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…


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.


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.



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.


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.

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. 


Teaching stellar parallax through the years

How far away are the the stars?  Answering this question constituted the major research effort of the Van Vleck Observatory for the bulk of the twentieth century. Using a technique called stellar parallax, the astronomers, plate measurers, and computers who worked at Van Vleck observed the heavens, made careful measurements, and performed calculations to determine the distances to stars.  While students were not actively involved in this process until the mid-twentieth century, the stellar parallax program was integral to astronomical instruction at Wesleyan, as we can see from the many pedagogical aids in our collection that relate to this technique.

What is stellar parallax?

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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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Letters from an old friend

My favorite part of putting together a history exhibit is getting to look through other people’s things. Certainly Frederick Slocum will not walk in on me as I’m hunched over his letters, and yet, I still feel like I’m intruding. But I’m not going to stop poking around, so let’s intrude together.

Slocum’s correspondence shows that he frequently allowed elementary school classes and intrigued guests into his observatory. He would let them look through the telescope, teach them about the moon and visible planets, and maybe leave them with some pictures of the stars. Classroom teachers in particular reached out to him from far and wide, from Flint, Michigan to Middletown itself. Though Slocum mostly published his work in academic journals, he clearly had an interest in making astronomy accessible to those outside of academia as well.

Amidst all of the letters to Slocum in our collection, one from a fifth grade class in Franklin, North Carolina stood out to me. The letter, dated October 31, 1934, is written in perfect grade-school cursive.

My Dear Prof. Slocum, We have been studying about the moon and wish to learn more about it. We don’t want to take your valuable time or inconvenience you, but if you have one new interesting thing that you can tell us about this heavenly body we will appreciate it very much. Just disregard this letter entirely if it seems impertinent. Yours sincerely, The Fifth Grade. Fifth grade students of Franklin, NC to Frederick W. Slocum, 31 October 1932. Frederick W. Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

My Dear Prof. Slocum, We have been studying about the moon and wish to learn more about it. We don’t want to take your valuable time or inconvenience you, but if you have one new interesting thing that you can tell us about this heavenly body we will appreciate it very much. Just disregard this letter entirely if it seems impertinent. Yours sincerely, The Fifth Grade. Fifth grade students of Franklin, NC to Frederick W. Slocum, 31 October 1932. Frederick W. Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

If the adorableness of their letter doesn’t hook you in enough, maybe this will: this fifth grade class’s teacher was Mrs. S. Edward Eaton, née Olive Eddy, who was Slocum’s own student in 1905 at Pembroke Hall. Enclosed with the students’ letter was her own, asking if the professor remembered her, and then immediately answering her own question with: “Of course you don’t.”

Mrs. Eaton was wrong. A mere two weeks later, Slocum responded, “I certainly do remember Olive Eddy and I am delighted to hear from her.” Enclosed with this letter to Mrs. Eaton was an extensive reply to her fifth graders’ queries. He included more than one interesting thing: he wrote about when the next eclipses were (down to the exact hour); what exactly to look at in the sky in order to see them; and also gave them a few photographs of the moon, Venus, the Van Vleck Observatory, and the observatory’s telescope.

He concluded,

I cannot easily tell you much about the moon at this distance, but if you can induce Mrs. Eaton to sew some wings on your shoulders so you can all fly up here, I will show you the moon through the telescope, and tell you all I know about it while are you looking.

Slocum’s writing and research proved that he knew how to address crowds steeped in academia, but this letter shows that he also knew how to appeal to children’s whimsy and blossoming interest in science.

Stellar parallax or Cold War espionage?

At the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory on June 16, 1916, the observatory’s first director, Frederick Slocum, outlined an agenda for the new institution: determining the distances of stars. This stellar parallax program constituted the observatory’s main research effort for the majority of the twentieth century.

The parallax program involved researchers as well as many human “computers” who were aided by tools, such as the Millionare mechanical calculator, to perform the necessary calculations. Advances in technology allowed for more accurate measurements and faster computations, changing the kinds of work people did. The Mann comparator, which the Astronomy Department purchased in the late 1950s, was one of the observatory’s most important acquisitions in this regard.

A photo of the Mann Machine

The Mann Measuring Machine. Photo by the Author. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

The Mann was an important aid to the people tasked with measuring the distances between the different stars recorded on glass plate images of the sky. The stellar parallax program’s results were contingent on both how the plates were recorded and how they were interpreted, so accurate measurements were crucial for exact results. Previously, plate measurers had worked solely relying on their eyes to gauge the minute distances that would be used in their calculations. With the Mann, the measurers could insert each plate and look into a viewfinder, using a mechanical crank to move the plate very slowly by degrees in order to pinpoint the exact locations of the stars and make measurements between them.  It was still tedious work that required a practiced eye, but the comparator made accuracy easier to achieve.

When you take a closer look at our Mann comparator, you can see that there are two small name plates attached to it. One, close to the crank, indicates the manufacturer and serial number of the device. The other, larger plate is affixed to the base and reads, “PROPERTY OF U.S.A.F – 866477 – DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG.” What do these two tags tell us?

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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.

Close Encounters of 20th Century Astronomers: Lois Slocum

One of the most important historical documents in the Van Vleck Observatory’s collections is its guestbook, which was kept from 1916 until 1942 and signed by many noteworthy astronomers from all over the globe.  I spent my summer working with a list of over 900 signatures dating back nearly a century.

Although there are several household names in the Van Vleck Observatory guestbook, one that stood out from the beginning was Lois T. Slocum. Of course, she was labeled a person of interest first and foremost because of her family name; the head of the astronomy department at Wesleyan from the dedication of Van Vleck until 1944 was Frederick Slocum. Despite the shared surname, who Lois was—and how she might be related to Frederick—remained a mystery.

Lois signed the guestbook on three occasions, first in 1921, again in 1923, and then again in 1932, each time citing an affiliation with Smith College Observatory and visiting along with other Smith professors or known astronomers. Further, she is mentioned in the Publications of the Van Vleck Observatory as having worked as a computer on several occasions.

So, she was certainly a Smith-affiliated astronomer with close ties to the Wesleyan astronomy department; but who was she to our Frederick Slocum? As fate would have it, the answer came from Fred himself. Buried within the boxes of Professor Slocum’s correspondence is a series of letters under Lois’s letterhead and addressed to “Aunt Carrie and Uncle Fred.”

1933 Letter from Lois to her Uncle Fred

Lois T. Slocum to Carrie and Frederick Slocum, 19 May 1933. Frederick W. Slocum Correspondence, Van Vleck Observatory Collections, Wesleyan University.

These sorts of small victories have been crucial this summer. The process of teasing out a history from such a meager source has been tedious; this summer, I have had days and days go by without finding much information about a single signatory, and I have also had days where every single search turns up a treasure trove of results. Working with an artifact like the guestbook is all about tenacity, and so finding Lois’s letters was cause for celebration.

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.”

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.