Centennial Events: Come celebrate with us!

We’ve got an excellent line-up of events going on in celebration of the Van Vleck Observatory’s Centennial. First event starts tomorrow with the Historic Observing Session at the Van Vleck. We hope to see you there!

Events poster

Events poster by Melissa Joskow

Research on Nostalgia Lane: Flipping through Old Yearbooks

Image found in Wesleyan yearbook for class of 1958. Someone must have skied down from the Van Vleck!

Image found in Wesleyan yearbook for class of 1958. Someone must have skied down from the Van Vleck! Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Anyone’s who’s ever written a history paper or taken a history class knows that you can never truly finish researching. Which is why, in the final months up until the exhibition opening, we find ourselves time and time again in Olin Library pouring over books and at the Special Collections & Archives leafing through file after file. Most recently, we did a final scouring of all the Wesleyan yearbooks (each titled “Olla Podrida“) ever published since 1916 (the year the Van Vleck Observatory was dedicated) in a hunt for pertinent images and photographs. The very last Olla Podrida was published in 2008, so we didn’t have quite 100 years to look through. Us student workers divvied up the years, and soon we are all flipping pages and pages and pages in Olin, where almost all of the editions are located. Hope you enjoy getting a first look at some of our coolest finds!

Olla Podrida 1947

Photograph of Profs. Stearns and Abrams in the Transit Room

Photograph of Profs. Stearns and Abrams in the Transit Room. This might be the only picture of the Transit Room from when it was still used for its original purpose. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Olla Podrida 1957

Photograph of Prof. Stearns with the 20-inch telescope

Photograph of Prof. Stearns with the 20-inch telescope. Old photographs that show the telescope and an actual person together are quite hard to come by. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

Olla Podrida 1960

Full page dedicated to Prof. Page in his office. Caption: "The Dignity of the Savant"

Full page dedicated to Prof. Page in his office. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

Olla Podrida 1971

Students hanging out on Foss Hill. Observatory in background.

Students hanging out on Foss Hill. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

Olla Podrida 2005

Spring Fling on Foss Hill. Observatory in background.

Spring Fling on Foss Hill. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

The Van Vleck Observatory seems to have secured its place on the top of the hill–once Observatory Hill, now Foss Hill–for good! Hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane just as much as we have!

Scripting the History of Astronomy at the Van Vleck Observatory

For months it seemed as if the museum exhibit at the observatory was just a mirage on the horizon, something we knew we were all working towards but didn’t really know exactly what would be when we actually got there. At last, we’re so close to the opening of our exhibit! We have a finalized list of objects that Matt’s been laboring over and a script that Roy, Amrys, and Paul have been slaving a way at for weeks!

Writing a script for a museum exhibit comes with its own quirks and challenges. We’re not writing a history report or a critical essay; we’re trying to communicate to a public audience the significance of the Van Vleck Observatory to Wesleyan, Middletown, astronomy, and even the arts by showing some of the coolest objects we have around.

So, with some objects on the shelves and a draft of the script in all of our hands, we started to “run-through” the exhibit at our weekly Monday meeting.

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library

Reading the script out loud for the first time in the Van Vleck Library–future site of the permanent exhibit. Photo by the author.

Some shelves look just about museum ready!

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition.

One possible layout of one cabinet of the exhibition. Photo by the author.

cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books

One cabinet with an array of interesting objects and books, layout to be finalized. Photo by the author.

And some shelves are still being used as office supplies storage space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space.

Museum shelf currently used as office supply collection space. Photo by the author.

Amrys and Roy project to camp out in the library up until the opening of the exhibit.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library.

Amrys and Roy discussing the exhibit script in the Van Vleck Library. Photo by the author.

Now what would a run-through of the exhibit be without a consultation of our exhibit-creating Bible, Beverely Serrel’s second edition of Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach?

Michaela reads from Serrel's "Exhibit Labels"

Michaela reads from Serrel’s “Exhibit Labels” reminding us that word count for each Introductory Label, Group Label, and Caption Label is extremely important! Photo by the author.

We’re really getting down to the nitty-gritty of the exhibit now! More to come soon!

Arts at the Van Vleck: spotting (moon) in the dome

From John Cage to Eiko Otake, we’ve seen that the Van Vleck Observatory can be a welcoming space for art. While these artistic giants have made great use of the space, students, on the other hand, have not truly capitalized on the observatory as an art studio or performance space. That is, until now. Cut to: ( moon ), a performance art piece by Helen Handelman, Wesleyan University class of 2016.


Poster for ( moon ), a performance in the Van Vleck Observatory by Helen Handelman ’16

The performance took place in the observatory dome on November 13, 14, and 15 of last year (2015), just a week after Otake’s performance. ( moon ) is an ensemble performance based on the Cold War Space Race. Handelman, a Religion and Theater Studies double major, became interested in the topic last summer when she visited the Bullock Texas State History Museum and saw an exhibit about the year 1968, the year of the Apollo 8 mission. Since her visit in Texas, Handelman has begun writing a thesis about that celestial body that orbits the earth, and she is using ( moon ) as a creative way for her to explore her thesis further.

When I talked to Handelman about her piece and why she chose the Van Vleck Observatory as the performance location, her answer was surprising: she admitted that she had never actually been in the observatory before scouting it out as a performance space. Once she saw it though, she knew this was the place for ( moon ). She found the dome space to be “majestic and beautiful” noting that it “kind of evokes something like a church or the vastness of space in its openness and bigness.” To be sure, Handelman used every part of the dome for her performance: the walls were a place for shadows to lurk; the telescope was something for the actors to climb towards; and the landing was a space for everyone to move and dance.


Performance of ( moon ) at the Van Vleck Observatory.

Going forward, Helen hopes that more students will use the Van Vleck Observatory for performance. She feels that the VVO is specifically special for artistic explorations, explaining, “it has a lot of warm intimate spaces as well as the open and cold space of the dome….The fact that there are only a few rooms [in the building] means that the space of the observatory is contained in a way that I think makes art-experiencing conducive and exciting.”

The Van Vleck Observatory has always been a great place to see stars in the sky, and now visitors can see different kinds of stars up close down here on Earth.

Arts at the Van Vleck: An Exploration of Eiko Otake’s “A Body In An Observatory”

World-renowned dancer and performance artist Eiko Otake bestowed her gifts on the Wesleyan community–and the astronomy community–just this past fall. On November 6 and 7, 2015, Otake performed a piece entitled “A Body in an Observatory.” The titular observatory, of course, was our very own Van Vleck. “A Body in an Observatory” is part of the artist’s larger series, “A Body in Places.”

Otake at beginning of dance performance

Eiko Otake at the start of her performance, “A Body in an Observatory.” In this moment, Otake is just outside the observatory overlooking Foss Hill and College Row. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the eye-piece of the 20” telescope. Roy Kilgard in background. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.

On her professional website, Otake details her thinking on the performance: “I imagine how, 100 years ago, people must have been so excited in seeing this great telescope arrive to the Middletown community in 1916. How moved people must have been when they saw the stars in a way they had not seen before. Having spent some time in the observatory with the kind and patient Astronomer Roy Kilgard and local star enthusiasts, I wondered how I could have not been more tempted to see so deeply into the night sky. Beautiful, is the seemingly endless cosmos that continues expanding. Time and distance entwine in seeing stars and far into space. Beautiful, also, is the human curiosity striving for far places. It makes me feel a bit fearful, however, how far humans strive. Our body meanwhile remains our commonality (yet unknown), a vehicle to other places, a home to rest, and a reminder of our very limits of both the length and space that one person’s life occupies. My body is my measuring stick.”

Although all eyes are focused on Otake herself during the performance, the work is a product of collaboration. In fact, Roy Kilgard, professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan, worked closely with Otake in preparing, rehearsing, and ultimately performing this work of art. Among his many typical responsibilities, Professor Kilgard is the facilities manager of the observatory’s telescopes and computers, so

Eiko Otake and the 20'' telescope

Eiko Otake and the 20” telescope in a rehearsal of the work. Photo courtesy of William Herbst.

when Otake expressed desire to perform in the dome of the observatory, she and Professor Kilgard began working together because he was the only one who knew how to operate the telescope at the time. The two spent time rehearsing together and talking about astronomy and the history of the Van Vleck Observatory. During their first visits together, Otake observed Professor Kilgard conduct a training session with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford in the observatory’s dome. After looking through the telescope and watching Professor Kilgard operate it, she decided the telescope should move with her in the performance. In effect, she would create a duet of movement between herself and the 20-inch refractor telescope. Kilgard would help operate the telescope.

While this was Kilgard’s first time participating in an event like this at the observatory, it was not his first time being involved in creative projects.

“My father was a musician and I grew up playing in a lot of bad bands. The idea of being involved in performances doesn’t scare me. However, I had no theater or dance experience so the thought of working with one of the best, most famous contemporary dancers in the world terrified me a little bit. I really didn’t want to mess it up.”

During the performance, Otake would make signals to Professor Kilgard, alerting him to when she wanted him to move the telescope. They tried their best to create signals that were subtle in order to ensure that the audience would not be able to predict what would happen next.

Otake and spectators

Otake consuming flowers while spectators look on. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Images by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography

Kilgard expressed his excitement for the event: “I was so excited to see people’s reactions, especially the people who had never been in that space before. In general I was so excited to see people’s reactions to something so weird happening in a space that was so purposely built for science 100 years ago and now there is something as far from that that you can get taking place in the same space.”

The performance itself is about forty minutes long, and Otake begins the piece by moving at a snail’s pace. “Once she really begins to move,” Kilgard explained, “people lose track of time and they become completely absorbed in what she was doing. All eyes were on her.”

Otake and spectators

Near the end of the performance, Otake tugs on the manual pulley that opens the dome. Spectators look on. Photos courtesy of Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Image by Sandy Aldieri of Perceptions Photography.


To view an edited video of Otake’s performance, click here. To view more photos from the event, click here. To read Professor Kilgard’s take on the performance, click here.

One for the money, two for the show…

Although the two phases of our exhibit planning overlap a great deal, at some point in the past several months, the Under CT Skies project transitioned from its research phase to its implementation phase. This means we’re starting to make the decisions that will definitively determine the form of our exhibit. It also means there are more power tools involved.

And so, last Friday, Tom Castelli of the Wesleyan Science Machine Shop (located in the basement of the Exley Science Building) paid a visit at the Van Vleck Observatory. Tom has been mocking up potential panels for the exhibit using lexan sheets and leftover wood from recent construction at the Usdan Student Center. The wood is quite lovely and matches that of the VVO library very well.

Tom showed us what he’s been up to, and now I’m going to show you!

Mock-up panel in library

Ta-da! This is a mock up panel that Tom made for the exhibit. Note: the protective sheet is still on the glass! (Photo by the author).

It might not look like much yet, but this is quite an important step in this phase of our exhibit-making. Just one panel raises a whole set of questions about the shape the exhibit will soon take.

For example, how are we to best protect what goes on the other side of the glass? Do we need to use material that filters out UV light so we can preserve our historical artifacts and, perhaps a bit less-importantly, our exhibit labels?

Library window facing college row and the 20-inch dome

As far as windows go, this is a pretty great one. And just look at the view! (Photo by the author)

We ruled out using UV-filtering window shades because the Van Vleck library has rather lovely windows that we wouldn’t want to hide completely.

Other questions that I had included, “What is in Tom’s mysterious bag that he keeps going back to??”

Tom searches his bag

Tom searches his seemingly magical bag. (Photo by the author)


What was in Tom's bag

Nosey author discovers what magic was indeed inside Tom’s bag.

And with that mystery, and a few others solved, Tom went on his way to search for UV-filtered panel options.


I’ll leave you with this artsy picture I took of Tom, Amrys, and Roy investigating the  wooden overlay to the glass plates on the opposite wall of the library.


Roy, Amrys, and Paul in the library

Tom, Amrys, and Roy in the library. (Photo by the sometimes artsy author)

Bonus points if you noticed that the glass plates are missing. The reason why? Stay tuned for more exhibit updates!

The Most Interesting Man of the Van Vleck Observatory

He doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he drinks his own.

Thornton Page sits in his office. Photo from the Van Vleck Observatory.

Thornton Page sits in his office. Photo from the Van Vleck Observatory.

One of the difficulties of dealing with the types of archival material that rest in a historic observatory is that, while we have a lot of material, little of it captures the personality of the people we’re dealing with. We have plenty of scientific books and teaching slides; we have fewer photos of professors and their dogs.

Thornton Page and his dog pose next to Erwin Rommel's Mercedes. Newspaper clipping in Van Vleck Observatory. Publication and date unknown.

Thornton Page and his dog pose next to Erwin Rommel’s Mercedes. Newspaper clipping in Van Vleck Observatory. Probably from the Middletown Press (based on where it is filed), date unknown.

But we do have one such photograph, and it’s of Thornton Page, the most interesting professor of the Van Vleck, a man whose idiosyncrasies capture the weirdness of the 1960s UFO-obsessed, Space Age astronomy.

We have written before on Page’s interest in UFOs and modern space science. As a Wesleyan professor, Page created the Science 1-2 program, a course for non-science majors that explained the science behind then-modern phenomena such as UFOs. In an 1966 interview with Walter Cronkite, Thornton Page–and  Carl Sagan!–explain the findings from actual scientific research on the subject. One article from the New Haven Register summed up his personal experience of the phenomena: “UFO expert has never seen one.”

Article on Page's UFO expertise. In Van Vleck Observatory. From New Haven Register, October 9, 1967.

Article on Page’s UFO expertise. In Van Vleck Observatory. From New Haven Register, October 9, 1967.

As a researcher, Page involved himself with government projects. Before coming to Wesleyan, he observed the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. He also did classified work during the 1950s for the Operations Research Office at the Department of the Army. During his tenure, he was often on leave, working instead for NASA and assisting with the Apollo programs.

But while his scientific life was focused on the new technology and space-obsessiveness of the Cold War, his home life was focused more on capturing—and re-enacting, one might say—past events.

Page drove the Mercedes supposedly owned by Erwin Rommel (pictured above). (Yes, that Erwin Rommel) The vehicle, he explained, had no prior records of ownership but was likely owned by Rommel because it had bullet holes in it. The Deimler Corporation, Page said, also identified the car as Rommel’s.

He also owned an 18th-century New England farm. Inside his house, he brewed his own beer. The beer’s labels displayed his old property.

And the beer’s moniker? “Pagerbrau,” which loosely translates to “Page Beer.” A fitting title for the most interesting beer of the most interesting man of the Van Vleck Observatory.

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!


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…


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.


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.



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.


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.

Telescope Green and other custom paint colors for a custom telescope

What color is a telescope? And what does it matter anyway?


Although old photographs in black and white might not be the most convincing evidence, at least this photo shows that the telescope paint was dark. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives.

Back in the day (AKA 100 years ago), the 20-inch Van Vleck telescope was painted black. I believe the rationale was that astronomers wished to keep the space in the dome as dark as possible; naturally a dark paint was in order. More scientifically, the color black absorbs light. Stray light in the dome is something to consider and painting a telescope so that it can absorb stray light to the maximum seems rather logical.

Today the telescope is painted white–or more specifically, a slight off-white. The rationale here is that white reflects light. Because white does not absorb light like the color black does, a white telescope will be cooler than a black one. This is important to regulate the temperature of the instrument. The mount however is still kept at a dark hue. As for why the dome itself is painted white outside, well the story is not too different.

Now for all you extreme telescope enthusiasts out there who want to know the specific paint colors, I’m talking color codes and more here, you are in for a fun story.

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow

Paint can lid for Dark Dakota Shadow with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

A while back, Bill Herbst, his wife, and a consultant from the Wesleyan Art Department decided on the colors to paint the telescope: Dakota Shadow for the mount and North Star for the tubes. The Dakota Shadow was a bit too light, so a request was put in for Dark Dakota Shadow with no white added.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes.

Paint can lid for Telescope Green with Benjamin Moore color codes. Photo by the author.

Over the summer however, while working on the telescope restoration, Fred received a mis-mixed batch of paint. To remediate the error, the Cromwell Paint Spot shop named a new paint color–with the proper mix of green, yellow, black, and white–for Fred and put it in their system as “Telescope Green.”

Matt and I called the Paint Spot to investigate further. We spoke to a very nice sales representative who looked up the paint color for us. He didn’t recognize “Telescope Green” off the top of his head, but when we gave him the custom code he found it immediately! The rep said that the shop still has Telescope Green paint in stock, but because it is a custom color, we would need to bring in the can with the lid and the code to actually get the paint.

Fred points out the coats of paint on the mount. Photo(s) by the author.

Fred points out the multiple coats of paint on the mount. (Photo by the author)

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi suggested the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!”

This was the look on Fred’s face when Avi joked the paint color could be called “T-Tauri Taupe.” Fred said, “I know what taupe is and this isn’t anything close!” In any case, Avi was working on the telescope restoration with Fred over the summer and he’s the one who tipped me off about Telescope Green in the first place. Thanks Avi! (Photo by the author)

Avi laughing

And to round out this post, here is a picture of Avi laughing, maniacally probably (not). Could he be wearing a t-shirt in the tone of Telescope Green?? And will this become the trendiest new paint color?? Only time will tell…