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…

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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A possible panel along the eastern wall.

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

Getting our hands dirty

People often think of history as a largely intellectual pursuit, the product of extensive reading and thinking in libraries and archives. And while it’s true that much of the historian’s craft involves these activities, the research process itself can be very hands-on. When you’re working with old documents that haven’t yet been catalogued or conserved, you’re quite likely to get filthy in the process, as the edges of carbon copies disintegrate on you, or a deteriorating leather binding stains your fingers. Since we’re simultaneously researching and assembling a collection, we’ve had many opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get down to the sometimes messy work of history.

I had just such an experience last week after going through a shelf full of old notebooks in the observatory library. It turned out to contain a number of gems: a blue exam booklet from Wesleyan in which Frederick Slocum had penned a log for a sailing journey he made between New Bedford and Bermuda in the 1920s, several decades’ worth of clock records, a stenographer’s notebook containing B. W. Sitterly’s notes from the 1932 eclipse trip to Conway, New Hampshire, and more.

A shelf of old notebooks, many belonging to Frederick Slocum, in the observatory library.

A shelf of old notebooks we discovered on an upper shelf in the observatory library.

Of course, after decades—and in some cases more than a century—on the shelves of Van Vleck, these notebooks are not all in prime condition. As I climbed down the ladder from which I had been accessing the shelf, I noticed that, in my research reverie, the dyes and papers and flakes of covers had coated my hands with a layer of historical grime.

Amrys's hands were very dirty after going through a shelf full of materials in the Observatory Library.

History hands: an afternoon inventorying library shelves left Amrys’s hands quite dirty.

The folks working on the telescope restoration clearly aren’t the only ones getting their hands dirty at Van Vleck this summer!