The Most Interesting Man of the Van Vleck Observatory

He doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he drinks his own.

Thornton Page sits in his office. Photo from the Van Vleck Observatory.

Thornton Page sits in his office. Photo from the Van Vleck Observatory.

One of the difficulties of dealing with the types of archival material that rest in a historic observatory is that, while we have a lot of material, little of it captures the personality of the people we’re dealing with. We have plenty of scientific books and teaching slides; we have fewer photos of professors and their dogs.

Thornton Page and his dog pose next to Erwin Rommel's Mercedes. Newspaper clipping in Van Vleck Observatory. Publication and date unknown.

Thornton Page and his dog pose next to Erwin Rommel’s Mercedes. Newspaper clipping in Van Vleck Observatory. Probably from the Middletown Press (based on where it is filed), date unknown.

But we do have one such photograph, and it’s of Thornton Page, the most interesting professor of the Van Vleck, a man whose idiosyncrasies capture the weirdness of the 1960s UFO-obsessed, Space Age astronomy.

We have written before on Page’s interest in UFOs and modern space science. As a Wesleyan professor, Page created the Science 1-2 program, a course for non-science majors that explained the science behind then-modern phenomena such as UFOs. In an 1966 interview with Walter Cronkite, Thornton Page–and  Carl Sagan!–explain the findings from actual scientific research on the subject. One article from the New Haven Register summed up his personal experience of the phenomena: “UFO expert has never seen one.”

Article on Page's UFO expertise. In Van Vleck Observatory. From New Haven Register, October 9, 1967.

Article on Page’s UFO expertise. In Van Vleck Observatory. From New Haven Register, October 9, 1967.

As a researcher, Page involved himself with government projects. Before coming to Wesleyan, he observed the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. He also did classified work during the 1950s for the Operations Research Office at the Department of the Army. During his tenure, he was often on leave, working instead for NASA and assisting with the Apollo programs.

But while his scientific life was focused on the new technology and space-obsessiveness of the Cold War, his home life was focused more on capturing—and re-enacting, one might say—past events.

Page drove the Mercedes supposedly owned by Erwin Rommel (pictured above). (Yes, that Erwin Rommel) The vehicle, he explained, had no prior records of ownership but was likely owned by Rommel because it had bullet holes in it. The Deimler Corporation, Page said, also identified the car as Rommel’s.

He also owned an 18th-century New England farm. Inside his house, he brewed his own beer. The beer’s labels displayed his old property.

And the beer’s moniker? “Pagerbrau,” which loosely translates to “Page Beer.” A fitting title for the most interesting beer of the most interesting man of the Van Vleck Observatory.

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An astronomer leaves for war

On April 6, 1917, less than three years after he had begun teaching at Wesleyan University, Frederick Slocum, the first Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, was looking to see how he could help his country. That day, the United States Congress had issued a declaration of war against Germany and its allies, brining the nation into World War I. Four days later, Slocum wrote to the Secretary of the Navy “to see if I can be of service to the Navy Department.”

Frederick Slocum, First Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, to the Secratary of the Navy, seeking a job teaching naval navigation, April 10, 1917. Frederick Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory.

Frederick Slocum, First Director of the Van Vleck Observatory, to the Secratary of the Navy, seeking a job teaching naval navigation, April 10, 1917. Frederick Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory.

The conflict in Europe had been looming over the Astronomy Department and the Observatory since the two were created. Slocum had begun teaching at Wesleyan in 1914, less than two months after the beginning of the war. And plans to build an 18.5-inch refracting telescope were derailed in 1916, because the lens manufacturer was French and could not make, much less ship, the lens until the war was over.

But with American entry into the war, the entire University—not just the Astronomy Department—was altered. In 1917, President William Shanklin, according to the Wesleyan University Bulletin, appointed Lieutenant Arthur James Hanlon as Professor of Military Science and Tactics. In this position, Hanlon taught student volunteers in a military training course.

Soon, almost every student was participating in Hanlon’s class. The students received credit for taking the course, despite the fact that it consisted mostly of physical exercises; there was virtually no academic content in what Hanlon taught. Furthermore, over the course of the war, later issues of the Bulletin reveal, the number of credits students received from the course increased. The message was clear: student life, academic and extra-curricular, was to be centered on the war effort.

Like many Americans, Slocum saw it as his patriotic duty to take an active role in mobilization for war. He aimed to use his astronomical training to teach courses in navigation. Growing up in Massachussetts, the son of a ship captain, and a sailing enthusiast, Slocum had longstanding experience with celestial navigation, using the stars to determine his position at sea. Wesleyan University did not offer such a course, so he reached out to the Navy Department and the U.S. Shipping Board to see if he could use his skills to train cadets.

Slocum’s inquiries soon bore fruit. In 1917, he took up a position with the U.S. Shipping Board, and, in 1918, he began teaching nautical science at Brown University.

Slocum teaches a course in celestial navigation at Brown University in 1914. Images of Brown, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library.

Slocum teaches a course in celestial navigation at Brown University in 1914. Images of Brown, Brown Digital Repository, Brown University Library.

Although he supported the war effort, President Shanklin was concerned with Slocum’s absence from campus, fearing that Wesleyan’s new star professor might not return. Slocum was central to the university’s goal in building the Van Vleck Observatory: creating a small but significant research program to advance astronomical science by determining the distances to the stars. From the time Slocum left the Wesleyan to the time he returned, this stellar parallax project was on hold.

In a 1918 letter to Slocum, Shanklin stated that Wesleyan University had hoped to see a similar course offered; however, the Navy was unwilling to fund it. Instead, he wrote, the Navy had decided that the larger university at Yale could handle all the new recruits, leaving Wesleyan without a nautical science program. Still, Shanklin told Slocum that he was trying to change the minds of Navy officers—and encouraged Slocum to return to Middletown should he succeed.

Shanklin’s concern that Slocum might not return to Wesleyan after the war, it turns out, was well-founded. In a letter sent to Frank Schlesinger, of Yale University, in December 1919, Slocum revealed that he had in fact resigned from Wesleyan after the University had refused to lend him to Brown during the war. He wrote that, even though the war had ended, “I feel that I am still enlisted in the service of the country.” On April 8, 1920, Schlesinger informed Slocum that he had written to Shanklin, without Slocum’s prior knowledge, encouraging Shanklin to bring the first Director of the Van Vleck Observatory back to the University. It was only then that Slocum returned to teach at Wesleyan.

Slocum’s temporary absence reveals how “total” a “total war” can be. Throughout academia, professors left during World War I and World War II to contribute to the war effort in any way they could. Unless a university had a program especially designed to allow professors to use their teaching skills in training military cadets, a large number of faculty members were prone to leave. They would often never return.

Decades later, during World War II, the United States government gave Wesleyan University funding for a course similar to the one Shanklin had requested during World War I. Military training courses returned to the university, but they were academic courses and included instruction in navigation. This time, Slocum stayed at Wesleyan and taught a class, through the Civil Aviation Authority, called Navigation for Sea or Air.

Seeing the heavens

By far and away, the oldest astronomical instrument is the human eye. And while astronomy remains a highly visual science, the way in which astronomical imaging occurs has changed a great deal over the centuries.

Near the end of his life, Galileo Galilei famously became blind. According to mythology, this was a result of observations he had made on the Sun (although this appears to be largely unsubstantiated). Regardless of the cause, his observations certainly affected his ability to do work, considering he observed by drawing what he saw through his telescope.

Carl Stearns (right); Robert T. Matthews, astronomy instructor; and a student. Image from Wesleyan University Vertical Files, Shared Shelf.

Carl Stearns (right); Robert T. Matthews, astronomy instructor; and a student working with the 20-inch in 1951. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

The advent of photography transformed astronomy in the late 19th century, allowing observers of the heavens to capture what the telescope saw automatically. Vision was clearly still important, but the kind of acuity that would have been necessary in Galileo’s day was less crucial. For instance, C. L. Stearns, one of Wesleyan’s professors of Astronomy in the early 20th century, was both nearsighted and colorblind. Indeed, his vision was poor enough that he was exempted from the draft during the First World War because of his eyesight. Yet his vision problems did not significantly hamper his ability to do astronomy, as is evident by his important work on stellar parallax.

Stearns observed in an era during which observations were recorded on photographic plates, taken from cameras that were attached to telescopes. It was the observer’s job to find the right stars and to focus the telescope, but he was not required to describe the objects in the field of view. As a result, good eyesight and the ability to distinguish between different colors was not as necessary in the 1920s as it was in Galileo’s time.

The 20-inch telescope with cameras and lenses attached. Set up for the January 24, 1925 total solar eclipse. Image from Wesleyan University, Vertical Files, Shared Shelf.

The 20-inch telescope with cameras and lenses attached. Set up for the January 24 total solar eclipse, 1925. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.