A president, a professor, and the president’s wife go to Paris…Punchline: they come back with a telescope

Middletown CT, circa 1831…Astronomy is listed as a prospective course for Wesleyan students under the direction of Professor Augustus W. Smith, who will later become the President of Wesleyan University in 1852. Before students can actively engage in a college-level astronomy course, however, equipment is needed. How scientific equipment indeed reached Middletown, Connecticut from Paris, France is a curious story…

IMG_5091

Sample correspondence. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives. Photo by the author.

In 1835 President Wilbur Fisk (who was known for his keen interest in astronomy), his wife, Mrs. Fisk, and Professor Harvey B. Lane journeyed to Paris specifically to purchase scientific equipment for the new university, including its first telescope. In Paris Fisk met Mr. Lerebours, a telescope maker, and expressed interest in purchasing a telescope for student and faculty use. After this initial visit, correspondence between Smith, Fisk, and Lerebours continued until Fisk purchased a refractor telescope with a 6” lens a year later for 6,000 franks and an additional 970 franks for shipping costs. And so, Wesleyan became the first university to own a 6” telescope! No other major university had any sort of 6” telescope; Yale University had a 5” telescope purchased in 1828.

IMG_5086

This Bill of Sale indicates that Mr. Lerebours, the telescope maker in Paris, officially sold the 6″ telescope to Mr. Fisk. Thus, the 6″ telescope, currently mounted inside the Observatory, is titled “the Fisk Telescope.”

In the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives there is not only an entire file on the 6” telescope but also copies of bill of sales receipts and purchases made by Fisk on behalf of the Wesleyan Astronomy Department.

 

IMG_5081

Additional scientific equipment was sold to Mr. Fisk by Mr. Lerebour as indicated by the reverse side of the Bill of Sale. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives. Photo by the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fisk Telescope Chronology

The “Fisk Telescope Chronology” allows us to track its path from 1835 to 1922. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives. Photo by the author.

 

When the Fisk telescope arrived at Wesleyan, it was placed in the back of Smith’s house at the intersection of College and Cross Streets, where it remained in use by students and faculty. The “Fisk Telescope Chronology” document accounts for its later 1866 placement to the site of Rich Hall (the ’92 Theater) in and then its movement to Observatory Hall in 1869.

Untitled

Photograph of 1925 eclipse taken with use of the Fisk Telescope. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

 

 

Advance research using the Fisk telescope, however, was not performed until 1914 when Frederick Slocum became Professor of Astronomy. Slocum directed and initiated the fledgling parallax program; such a program dealt with the measurement of stellar objects and movements or position of stars. These measurements depended on the accuracy of the machinery used to record observations and the conditions of the atmosphere at specific times. The measurements were especially tedious, as they had to be recorded by hand pending further advancements in technology. The 6” telescope was not advanced enough to obtain accurate measurements, so in 1922 Wesleyan acquired the 20” in telescope specifically to determine stellar positions and build a more advanced parallax program. Even so, the 6” telescope was still used for documentation of the 1925 solar eclipse. I even found a printed photo of the eclipse made with the telescope while I was lurking around in Special Collections.

The 6” telescope moved again as the landscape of Wesleyan began to change in 1959. It was remounted and placed in a new dome that was west of the 20-inch refractor. From documents and letters in the Wesleyan SC&A, it seems that the 6” telescope went into dormancy from 1869 and 1925. Today, it stands on display, currently in the observatory, in all its glory. So, please feel free to stop by and sneak a peak!

Fisk Telescope mounted in the Van Vleck Observatory.

The Fisk Telescope in its current home at the Van Vleck Observatory.

The annals of frustration and repair

As the shelves and file cabinets at the Van Vleck Observatory attest, keeping accurate records has been crucial to the work astronomers, measurers, and computers have performed here over the past century. Faculty, staff, and students used logbooks to keep track of the stellar objects they observed, the photographic images they took of the sky, the measurements they made using those images, and the instruments they relied on to perform those measurements and calculations. These logbooks are a record of the process of making astronomical data, as well as the many different kinds of work that went into it.

On the left, we can see the exact measurements, times, and information put into a single observation. Here, the observer does not make to many individual notes, but does state, however, that the machine, the Mann, is being temperamental. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

On the left, we can see the exact measurements, times, and information put into a single observation. Here, the observer does not make to many individual notes, but does state, however, that the machine, the Mann, is being temperamental. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

In the margins, the logbooks also tell a story of ongoing maintenance and repair that underscores that labor. Many observers and measurers commented on issues with the instruments they were using: a stiff wind that shook the tube of the telescope, resulting in a blurry image; chronometers that were not keeping accurate time; malfunctioning electronics and equipment that stymied their attempts to record accurate data. These problems functioned as maintenance requests as well as repair logs, as observers informed one another about the problems they were having and the steps they took to address them.

The observer blames himself for the inaccurate measurements obtained, but then states later on that the digitizer is not working. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck OBservatory. Photo by the author.

The observer blames himself for the inaccurate measurements obtained, but then states later on that the digitizer is not working. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck OBservatory. Photo by the author.

Observatory staff also used the logbooks to joke around about the travails of their often tedious work.  They documented the frustrating and the funny, the technical and the personal.  In the logbooks for the Mann comparator, which allowed staff to make highly accurate determinations of distance, some plate measurers complain about the key-punch device “mis-punching” the computer cards that recorded the data, asking their colleagues to “pray for them and their failing measurements.”  Between April 1972 and December 1980, the device was repaired almost daily. We can see how irritating this was for those tasked with doing the grunt work of astronomy in the comments they left for one another as they went about their tasks.

Observers informed one another about the problems they were having, and even asked for "HELP"; based of off the different scripts, we can deduce the problems that each observer encounters with the machinery. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

Observers informed one another about the problems they were having, and even asked for “HELP”; based of off the different scripts, we can deduce the problems that each observer encounters with the machinery. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.