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.

A very dirty Mann

In a previous post, I revealed several behind-the-scenes pictures of our film shoot with Linda & the Mann Measuring Machine. If you’ll humor me, I’d like to give some more background on the state in which we found the Mann–a sort of behind the scenes of the behind the scenes if you will.

First off: the Mann Measuring Machine was very very dirty when we first encountered it.

Clutter on the Mann Measuring Machine

The Mann led quite a cluttered existence before we got our hands on it. Photo by Paul Erickson.

Naturally, Matt and I ended up on cleaning duty. Per Roy’s suggestion (and supplies), we used lint-free cloth towels and sometimes very little water, which we never applied directly to the machine. The Mann looked a lot better in a matter of minutes, but we spent several hours total over a couple days getting the machine to shine a bit again.

The Mann Machine at the start of the film shoot

The Mann Measuring Machine is ready for its close-up, Ms. Sullivan. Photo by the author.

The clean-up duty was not yet over however. We had to move the Mann because it had been on a diagonal for some time now so that it wouldn’t jut out and get in the way in the plate room where it had spent most of its “retired” life. When we returned it to its original orientation, we were not surprised to find more dirt and dust underneath.

Dirt and old punched card on the table of the Mann Machine

The spot on the table where the Mann used to rest (you can guess what the rest of the machine looked like when we started cleaning). We were able to retrieve an old punched card that had been stuck under the machine, too! Photo by the author.

On the other side of the machine, which was also exposed anew, we found a dead bug. I made Matt dispose of it. You can also see the remains of an old punched card that is somehow fused to the table.

A dead bug on the Mann Machine Table

Grosssssss dead bug. Also punched card. Photo by the author.

Soon enough, the Mann was ready for action, film shoot-wise.

Melissa films a close-up of Linda using the foot pedal with the Mann Machine

Linda pretends to use the foot pedal that she used to punch her measurements onto IBM cards (later to be read by a card reader in the Exley Science Tower). Melissa captures a close-up. Photo by the author.

The next day, Matt and I conducted an oral history interview with Linda. We asked her about the current condition of the Mann Machine, and she said it’s not too too different from the original. She also told us that there was a picture of her with the Mann in a textbook from the ’80s. After a little hunting around the basement library, we hit the jackpot!

IMG_2173

Linda with the Mann Measuring Machine in an old textbook! Note the chapter title and graphic description of parallax measuring. Photo of Linda, courtesy of Art Upgren (see photo). Photo (of the textbook page) by the author.

I am very proud of our Mann and very very proud of Linda. All this leads me to say is: fresh.

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.

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Reflecting the past

Earlier this year, we came across some old scientific instruments kicking around Wesleyan’s Exley Science Center: microscopes and preparation plates, spirit levels, laboratory equipment, and, most interesting to us, a couple of small telescopes. What was interesting about this discovery was that several of the instruments dated back to the eighteenth century—a hundred years before Wesleyan was established in 1831.  What were they doing here?

We’ve since been trying to learn more about this collection of (mainly optical) instruments.  Inside their carefully crafted wooden cases, we found a few clues to their identities, if not their provenance.  Typewritten labels, which look to be from the 1970s or 1980s, suggest that these items may have been part of a small exhibit before. Newspaper protecting the more fragile elements dates from the 1960s.  Clearly these devices hadn’t been orphaned for too long—just long enough to be forgotten.

This Gregorian refracting telescope seems to date from the mid-1700s. An old handwritten label indicates that it was probably manufactured by Mann and Ayscough, who worked together from 1743 to 1747.

This Gregorian refracting telescope seems to date from the mid-1700s. An old handwritten label indicates that it was probably manufactured by Mann and Ayscough, who worked together from 1743 to 1747. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

The two telescopes in the collection are particularly interesting, given their age.  Both are reflecting telescopes, meaning that they use mirrors rather than lenses to focus light.  Reflecting telescopes were rare in the eighteenth century because it was very difficult to manufacture a smooth mirror whose reflective surface was on top of, rather than underneath, the glass.  Having the reflective surface below a refracting layer of glass distorted the image; overcoming this was a technical challenge for those seeking to manufacture telescope mirrors.  These two telescopes are thus very early examples of reflecting telescopes, from an age when refracting telescopes using lenses were the norm.

Gregorian reflecting telescope, G. Adams, 1795.

Gregorian reflecting telescope, G. Adams, 1795. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

These telescopes are also interesting in that they are tabletop instruments.  Each is equipped with its own stand, as well as a set of knobs for adjusting the angle and position of the tube.  This suggests that these were designed as gentlemen’s telescopes, and perhaps that they came to the university as a part of a faculty member’s personal collection.  So far, we have not been able to locate any records of their purchase or use, although it seems possible that they were used as teaching tools.

Today, most of the large telescopes crowning remote mountaintops are reflectors, and many of them contain not just one primary mirror but several mirrors arranged in an array.  (Most of these very large mirrors are made at the Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson—you can visit and take a tour to see the process yourself.) In that basic sense, these two little eighteenth-century telescopes are akin to the massive research instruments of today, even though they appear similar to the observatory’s 20-inch refractor.

The Mann’s still got it

Today was our third and final film shoot in the Van Vleck this summer. Previously, we’d shot Roy & the Millionaire and Fred & the 20-inch. In front of the camera this time was Linda & the Mann Measuring Machine. Linda Shettleworth is currently the Astronomy Department’s administrative assistant, but thirty years ago she was measuring stars on glass plates for Professor Art Upgren. Because we wanted to show off the Mann Measuring Machine (helpful tip: do not google image search), and since Linda is pretty much the only person left around here who knows how to use it, she naturally became the star of our demonstration video.

Melissa films Linda adjusting a plate on the Mann Measuring Machine.

Melissa films Linda adjusting a plate on the Mann Measuring Machine. Photo(s) by the author.

Linda holds up glass plate to the light.

Linda holds up a glass plate–that she marked up in the 1980s–to the light. She used this plate in the demonstration video.

Matt at the Camera

I snapped this HILARIOUS picture of Matt and got his full consent to post it on this blog.

Selfie with Matt and Mann

Author takes a selfie with the Mann Measuring Machine and Matt–who is looking at the old punched card we found under the machine. Author clearly needs to stop taking selfies during film shoots.

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.”

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.