Shooting stars

It’s been an exciting morning in the observatory. Upstairs, members of our team are working with a videographer to shoot our first footage for the project: Roy demonstrating how to use our historic “Millionaire” calculating machine to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Our plan is to assemble some short videos that show this marvelous contraption in action.

Setting up the library for the shoot.

Setting up the library for the shoot. Photo by the author.

Roy contemplates the Millionaire after brushing up on his long division.

Roy contemplates the Millionaire, while pen and paper stand at the ready for long division. Photo by the author.

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.

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).

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.