the presentation. Note the date in the bottom-most slide: 1915! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

The event was so popular, that Roy and Amrys had to give the presentation twice! While the first take was going on in the Van Vleck classroom, the remaining crowd was left to observe the Pleiades star cluster with the newly-restored 20’’ telescope thanks to the help of the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, schmooze in the lobby, and eyeball the cake eagerly and a bit impatiently. Most of our team was in attendance, fielding questions about why we were all there anyway that night. One student asked, “How many planets were there in 1916?” “Well…all of the planets were already there (haha)…but I think Pluto had just been discovered!” Roy later stated that it hadn’t been yet.

Roy and Amrys after the first lecture

Roy and Amrys make it out of the first lecture alive! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

In any case, when the first talk was over, Roy, Amrys, and a wave of people poured out of the classroom, elated and a bit red-faced. I bumped into my Italian professor and asked her thoughts; her response: “fantastico.” Amrys started the crowds singing “Happy Birthday” and a friend nearby commented afterward, “That was the most in-tune ‘happy birthday’ I’ve ever heard and especially from such a large group of people!” The cake was cut and handed-out (finally). 

Amrys introducing the lecture

Amrys introduces the Under CT Skies project, the lecture, and Roy. (Photo by Josephine Ho)

At last, it was the second group’s turn. I found myself, and the other team members originally-tasked with crowd-control, in this section. Amrys began with a few words about the Under Connecticut Skies project and then invited us to close our eyes. The lights went off as she explained the major events, the new cars, and new technology of the time, and how the Great War had delayed the arrival of the 20’’ lens. She gave the floor to Roy. 

Parallax explanation

We found this delightful drawing on the back of a visitor survey filled out by an attendee of the evening. (Photo by the author)

Roy explained a bit about the observatory’s “recent” building, dedication, and ultimate purpose: “instruction and research” as Slocum had outlined in his inaugural address. “May I please have the next slide.” (Amrys changed the lantern slides right on cue every time) Roy moved on to explain how parallax measurement works, asking everyone to hold up their thumb an arm’s length away. You can calculate how far away your thumb is from your face by measuring the distance between your eyes and using simple trigonometry to find the angle at the end.This is the same concept as observing a star from two different points on the earth’s surface, and finding its distance. I’ve heard parallax described many-a-times, and I still don’t completely understand it. 


Roy discusses the proposed element “Nebulium” during the lecture. (Photo by the author)

“May I please have the next slide.” Roy continued on talking about the “latest” advancements in astronomical research. Scientists were still puzzled by the element “Nebulium,” discovered earlier in the late 19th century. Analyzing spectroscopic lines, astronomers had named the element after the nebulae from which they believed it originated. One astronomy student whispered to another, “What’s Nebulium? I’ve never heard of it before.” A shrug of the shoulders, and: “Me neither.”

After several more “May-I-have-the-next-slide-please’s,” the talk was over, the lights came on, and Roy and Amrys broke out of character. A Q&A session began. Roy explained that Nebulium turned out to be doubly-ionized oxygen, which is why we don’t see the element on any periodic table. 

Amrys and students look at old projector together

Amrys shows off the authentic lantern slide projector to a couple of students who attended the lecture. (Photo by the author)

And finally after the Q&A session, while chatting with the students who were smart enough to know that Nebulium was never a real thing, Roy admitted that he tried to lay off telling so many astronomy jokes so as not to alienate the diverse crowd but left a few in anyway for the astronomers.

And so, by the end of the night, I felt it was safe to say that Frederick Slocum had one of the greatest birthday parties ever.

For more press coverage on this event, check out this article in the Wesleyan Argus or Roy’s very own post on the Van Vleck Observatory blog. 


The Mann’s still got it

Today was our third and final film shoot in the Van Vleck this summer. Previously, we’d shot Roy & the Millionaire and Fred & the 20-inch. In front of the camera this time was Linda & the Mann Measuring Machine. Linda Shettleworth is currently the Astronomy Department’s administrative assistant, but thirty years ago she was measuring stars on glass plates for Professor Art Upgren. Because we wanted to show off the Mann Measuring Machine (helpful tip: do not google image search), and since Linda is pretty much the only person left around here who knows how to use it, she naturally became the star of our demonstration video.

Melissa films Linda adjusting a plate on the Mann Measuring Machine.

Melissa films Linda adjusting a plate on the Mann Measuring Machine. Photo(s) by the author.

Linda holds up glass plate to the light.

Linda holds up a glass plate–that she marked up in the 1980s–to the light. She used this plate in the demonstration video.

Matt at the Camera

I snapped this HILARIOUS picture of Matt and got his full consent to post it on this blog.

Selfie with Matt and Mann

Author takes a selfie with the Mann Measuring Machine and Matt–who is looking at the old punched card we found under the machine. Author clearly needs to stop taking selfies during film shoots.

The other Frederick

Who would’ve guessed that “film shoot” would be on the task list for a student summer historical researcher like myself? Rather inexperienced historian that I am, I did not.

These weeks, our research group is teaming up with Melissa Sullivan at Wesleyan’s New Media Lab to produce a series of three videos of cool things and people we have at the Van Vleck Observatory. Today we shot our second video featuring Fred Orthlieb giving a behind the scenes peek at the telescope restoration. Melissa provided and operated all the audiovisual equipment, and she and Matt–who earlier wrote about the first Frederick to operate the telescope–directed the shoot.

Melissa puts a mic on Fred.

Melissa puts a mic on Fred’s collar. Matt is probably laughing at something funny Fred said.

What was my role in the shoot (no one but my parents would ask)? I was on audio duty, which essentially meant I sat on a step ladder in the corner off of the telescope platform making sure that the audio sounded ok for the entire time and took a lot of pictures. Many of these pictures, I must confess, were selfies.

Abby looks at audio recorder

Author looks at the nifty H4 Zoom recorder. Author is a little bored.

Fred told me that from where he was standing, I looked like “a little panda” in my “little panda cage” with my “little earmuffs.” The reason that must have been quite accurate is that this was my view for a lot of the shoot:

Fred film shooting on raised platform

Amazing things are happening above me, probably!

But enough of me kvetching, I was SO EXCITED to even be in the same room as these wonderful people during this shoot. And this room that I was in was none other than AN OBSERVATORY DOME!!! WITH A HISTORIC TELESCOPE, no less!!! I clearly have the best job. I learned so much even though I spent the majority of my time taking selfies and writing down funny things that Fred said.

Melissa films Fred explaining how the telescope works.

“Naivety is natural. No one comes out of the womb knowing anything about telescopes.”

Fred in the pier.

Matt: “Do you have anything left to say about the pier?”
Fred: “I do, and most of it has to do with squirrels.”

On a final note, I will say that our film shoot almost didn’t even happen today. At around 9:15am, Fred came into the basement where our research team works, and told me that the elevator was not working and that we might need to reschedule the shoot. Luckily, he was able to troubleshoot the issue and get the 100 year old elevator back to operational status. During our filming, Fred even got a visit from an Otis Elevator Co. representative (who he had called earlier this morning).

Fred and the Otis representative

Fred explains the problem with the elevator to the Otis representative. I had a bird’s eye view because the elevator was at the lowest point during this part of the shoot.

Thankfully, everything went well, and as Paul said, Fred was “the man of the hour–for two hours.”

Songs from the night sky: How one experimental composer turned stars into music

Artists from all ages, from Van Gogh and his Starry Night to Disney animators and The Lion King, have drawn inspiration from the night sky. Add to the mix: John Cage, experimental composer. You might remember John Cage for his composition 4’33, one of the quietest revolutions of the music world. Cage was a fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for Advanced Studies in the 1960-1961 academic year, and it was only a matter of time before he would shatter the world of music again, only this time a little louder and from the state of Connecticut.

Atlas Eclipticalis (in color)

Star chart in color from Anton Becvar’s Atlas Eclipticalis. Image from Astronomical Institute at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Cage spent time at Wesleyan teaching and composing commissioned pieces; one such orchestral commission was owed to the Montreal Festival Society. Known for incorporating the element of chance in his compositions, Cage took a walk up to the Van Vleck Observatory one day with an idea for his latest commission: he would overlay musical staves (i.e. musical staffs) over charts of stars and, wherever the stars appeared on the staffs, he would record them as musical notes. When Cage arrived, the student worker in the Astronomy Library, Bill Jefferys, pulled the recently published Atlas Eclipticalis off the shelf. As Jefferys later recalled, “I showed [the charts] to Cage, whose eyes lit up as I think it was a lot more than he expected.” Cage checked the book out and worked on the composition in the Honors College.

Atlas Eclipticalis musical notation

Image capture of pages from Atlas Eclipticalis (above) and Variations 1 (right) in the New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Makes a Noise” (11 Sep 1966: 51).

A year or so later, Jefferys was invited to attend the US premiere of Atlas Eclipticalis at Connecticut College. On the concert, the Astronomy Library student worker said, “[Atlas Eclipticalis] was the music for a dance performance [titled Aeon] by Merce Cunningham…and his troupe. Cunningham was dressed as a chicken, I believe. The whole affair was quite amusing.” Seem a bit strange? Welcome to the world of experimental music! Atlas Eclipticalis was then performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and in tributes to the composer. A performance at Wesleyan University took place in 1988 and can be listened to below.

Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis joins the long-running artistic tradition of a fascination with the night sky. As the catalyst for artistic creation, the Van Vleck Observatory is now part of the history of that tradition. This site of education and research in astronomy has also been a place of artistic inspiration and intellectual development that extends beyond the strictly astronomical. What’s more, this tradition will continue in the centennial celebration in the fall of 2015: dancer/choreographer Eiko Otake will occupy the Van Vleck dome as part of her performance “A Body in an Observatory.” And of course, in the spring of 2016, there will be an encore rendition of Atlas Eclipticalis, too.

When the world stopped: capturing the 1925 solar eclipse

Hartford Courant eclipse article

Headlines and artist’s image from Hartford Courant article, January 23, 1925.

The year 1925 started out with a bang for residents of the Nutmeg State: on the morning of January 24 a total solar eclipse would pass directly over Connecticut. Observatory directors across the country made plans well in advance to send parties of astronomers to observing locations with the most promising views. Area newspapers like the Hartford Courant, the Middletown Press, and even the New York Times hooked into the waxing excitement and perhaps contributed to the hullabaloo, too.

Solar eclipse plates. Courtesy of Van Vleck Observatory

Solar eclipse plates produced at Van Vleck Observatory (January 24, 1925). On display in the Van Vleck Observatory Library. Photo by the author.

On January 23, the day before the eclipse, the Courant released an article explaining the preparations in order. Hundreds of students and professors from Massachusetts universities were rolling into Connecticut by charter train. Public transportation in state, however, would cease. Trolleys would not be running. All businesses and commercial life was at a halt. The New York Stock Exchange even delayed opening until 10:15am—well after the scheduled ending of the eclipse. Crowds flocked to New Haven and Middletown, where the Yale Student Observatory and Van Vleck Observatory telescopes were in position to capture the event on film—and glass plates, naturally. Yale and Wesleyan’s observatories were two of just a handful of professional observatories in the northeast in the 1920s, so they eagerly played host to “eclipse parties” open to onlookers and “up-lookers” from around New England.

Solar eclipse plate. Courtesy of Van Vleck Observatory.

Photograph of 1925 solar eclipse from Van Vleck Observatory (January 24, 1925). On display in the Van Vleck Observatory Library. Photo by the author.

The total eclipse of the sun lasted about two minutes. Life resumed and the world moved on—literally and figuratively. The astronomers at Van Vleck had some great photos and some great data, too. Newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Popular Astronomy published images of the eclipse made with the Van Vleck telescope. The observatory’s director, Frederick Slocum, even wrote up a report for Popular Astronomy on the eclipse and so the “Greatest Show on Earth,” as the Courant called it, became accessible to readers across the country.

As for the lunar eclipse two weeks later? Well no one really made much fuss about that. The Stock Exchange opened at its regularly scheduled time, and the folks at Van Vleck seem to have returned to their workaday routines.