Digging Deep in the Archives: We keep finding cool stuff!

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A lot of our exhibit artifacts, in a way, come straight from Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives. We’ll be displaying correspondences between the first Van Vleck Observatory Director, Frederick Slocum and the Observatory’s architect, Henry Bacon (correspondence pictured right), reproductions of many historic photographs, and even a commemorative plate with an etching of the historic observatory; we could not display any of these objects, of course, without the help and support of the Wesleyan SC&A.

Moreover, one of our tasks for the last several weeks of the project has been to perform a final sweep of the archives for relevant images, documents, and things of the sort. I posted earlier about our sweep through Wesleyan’s yearbooks, and now I’d like to share some more images that I happened upon most-recently.

I’ve been working with Melissa Sullivan at the Wesleyan New Media lab, trying to get some of our footage from the summer turned into to polished, comprehensible videos to go on this website soon, hopefully! (If you’re interested about our film shoots over the summer, you can check out this post, this post, or this post). I was looking specifically for pictures of the IBM card-reader in the the Exley basement, and so I asked Leith if he had seen anything of the sort. He said he hadn’t, but that I could take a look at the file for the original Exley computer room. I said “Ok, sure why not?” and scheduled an appointment for a couple days from that point.

Boxes and folders of archival material at Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives

Leith set up a space for me in the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives with several boxes to examine. The most fruitful folder was the “[Exley] Computer Room” folder. Like some other things in our exhibit, I handled all photographs with white gloves. Photo by the author.

Looking through the photographs of the Exley Computer Lab, I saw some crazy things. Computers as big as rooms! The original desk-sized computers, that were themselves desk-sized! Students and staff crunching numbers! And a random photograph of Frederick Slocum thrown into the mix?

Computers as big as rooms

Computers as big as rooms! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Student at Desk-sized computer

Desk-sized computers! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Image of Frederick Slocum

Random picture of Frederick Slocum thrown in the mix? Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

I didn’t know quite what I was looking at or why there was an image of the Van Vleck Observatory’s very first director (long deceased by the time the Exley Science Tower was built) in a folder for the Exley Computer Room, so I snapped a bunch of photos and showed them to Roy at our Monday meeting the following week. Zooming in and rotating the photos a bit on my tiny cellphone screen, he mumbled, “This might be…well, this actually is the VVO basement.” And I kinda just stood there dumbfounded, like, “really?”

“Abby, these might the only photographs we have of the Van Vleck Observatory computing room [AKA the basement]. This is amazing.”

My rather lame response: “Ok, cool! I’m glad I looked in that folder then.”

That very Monday morning, Roy and Amrys were sending out a finalized list of images to get reproduced for the exhibit, and they wanted some of these new pictures. I emailed Leith and asked him to take high-quality scans of 6 of the images; in less than an hour he had written back to me, explaining the scans plus a few extra were uploaded to our shared folder. I forwarded the email to Roy and Amrys, and now several images of the original “computers” (i.e. those students and staff who did computations) are in our exhibit!

Although we cannot be certain of the dates of the photographs, Leith guesses they’re mostly from the late 1960s. Check out some of the images below!

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that's still there).

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that’s still there). Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement. You might recognize the radiators, chalkboard, and windows–which let us know this is the Van Vleck. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A puzzle at the data processing unit.

A puzzle at the data processing unit. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Row of keypunch machines with students and secretaries working.

Mac desktop computers have since replaced this row of keypunch machines. Alas, ’tis naught but nostalgia. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

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.

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Freddy!

Roy and Amrys in 20th century garb

The two stars of the evening. (Photo by Avi Stein)

Like many other curious spectators last Saturday night (6 February 2016, exactly a week ago today), I walked up the icy path to the Van Vleck Observatory at a couple minutes past 7pm, and I almost couldn’t get my foot in the door there were so many people. Squeaking open the door cautiously so as not to push anybody into the mounted Fisk Telescope that stands just a couple feet from the doorway (I mean I didn’t want to push anybody anyway…), and with a few “excuse-me’s” and “I’m-sorry-thank-you’s” later, I was in. And then, I saw two long sheets of brightly-decorated birthday-cake.

Frederick Slocum's birthday cake

One of the two birthday cakes, soon-to-be-consumed in Frederick Slocum’s honor. (Photo by the author).

But that’s just the beginning of the story. We were all there to celebrate the birthday of the first director of the Van Vleck Observatory (Frederick Slocum), eat birthday cake, and attend a circa-1916 astronomy lecture delivered by Roy with assistance of Amrys at the projector. In period costume. With authentic lantern slides. Luckily the cake didn’t also come from the year 1916.

Authentic lantern slides

Lantern slides used in the presentation. Note the date in the bottom-most slide: 1915! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

The event was so popular, that Roy and Amrys had to give the presentation twice! While the first take was going on in the Van Vleck classroom, the remaining crowd was left to observe the Pleiades star cluster with the newly-restored 20’’ telescope thanks to the help of the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, schmooze in the lobby, and eyeball the cake eagerly and a bit impatiently. Most of our team was in attendance, fielding questions about why we were all there anyway that night. One student asked, “How many planets were there in 1916?” “Well…all of the planets were already there (haha)…but I think Pluto had just been discovered!” Roy later stated that it hadn’t been yet.

Roy and Amrys after the first lecture

Roy and Amrys make it out of the first lecture alive! (Photo by Josephine Ho)

In any case, when the first talk was over, Roy, Amrys, and a wave of people poured out of the classroom, elated and a bit red-faced. I bumped into my Italian professor and asked her thoughts; her response: “fantastico.” Amrys started the crowds singing “Happy Birthday” and a friend nearby commented afterward, “That was the most in-tune ‘happy birthday’ I’ve ever heard and especially from such a large group of people!” The cake was cut and handed-out (finally). 

Amrys introducing the lecture

Amrys introduces the Under CT Skies project, the lecture, and Roy. (Photo by Josephine Ho)

At last, it was the second group’s turn. I found myself, and the other team members originally-tasked with crowd-control, in this section. Amrys began with a few words about the Under Connecticut Skies project and then invited us to close our eyes. The lights went off as she explained the major events, the new cars, and new technology of the time, and how the Great War had delayed the arrival of the 20’’ lens. She gave the floor to Roy. 

Parallax explanation

We found this delightful drawing on the back of a visitor survey filled out by an attendee of the evening. (Photo by the author)

Roy explained a bit about the observatory’s “recent” building, dedication, and ultimate purpose: “instruction and research” as Slocum had outlined in his inaugural address. “May I please have the next slide.” (Amrys changed the lantern slides right on cue every time) Roy moved on to explain how parallax measurement works, asking everyone to hold up their thumb an arm’s length away. You can calculate how far away your thumb is from your face by measuring the distance between your eyes and using simple trigonometry to find the angle at the end.This is the same concept as observing a star from two different points on the earth’s surface, and finding its distance. I’ve heard parallax described many-a-times, and I still don’t completely understand it. 


Roy discusses the proposed element “Nebulium” during the lecture. (Photo by the author)

“May I please have the next slide.” Roy continued on talking about the “latest” advancements in astronomical research. Scientists were still puzzled by the element “Nebulium,” discovered earlier in the late 19th century. Analyzing spectroscopic lines, astronomers had named the element after the nebulae from which they believed it originated. One astronomy student whispered to another, “What’s Nebulium? I’ve never heard of it before.” A shrug of the shoulders, and: “Me neither.”

After several more “May-I-have-the-next-slide-please’s,” the talk was over, the lights came on, and Roy and Amrys broke out of character. A Q&A session began. Roy explained that Nebulium turned out to be doubly-ionized oxygen, which is why we don’t see the element on any periodic table. 

Amrys and students look at old projector together

Amrys shows off the authentic lantern slide projector to a couple of students who attended the lecture. (Photo by the author)

And finally after the Q&A session, while chatting with the students who were smart enough to know that Nebulium was never a real thing, Roy admitted that he tried to lay off telling so many astronomy jokes so as not to alienate the diverse crowd but left a few in anyway for the astronomers.

And so, by the end of the night, I felt it was safe to say that Frederick Slocum had one of the greatest birthday parties ever.

For more press coverage on this event, check out this article in the Wesleyan Argus or Roy’s very own post on the Van Vleck Observatory blog.