Last month’s Centennial Symposium was a huge success. In addition to a daylong series of talks and presentations by current and former faculty, staff, and students, guests enjoyed a reception and ceremonial rededication of the observatory, complete with guests from the past. Happy Van Vleck Observatory Day in Middletown!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Sure enough, tucked inside were more delicate glass spheres, brass gears, and mounting hardware, carefully wrapped in ancient tissue paper.
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.
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:
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.
The year 1925 started out with a bang for residents of the Nutmeg State: on the morning of January 24 a total solar eclipse would pass directly over Connecticut. Observatory directors across the country made plans well in advance to send parties of astronomers to observing locations with the most promising views. Area newspapers like the Hartford Courant, the Middletown Press, and even the New York Times hooked into the waxing excitement and perhaps contributed to the hullabaloo, too.
On January 23, the day before the eclipse, the Courant released an article explaining the preparations in order. Hundreds of students and professors from Massachusetts universities were rolling into Connecticut by charter train. Public transportation in state, however, would cease. Trolleys would not be running. All businesses and commercial life was at a halt. The New York Stock Exchange even delayed opening until 10:15am—well after the scheduled ending of the eclipse. Crowds flocked to New Haven and Middletown, where the Yale Student Observatory and Van Vleck Observatory telescopes were in position to capture the event on film—and glass plates, naturally. Yale and Wesleyan’s observatories were two of just a handful of professional observatories in the northeast in the 1920s, so they eagerly played host to “eclipse parties” open to onlookers and “up-lookers” from around New England.
The total eclipse of the sun lasted about two minutes. Life resumed and the world moved on—literally and figuratively. The astronomers at Van Vleck had some great photos and some great data, too. Newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Popular Astronomy published images of the eclipse made with the Van Vleck telescope. The observatory’s director, Frederick Slocum, even wrote up a report for Popular Astronomy on the eclipse and so the “Greatest Show on Earth,” as the Courant called it, became accessible to readers across the country.
As for the lunar eclipse two weeks later? Well no one really made much fuss about that. The Stock Exchange opened at its regularly scheduled time, and the folks at Van Vleck seem to have returned to their workaday routines.