Celebrating 100 years of astronomy

Cybele Moon of the Theater Department poses with guests from the past who made an appearance at the June 16th centennial.

Cybele Moon of the Theater Department poses with guests from the past who made an appearance at the June 16th centennial.

Last month’s Centennial Symposium was a huge success.  In addition to a daylong series of talks and presentations by current and former faculty, staff, and students, guests enjoyed a reception and ceremonial rededication of the observatory, complete with guests from the past.  Happy Van Vleck Observatory Day in Middletown!

You can read more about the event on the Wesleyan Astronomy Department blog and see more photos from the reception at News@Wesleyan.

New video page

Over the past year, we have gone through the footage we captured last summer in our shoots with Linda Shettleworth and the Mann measuring engineFred Orthlieb and the telescope, and Roy Kilgard and the Millionaire mechanical calculator, and Melissa Sullivan of the New Media Lab has helped us turn them into a series of wonderful videos.

We shared many of them with the public at our exhibition opening and other events, but you can now check them out at home by visiting our new Videos page.  We also hope to make these videos available in the exhibition space from time to time.

Words of thanks

As the fall semester quickly approaches its conclusion, we at the Under Connecticut Skies project have much to be thankful for.  The support of Wesleyan University, Connecticut Humanities, and, as of this week, the NASA Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium, which has just awarded us a Faculty STEM Eduction Programming Grant to help make our exhibition a reality next spring. The students, faculty, staff, alumni, and amateur astronomers who have contributed to our oral history project.  The folks at WESU 88.1 FM, who have generously been helping us record some of our oral histories.  The reporters and journalists who have covered our work.  Staff at the New Haven Museum, Middlesex County Historical Society, Connecticut Historical Society, and Connecticut River Museum, who have shared ideas and techniques with us.  And, most of all, our dedicated team of faculty, staff, students, and community partners who have made this project possible.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Shooting stars

It’s been an exciting morning in the observatory. Upstairs, members of our team are working with a videographer to shoot our first footage for the project: Roy demonstrating how to use our historic “Millionaire” calculating machine to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Our plan is to assemble some short videos that show this marvelous contraption in action.

Setting up the library for the shoot.

Setting up the library for the shoot. Photo by the author.

Roy contemplates the Millionaire after brushing up on his long division.

Roy contemplates the Millionaire, while pen and paper stand at the ready for long division. Photo by the author.

Discovering the planets

After the New Horizons spacecraft completed its flyby of Pluto last week, and the press was hailing the end of an era of planetary exploration, we on the Under Connecticut Skies team discovered some planets of our own.

For a long time, we’ve known about the existence on campus of a historic orrery: a mechanical representation of the planets and their motions. But it appeared that only fragments of this magnificent instrument survived the nearly two centuries since its construction.

The remains of the orrery: a handful of planets and their satellites (moons), delicately rendered in glass, are displayed in the hallway of the observatory alongside sextants and other astronomical instruments.

The remains of the orrery: a handful of planets and their satellites (moons), delicately rendered in glass, are displayed in the hallway of the observatory alongside sextants and other astronomical instruments. Photo by the author.

Wesleyan’s President Willbur Fisk appears to have purchased the orrery in the late 1830s, and it immediately became a local sensation. During the 19th century, the general public flocked to lecture-demonstrations given by learned men and skilled instrument-makers, where they would learn and witness scientific principles and phenomena in action. A broadside from 1837 advertising the orrery’s exhibition in Middletown declared it “one of the greatest curiosities of the day,” and assured visitors that “more can be learnt of the peculiar movements of the heavenly bodies, during one exhibition, than could be acquired in many weeks of reading.” As you can see from the poster itself, this was both an educational and entertaining spectacle, one that families and schoolchildren were encouraged to attend—not unlike the public observing nights the Astronomy Department runs today.

A poster inviting the public to view

A poster inviting the public to view “Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Planetarium, or Columbian Orrery” at Wesleyan during the summer of 1837. Orrery Vertical File, Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

According to research carried out by Katie Boyce-Jacino, the orrery continued to be used for teaching purposes for several decades, housed on the second floor of Wesleyan’s South College building, but was dismantled in 1876 and moved to the carpenter’s shop. An article in the Wesleyan Alumnus in October of 1932 lamented that it was later “jettisoned ruthlessly from the attic of the heating plant by unsympathetic hands of laborers engaged in extensive remodeling of the building” and its remains were now held, “collapsed and disintegrated,” in the basement of Van Vleck Observatory. Out with the old, in with the new: the expansion of the college (and its heating needs) appeared to have relegated the orrery to obscurity, and the last remaining pieces seemed to be the ones on display.

But last week, when we were conducting an extensive inventory of the drawers and cabinets of the observatory library, Paul stumbled upon a mysterious wooden box labeled “planets.”

An exciting discovery: a wooden box labeled

An exciting discovery: a wooden box labeled “planets” is unearthed in the observatory library. Photo by the author.

Sure enough, tucked inside were more delicate glass spheres, brass gears, and mounting hardware, carefully wrapped in ancient tissue paper.

The remains of the orrery, carefully wrapped in paper, and stored in a custom box.

The remains of the orrery, carefully wrapped in paper, and stored in a custom box. Photo by the author.

Moons nestled close to their planets, clear globes of glass sat in their personal cubbies, and a few unfortunate heavenly bodies lay broken in the bottom. Here it was: the remains of Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Orrery, delivered through the centuries with a remarkable number of intact parts.

Mars and a cluster of moons huddle together in the box of planets.

Mars and a cluster of moons huddle together in the box of planets. Photo by author.

What is perhaps most amazing is that these fragile pieces have remained untouched for so long. Sometime after the 1930s, the remains stored in the basement of Van Vleck were lost, perhaps because when people were looking for the remnants of the orrery, they were imagining something much bigger. Certainly this box of planets was only one box of many that would have housed the orrery’s components, which included 500 cogs, weighed nearly a ton, and measured 45 feet in circumference when fully assembled. Boyce-Jacino’s research suggests that this engraving, from Smith’s Astronomy (1848), might be a depiction of the very orrery:

A possible illustration of Russell's Orrery as it might have appeared when assembled. Asa Smith, Smith's Astronomy, 1848.

A possible illustration of Russell’s Orrery as it might have appeared when assembled. Asa Smith, Smith’s Astronomy, 1848.

Regardless of whether the engraving shows our exact orrery or not, it illustrates what is for me one of the most striking features of this collection of delicate and beautiful objects: their importance as a tool of education and enlightenment, both for students of astronomy, and for all those curious about the heavens. The orrery suggests that, far from being unique to the 20th century, Van Vleck’s twin goals of research and instruction, articulated so famously by Frederick Slocum in his dedicatory address, were goals of astronomy at Wesleyan long before workers broke ground in 1914.

Getting our hands dirty

People often think of history as a largely intellectual pursuit, the product of extensive reading and thinking in libraries and archives. And while it’s true that much of the historian’s craft involves these activities, the research process itself can be very hands-on. When you’re working with old documents that haven’t yet been catalogued or conserved, you’re quite likely to get filthy in the process, as the edges of carbon copies disintegrate on you, or a deteriorating leather binding stains your fingers. Since we’re simultaneously researching and assembling a collection, we’ve had many opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get down to the sometimes messy work of history.

I had just such an experience last week after going through a shelf full of old notebooks in the observatory library. It turned out to contain a number of gems: a blue exam booklet from Wesleyan in which Frederick Slocum had penned a log for a sailing journey he made between New Bedford and Bermuda in the 1920s, several decades’ worth of clock records, a stenographer’s notebook containing B. W. Sitterly’s notes from the 1932 eclipse trip to Conway, New Hampshire, and more.

A shelf of old notebooks, many belonging to Frederick Slocum, in the observatory library.

A shelf of old notebooks we discovered on an upper shelf in the observatory library.

Of course, after decades—and in some cases more than a century—on the shelves of Van Vleck, these notebooks are not all in prime condition. As I climbed down the ladder from which I had been accessing the shelf, I noticed that, in my research reverie, the dyes and papers and flakes of covers had coated my hands with a layer of historical grime.

Amrys's hands were very dirty after going through a shelf full of materials in the Observatory Library.

History hands: an afternoon inventorying library shelves left Amrys’s hands quite dirty.

The folks working on the telescope restoration clearly aren’t the only ones getting their hands dirty at Van Vleck this summer!

Beyond meteors: showers and the history of astronomy

Visitors to Van Vleck Observatory may be surprised to find a shower located in one of the building’s restrooms. While it looks to have been decommissioned long ago—perhaps to the chagrin of those who bike to work here in the summer—its existence is at first puzzling. Why would there be a full bathroom in a space that appears to house just classrooms and offices?

Answering this question takes us back to the original plans for the observatory, and reveals how much the building and its uses have changed over the past century. Although nighttime observing and public events still take place regularly at Van Vleck, in the early 20th century the building would have been host to more astronomical activity after hours. This was due to the material realities and requirements of observation at the time: an astronomer had to be physically present in the dome to operate the telescope and camera. You can see that the first floor of the building includes not only computation rooms for the daytime activities of astronomical calculation, but a bedroom and bath for the convenience and comfort of the nighttime observer.

Floor plan of Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1916

Floor plan of Van Vleck Observatory, ca. 1916. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan University Department of Astronomy.

We can imagine what a night at the observatory might have been like by looking at the logbooks the astronomers used to record their observations. Positioning the telescope to view and track a particular star, exposing the glass plate to capture an image, jotting down notes on the weather and any problems—these were the methodical activities that filled an observer’s nights while the rest of the campus slept. When his duties were done—or perhaps if the sky clouded over or an instrument malfunctioned—he might be able to catch a few winks in the bedroom, or refresh himself with a rinse in the observatory bathroom before the next day’s labors.

Today, the room that once held a bed for weary observers is now an office, as are the computation rooms, and a new kind of room has appeared, where an observer can sit at a computer terminal and control the telescope from a place of warmth and relative comfort. The old marble shower in Van Vleck Observatory is thus an artifact of an earlier age of astronomy, before computer-controlled observations and remote data collection, when observers spent their nights at the telescope, quietly photographing the heavens.

Astronomy essentials: fur?

What was it like to watch the skies in the first few decades of the twentieth century?  I had my first revelation about this when I saw a photograph of Frederick Slocum seated at the 20-inch refracting telescope in Van Vleck’s main dome.

The late Prof. Frederick Slocum at eye-piece of 18-ft. telescope (with 20" lens) in Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1946

“The late Prof. Frederick Slocum at eye-piece of 18-ft. telescope (with 20″ lens) in Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1946.”  Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Take a closer look at Slocum’s outfit. The big coat, the fur hat and gloves, the boots: all these point to the the physical realities of doing astronomy in the days before charge-coupled devices and digital photography allowed observers to sit in a warm room nearby, controlling the telescope with a computer and snapping digital images with the stroke of a key.  As anyone who has visited an observatory for a viewing night knows, the dome is not really an interior space. Temperature gradients and fluctuations can cause lenses to expand and contract, or lead to condensation of water vapor, both of which make for distortions and inaccuracies. As a result, when you’re in the dome looking through the eyepiece, everything needs to be the temperature of the outside air.  And since the best observing conditions in New England usually occur in the winter, when the air is drier, that temperature might be pretty cold indeed.

While this photograph was almost certainly posed, given the lighting conditions that would have prevailed during actual nighttime observing, it reveals some of the daily practices that shaped astronomy in the early 20th century.  Slocum’s choice to wear his observing gear indicates that, in addition to telescopes and clocks, warm clothing was a crucial part of the astronomer’s toolkit.