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.

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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?

Continue reading

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.

Don’t judge a book by its cover: the hidden treasures of Mildred Booth Stearns’s library

The books of Mildred Booth Stearns are a prime example of the joy and insight that can be found by poking through a few objects. Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at the Yale Astronomy Department after graduating in 1920 from Vassar having specialized in Mathematics. Today, the word computer is only used to describe the object you’re probably reading this blog post on, but in the pre-IBM world, a computer meant a person, often a woman, who made calculations, especially for scientific work. She would have been doing complicated and time-consuming measurements and calculations at Yale, and it is within the Yale Astronomy Department that she met her future husband  Professor Carl L. Stearns, then a grad student. She moved to Middletown, 8 Brainerd Avenue, when Carl became a professor at Van Vleck Observatory, and during World War II she taught physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan.

Van Vleck Observatory has eleven books that Mildred wrote her name in the front cover of, with such scintillating titles as The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, New Analytic Geometry, and Simplified Theory of Flight. Many of the books were college textbooks, indicated by her dorm room number inscribed and her annotations like “Learn,” “Do some,” and “Try a few.” Those college textbooks must have stayed relevant to her life, considering that they did not stay behind at Vassar but followed her to Yale and then Wesleyan. Mildred Booth Stearns’s life shows the opportunities for women in the sciences during early and mid twentieth centuries, opportunities that are now often forgotten. Pieces of paper tucked unobtrusively inside her books suggest the priorities and diversions of a woman actively engaged in scientific research and teaching during the first half of the twentieth century.

I opened up one book, The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, expecting annotation but nothing else. And while I found an inscription “Mildred Booth – 1920/201 Lathrop” in the front cover as expected, I also found something completely unexpected. When I opened the book, I found three yellowing, folded newspaper cut-outs, and when I unfolded them, I discovered three crosswords. They were all from the New Haven Evening Register, and dated Monday, November 17th, 1924, Tuesday, November 18th 1924, and Wednesday, November 19th, 1924. Monday and Tuesday are blank: Wednesday is completed except for 26 across and down, each three letters, with the clues being, respectively, “A unit of electricity” and “Part of a wheat plant.” Wednesday’s crossword is Valentine’s Day themed, a heart with February 14th written in it: she had married her husband in 1923, and one wonders whether that influenced her decision on which crossword puzzle to complete and which to leave blank.

An almost-finished Cross Word Puzzle by Mildred Booth in the shape of a heart

A crossword puzzle with a Valentine’s Day theme, nearly completed by Mildred Booth. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University. Photo by the author.

By leaving crosswords from 1924 in a textbook inscribed in 1920, Mildred Booth gives further context to her life and usage of these books. According to the Vassar Alumnae Register, Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at Yale between 1920 and 1923, meaning that she left the same year she was married, probably after marriage—but she was still using her textbook on Electricity and Magnetism in 1924, consulting it frequently enough to tuck unfinished crosswords in it. It is impossible to know whether she was helping Carl Stearns with his research or just looking at the books because she genuinely enjoyed physics, but either way, this technical physics textbook was still important to her after marriage, when she no longer had an official scientific position. Women’s interest and participation in science cannot be measured by job records alone, as this serendipitous clipping tells us.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books did not only contain crosswords; they contained a wealth of primary sources on the domestic war effort during World War Two. During the war, Mildred brushed up on her college courses in order to teach physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan, but she also learned new things about the practical reasons such cadets would be learning physics: flight. The only paperback in the collection is a slim book entitled The Effects of Flight, published in 1943 “by the Authority of and under the Supervision of Training Division, Bureau of Aeronautics U.S. Navy.”

Paperclipped to the title page of this book were two yellowing clippings of text with parts of color pictures on the back. They are excerpts from newspapers, and begin: “Tension is the enemy of endurance. We civilians haven’t got a right to indulge in it, for it’s dangerous to the war,” and on the next clipping, “effort.” The clippings are from an essay called “Give Yourself A Chance!” by Louise Redfield Peattie, which was printed in the Spokane Review in Spokane, Washington, on June 19th, 1943 with the same layout, but possibly in other newspapers as well. The article discussed the dangers that would be encountered if civilians worked too relentlessly on the war effort, to their own detriment and the detriment of the country.  To remedy this problem, the piece encouraged “recreations that really make us into better Americans.”  It’s a poignant clipping for a teacher and mother of three who was making an essential contribution to the war effort. It made me wonder whether Mildred Booth Stearns clipped it for herself or whether a friend or relative, possible in Spokane, clipped it out of the newspaper and sent it to Mildred to encourage her to enjoy herself more and work less.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. A slim book with a drawing of a men piloting a plan into a large bomb cloud.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

 Simplified Theory of Flight is another book Mildred used during the war, one with two pieces tucked into it that illustrate the economic effects of the war effort. Between the back cover and the last page is a pamphlet on the 4th War Loan, encouraging people to “Display Your Colors” by buying bonds. The pamphlet admonishes readers that “We can’t afford to let up now” and informs them that the starting date is January 18th, 1944.

Even more charmingly, the book also contains the July 1943 record catalogue from Columbia Masterworks, a record label owned by Columbia Records specializing in classical music, with 231 Mary and 107 Jon written in Mildred’s handwriting. The pamphlet is stamped with the label Payne’s Music House, Middletown – Conn. Payne’s Music House occupied a historic building, build in the mid-nineteenth century, at 107 College Street, right off Main Street, between 1929 and 1974. The pamphlet is intensely aware of the war: the back advertises Henry Lowell’s “Tales of Our Countryside,” music “essentially simple, direct, melodious, affecting, and richly and racily American in spirit.” It also announces that “OUR FIGHTING MEN NEED RECORDS, TOO” and promotes an organization called “Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc.” which collected unwanted records to be sold as scrap in order to fund the purchase of new records for soldiers. The pamphlet is from July 1943, the month after “Give Yourself a Chance” was printed, suggesting that Mildred Booth Stearns took the advice to heart and invested in her own recreation through classical music. Did she fear becoming burned out from the work of teaching physics to Navy cadets, a role that would not be open to women at Wesleyan except during war time?

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design of red, white, and blue shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life.

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!”

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!” Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books indicate that historians must leave no stone unturned: more importantly, they must leave no page unturned. The intimate artifacts of historical lives linger with us, and can be found through just a little bit of flipping through some books or shuffling some objects around. Mildred Booth left pieces of herself in every dry textbook she had, and her sources of small joys and concerns, such as crosswords, music, or articles telling the reader they are working too hard and it is dangerous, are immediately familiar to anyone. Mildred Booth Stearns was a woman involved in the sciences for her whole life: from mathematics at Vassar to her continued use of physics textbooks even after she was no longer a professional computer to her return to the world of professional science as a physics instructor who had to teach students about flight in the Second World War. Her life shows the limitations of the ways women were professional scientists in her era, but more so, it drives home the point that women in the past were doing so much more than fulfilling the stereotypes of the era.

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.

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.

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).

Beyond meteors: showers and the history of astronomy

Visitors to Van Vleck Observatory may be surprised to find a shower located in one of the building’s restrooms. While it looks to have been decommissioned long ago—perhaps to the chagrin of those who bike to work here in the summer—its existence is at first puzzling. Why would there be a full bathroom in a space that appears to house just classrooms and offices?

Answering this question takes us back to the original plans for the observatory, and reveals how much the building and its uses have changed over the past century. Although nighttime observing and public events still take place regularly at Van Vleck, in the early 20th century the building would have been host to more astronomical activity after hours. This was due to the material realities and requirements of observation at the time: an astronomer had to be physically present in the dome to operate the telescope and camera. You can see that the first floor of the building includes not only computation rooms for the daytime activities of astronomical calculation, but a bedroom and bath for the convenience and comfort of the nighttime observer.

Floor plan of Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1916

Floor plan of Van Vleck Observatory, ca. 1916. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan University Department of Astronomy.

We can imagine what a night at the observatory might have been like by looking at the logbooks the astronomers used to record their observations. Positioning the telescope to view and track a particular star, exposing the glass plate to capture an image, jotting down notes on the weather and any problems—these were the methodical activities that filled an observer’s nights while the rest of the campus slept. When his duties were done—or perhaps if the sky clouded over or an instrument malfunctioned—he might be able to catch a few winks in the bedroom, or refresh himself with a rinse in the observatory bathroom before the next day’s labors.

Today, the room that once held a bed for weary observers is now an office, as are the computation rooms, and a new kind of room has appeared, where an observer can sit at a computer terminal and control the telescope from a place of warmth and relative comfort. The old marble shower in Van Vleck Observatory is thus an artifact of an earlier age of astronomy, before computer-controlled observations and remote data collection, when observers spent their nights at the telescope, quietly photographing the heavens.

Astronomical numbers

It’s more than 4 light years (or about 23,513,999,300,000 miles) to the nearest star (after our own sun, of course).  Figuring out how far away the stars are was the signature achievement of the Van Vleck Observatory’s astronomers in the 1920s and 1930s.  But how did they get from photographs of the stars, taken by fur-clad observers using the observatory’s 20″ telescope, to estimates of their distance?

Of course, the answer is calculations, and lots of them!  Today, in an age of cheap computing power, big numbers seem easy to handle.  But in the 1920s, astronomers had recourse to pen, paper, and perhaps a clunky mechanical calculating engine.  As a result they set aside specific spaces where computers — that is, humans who did astronomical calculations — could work, as you can see here in the Observatory’s original floor plans:

Computing Rooms

Copies of the original architectural blueprints, ca. 1914, are held by the Wesleyan Astronomy Department.

Today, these “computing rooms” have been converted into offices for Wesleyan’s astronomers.  Most of the calculations that might have been done in them can now be performed almost effortlessly by a laptop or an iPhone.  And the job title of “computer” disappeared from the astronomy department by the early 1960s.  But for the first forty years of the Observatory’s existence, humans were how astronomical numbers got made.

Tune in again soon for more on the human computers of the Van Vleck Observatory.

Astronomy essentials: fur?

What was it like to watch the skies in the first few decades of the twentieth century?  I had my first revelation about this when I saw a photograph of Frederick Slocum seated at the 20-inch refracting telescope in Van Vleck’s main dome.

The late Prof. Frederick Slocum at eye-piece of 18-ft. telescope (with 20" lens) in Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1946

“The late Prof. Frederick Slocum at eye-piece of 18-ft. telescope (with 20″ lens) in Van Vleck Observatory ca. 1946.”  Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Take a closer look at Slocum’s outfit. The big coat, the fur hat and gloves, the boots: all these point to the the physical realities of doing astronomy in the days before charge-coupled devices and digital photography allowed observers to sit in a warm room nearby, controlling the telescope with a computer and snapping digital images with the stroke of a key.  As anyone who has visited an observatory for a viewing night knows, the dome is not really an interior space. Temperature gradients and fluctuations can cause lenses to expand and contract, or lead to condensation of water vapor, both of which make for distortions and inaccuracies. As a result, when you’re in the dome looking through the eyepiece, everything needs to be the temperature of the outside air.  And since the best observing conditions in New England usually occur in the winter, when the air is drier, that temperature might be pretty cold indeed.

While this photograph was almost certainly posed, given the lighting conditions that would have prevailed during actual nighttime observing, it reveals some of the daily practices that shaped astronomy in the early 20th century.  Slocum’s choice to wear his observing gear indicates that, in addition to telescopes and clocks, warm clothing was a crucial part of the astronomer’s toolkit.