How the Van Vleck Observatory reflects environmental conditions

Before Van Vleck was completed in 1916, Wesleyan’s “observatory” was a tower mounted on a dormitory, containing few instruments with little research capability. Prior to that, the university’s effort at a building devoted to astronomy was little more than a shed.

Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught astronomy at Wesleyan for 50 years, believed the university could do better. He envisioned an observatory with the facilities necessary to make an impact on the world’s understanding of the universe. In 1903, Van Vleck’s family donated more than $25,000 to the university for a new observatory and planning began, but Professor Van Vleck passed away before he could see his vision come to life.

In his stead, Wesleyan’s president Stephen H. Olin entrusted Frederick Slocum, the new astronomy professor, with supervising the observatory’s design. Slocum began a detailed correspondence with Henry Bacon, the architect charged with designing the observatory, to recommend the location, design, and technology of the building. Slocum was as determined as Van Vleck had been to see the Wesleyan observatory contribute valuable research to the scientific community. He was aware that it would not be easy, as New England’s cold, wet, and changeable climate was not ideal for astronomical observation. Slocum used a number of means—geographical, architectural, and technological—to overcome the challenges of doing astronomy in the relatively poor observational environment of New England.

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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.”

Ivy league, no longer

In an earlier post, I traced the origins of the ivy that grew on the walls of the Van Vleck Observatory for much of its history. However, as you can see by comparing an early photograph of the observatory with the building today (below), the ivy has been removed. Why?


Van Vleck Observatory circa 1930 (in black and white), and today (color). Black and white image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University. Current photo by the author.

For decades, architects, scientists, and gardeners have been debating the desirability of allowing vines to grow on building walls.  Some considerations were primarily aesthetic:

“A home should seem to be tied to the ground in such a way that it will appear to rise from it without a sudden and abrupt breaking of the surface.”
N. H. Ellsworth, “Planting the Home Grounds: The Use of Vines,” House Beautiful, Volume 48, July 1920, 200.

“…nothing can be more unsightly than a good building metamorphosised with heavy growths of ivy or other plants.”
Sir Thomas Jackson for Times, quoted in “Creepers on Buildings,” The American Architect Volume 120, December 1921, 14.

But others concerned the material impact the vines had on the buildings.  According to a note in The American Architect and the Architectural Review of December 21, 1921 (below), even then, creeper plants were thought to be damaging to masonry.  (Agreement on this point is far from universal.  A 2010 study by Oxford University scientists concluded that ivy can act as a thermal shield and protect brickwork from intrusive moisture.)


“Creepers on Buildings,” The American Architect and the Architectural Review Volume 120, December 1921, p. 14. Image by Google Books.

From a closer look at the literature, it appears that the precise nature of the building material material determines whether a wall can sustain ivy without damage.  Some ivy plants apparently secrete an enzyme that erodes mortar of the kind found on historic buildings like the Van Vleck Observatory. According to Dave Hall, who maintained the grounds at Wesleyan University for over 30 years, much of the campus’s ivy was removed precisely because it was damaging the mortar.  It appears that the vines came down from the Van Vleck Observatory sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Incidentally, Wesleyan was not alone.  Many colleges such as Middlebury, Harvard and Yale carried out plans to strip ivy off historic buildings as early as 1982.  Ivy league, no longer!

How much for a Millionaire?

In an earlier post, I noted that early 20th-century astronomy’s demand for number-crunching prompted the Van Vleck Observatory’s first director, Frederick Slocum, to set aside two rooms in the observatory specifically for “computing.”  These rooms would presumably have been occupied by human “computers” who would perform the intricate calculations needed to figure out stellar distances.

The human computers were not unaided, however.  It appears that Slocum purchased a mechanical calculator in the fall of 1915, soon after his arrival at Wesleyan.  The device’s unforgettable name was the “Millionaire”:

The Millionaire (photos by author).

The Millionaire. Photos by the author.

This thing looks like a millionaire might own it (although from browsing the web it sounds like it was mostly banks and insurance companies that purchased them).  Note the mahogany case; the gleaming chrome knobs; the black lacquer top plate.  And it works beautifully, despite being over a century old!   It still adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides with a twirl of its well-oiled gears.

Addition and subtraction are dead easy, as is multiplication (apparently, the Millionaire’s key advantage over earlier calculating machines was that it multiplied directly via a special gear, rather than forcing the user to add repeatedly.)  Division is a little trickier: you essentially must guess the digits in the quotient as in pencil-and-paper long division, although the machine helps immensely by computing the remainder for each subsequent round of quotient-guessing.  (Computers still aren’t particularly good at division, even in the age of microprocessors.)  For more on how to use the millionaire (not to mention instructions on how to take it apart) see the amazing material at John Wolff’s Web Museum.

Slocum’s correspondence with New York-based W.A. Morschhauser (who sold the Swiss-made Millionaire in the United States) suggests the relative cost of the machine.  It wasn’t quite a supercomputer — but even in those days, Millionaires didn’t come  cheap.

Morschhauser's letters to Slocum, 1915 (photo by author).

Morschhauser’s letters to Slocum, 1915, from the Astronomy Department files. Photo by the author.

The least expensive hand-cranked model could handle six-digit numbers and cost $280 ($6,615 today, per BLS statistics).  The top of the line could handle 10-digit numbers and cost $665 (over $15k today).  Slocum purchased the 8-digit model that would have been $364 ($8,600) new, but it seems that being a thrifty New Englander, he opted to get a factory-refurbished one for $275 (or about $6,500).

Let’s put on a show!

One of the major goals of our project is producing an historical exhibition, the physical component of which will be located in the VVO library. In essence, we’re building a small museum. We’re now at the stage of planning the displays themselves–layout of items, photos, and documents and writing of text–and realizing precisely the unique challenges imposed by working in a space whose layout will remain essentially unchanged throughout the process.

The student researchers and faculty mentors spent the day last Thursday (with a pesky astronomer) in the library, sketching out exhibits on “blank canvases” (the backs of old conference posters we scrounged up from around the observatory). Here are a few behind-the-scenes photos.

Caption 1

The team attempts to answer a challenging question: What is the first thing we want visitors to see?

Caption 2

A possible panel along the eastern wall.

Caption 3

It was an exhausting day. Student researcher Abby Shneyder gives the meteorite a needed hug.

It’s about time

Photos of the interior of the Van Vleck Observatory are scarce beyond its two most photogenic locales: the library and the 20″ telescope dome. While this may not be too surprising, it has been somewhat disheartening as we try to imagine what it may have been like to, for example, work in the “computation room” in the 1920s.

This has made the recent discovery of a set of photos dated November, 1963, all the more remarkable. The set contains 9 photos, 8 of which are of these rarely photographed spaces. As you will see in this and subsequent posts, fifty years into its existence VVO still retained much of its original character, including a functioning dark room, transit observation room, and time services room. Some spaces still look remarkably similar as we approach the century mark, while others are quite a bit different.

On the left is the main office in November, '63, compared with July, 2015 on the right. Note how little has changed in 50 years!

On the left is the main office in November, ’63, compared with July, 2015 on the right. Note how little has changed in 50 years!


This student office space in the basement (left) has been converted to a permanent office (right), now home to Professor Roy Kilgard. The bookcase immediately below the radiator is still in use!

Teacher by day, observer by night

In his speech at the dedication of the building in 1916, Van Vleck Observatory director Frederick Slocum emphasized the equal importance of both instruction and research in the observatory. Slocum himself embodied this dualism. He helped develop Wesleyan’s star parallax program while also teaching introductory astronomy courses. His achievements as a researcher (including organizing observations of of three solar eclipses) are well documented in the scientific literature. But Van Vleck itself, and the materials we’re discovering here this summer, reveal that teaching was also central to his work, and to his vision for astronomy at Wesleyan and beyond.

Wesleyan built its Astronomy Department around Slocum in the same manner a professional sports franchise might build their team around a superstar. In March of 1914, at the tender age of forty, Slocum was appointed a full professor on account of his experience teaching at Brown University and researching at the Yerkes Observatory, where he had worked on the newly invented spectrohelioscope. Working remotely from Yerkes, Slocum prepared for his arrival in Middletown. He was given charge of the $70,000 Van Vleck fund (around $1.5 million today), which he used to design and construct an observatory that would be a center for both teaching and research, and to purchase the 18-in refracting telescope from Alvan Clark & Sons it was planned to house. Today, the observatory remains true to his intentions, with active research, teaching, and public programs.


(Left) Slocum the Researcher, (Right) Slocum the Professor, from the Frederick Slocum vertical file. Images courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Understanding the man behind these achievements proves more difficult. Fortunately one piece of evidence sheds some light on Slocum’s personality: a student’s teacher evaluation of Slocum circa 1940.

How this document survives is a story in and of itself. The teacher evaluation was part of a study conducted by two Wesleyan professors between 1946 and 1952 about why students chose science as a vocation and how individual teachers influenced that decision. The students likely filled out these evaluations a few years removed from their time at Wesleyan. Reflecting the important position of science education in the post-World War II era, the questionnaire asked students to rate their professors on the following characteristics: humor, patience, temper, energy, dominance, enthusiasm, warmth, competitiveness, and initiative. (One wonders in what light traits such as dominance or competitiveness were seen in this Cold War age!)

One student awarded Slocum double-checks in humor, patience, and energy, but only single-checks for enthusiasm, warmth and initiative. However, the student later clarified his single-check in the warmth category. “To a stranger or even to a large class,” he wrote, Slocum “might seem a bit cool at first. This should probably be called ‘Yankee reserve.’ But on closer acquaintance he became the essence of warmth and friendliness.” Clearly the man had made an impression on this student through his personal qualities as well as his abilities as a researcher and instructor.

Achievements in research—publications, awards, titles—can be easy for historians of science to discern. Certainly, Slocum’s contributions to the field are apparent in the astronomical literature. But, as the design of Van Vleck suggests, Slocum placed a high value on instruction as an important companion to research. This student’s brief reflection on Slocum the person helps us answer more difficult historical questions—such as how those sitting in his classroom, or assisting him at the telescope, might have seen him, and how their own paths may have been influenced by their interactions with this man of “warmth and friendliness.”

Van Vleck’s living walls

As I was going over old photos of Van Vleck Observatory, I noticed that the now-bare walls of the building were at one point covered thickly in vines. What is more, it seemed that the presence of ivy was not simply an afterthought, or a decoration to make the building more “academic,” but an important design feature of the observatory itself.


Van Vleck Observatory, circa 1930. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

As the moniker “Ivy League” suggests, ivy has long been associated with college campuses. Planting a commemorative ivy vine at the base of an academic building has been a tradition of each graduating class at Princeton since 1866, and Smith College observes an annual “Ivy Day” at its commencement. Many Wesleyan buildings were formerly cloaked in ivy; the brownstone campus today looks much different than it once did.

But while the reasons for planting ivy may be partly traditional, at the Van Vleck Observatory, these vines were also grown for more practical purposes: to help moderate the temperature of the building itself. Ivy formed a living climate-control system, shading the brownstone exterior in summertime, and preventing the sorts of rapid fluctuations in temperature that might cause errors in measurement.

We can see how these considerations influenced the design of the building from the outset. Henry Bacon, most famous for designing the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, was Wesleyan’s campus architect from 1913 to 1924. He designed Van Vleck with input from Frederick Slocum, the observatory’s first director. In a 1914 letter to Slocum, Bacon suggested the use of ivy to help regulate the temperature of the transit room, ensuring more accurate observations. In this sense, the building itself was a sensitive instrument, and ivy was one means of keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.


A letter from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum dated July 23, 1914 in Box 2 of the Henry Bacon Collection. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Of course, aesthetic considerations were also at play. Bacon’s suggestion was later met with agreement by a member of the Wesleyan faculty who thought ivy would make the observatory “a handsome building.” The faculty member’s delightful comment was quoted by Frederick Slocum in his address at the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory in 1916:

Little bits of plaster,
Little blocks of stone,
Make a handsome building,
When the ivy’s grown. 


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.