September 2007 Issue
Ohioans are fortunate to have within their borders antinque telescopes that offer magnificent viewing.
Your footfalls echo softly inside the overarching dome, whose interior is faintly lit by the setting crescent moon. The fine burnished mahogany of the telescope tube stretches up toward the dome's open slit, the polished-brass band holding the telescope's main lens at the top of the tube gleaming in the silvery moonlight. The astronomer focuses the eyepiece and backs away, inviting you to look for yourself -- and you gasp, feeling yourself almost falling into magnificent, craggy lunar craters.
This experience can be enjoyed by anyone at one of Ohio's marvelous vintage astronomical observatories.
Ohio has a double distinction. It boasts the second-oldest observatory in the United States still existing (the Loomis Observatory in Hudson, founded in 1838). The state also possesses what was, at the time it was built, the largest telescope in the United States and second-largest in the world (one at the Cincinnati Observatory, completed in 1845).
To the backyard stargazer, history buff and aficionado of fine antiques alike, beholding a vintage telescope is pure pleasure: its precision gearing, its regal pedestal, its elegant fittings, its gorgeous glass. Moreover, a gratifying number of these century-plus-old masterpieces of mechanical art are in prime condition and can be viewed -- and viewed through -- by anyone, at nominal or no charge.
Three quick notes: All of these vintage instruments are refracting telescopes, that is, they have a main lens rather than a mirror; dimensions refer to the diameter of the lens, bigger always being better for seeing the faintest celestial objects in greatest detail. If you plan to stargaze, dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes, as domes are kept open to the night air, no matter how cold it gets, and there may be no convenient place to sit. Some observatories also have a minimum age for child visitors.
So picturesque is the Cincinnati Observatory atop peaceful, grassy Mount Lookout that this National Historic Landmark has become a favorite spot for weddings and retreats. To a visitor entering the loop drive in a gracious residential neighborhood above Cincinnati, two dome-capped brick buildings come into view.
The smaller building at one side shelters the original telescope that distinguished the observatory at its original site of Mount Adams (in 1873, the observatory was relocated because of the city's encroaching smoke pollution). When first mounted in 1845, this telescope's 11-inch-diameter lens, ground and polished by a notable German firm and mounted in a tube of burnished mahogany, was exceeded only by a 15-inch telescope in Russia -- and remained the U.S.'s largest telescope for two years (until Harvard University acquired a twin to the Russian instrument in 1847).
The larger central building holds a telescope whose 16-inch lens was fashioned by the Massachusetts optical corporation of Alvan Clark & Sons in 1904 (a firm whose founders had fashioned the world's largest telescope five times over). With a tapering tube of gray-painted riveted steel, Cincinnati's 16-inch Clark refractor resembles machinery that would look at home aboard a battleship. Still the biggest refractor in Ohio, it was one of the baker's-dozen largest the Clarks ever made.
Both instruments are in Swiss-watch working order. Most Thursday and Friday evenings, the public is welcomed to popular lectures, historical tours and (weather permitting) gazing through the telescopes at the Moon, planets or other celestial wonders. For ticket reservations, as well as information on the observatory's many additional special events, visit www.cincinnatiobservatory.org
or contact director Craig Niemi at 513/321-5186 or firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the most historically significant vintage observatories in Ohio is also one of the most diminutive: the Loomis Observatory, a petite ivy-covered brick building on the grassy campus of the Western Reserve Academy in Hudson. Originally named the Hudson Observatory when it was completed in 1838 as part of the 10-year-old Western Reserve College, it was important for being so far west -- especially since it was one of only a handful of permanently mounted observatories in the nation (only one, just a few months older, still survives: the Hopkins Observatory of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts). Today, the observatory is named for its founder and first director, Elias Loomis, an early U.S. astronomer who also pioneered the charting of weather information on maps.
Under the copper dome, which can be rotated, is the observatory's main telescope: an exquisite refractor with a lens 4 inches in diameter, whose optics and mechanical parts were crafted by the then-world-renowned London firm of Troughton and Simms. With this telescope, Loomis plotted the motions of five comets and determined their orbits through the solar system.
In an adjoining room is a smaller specialized telescope called a meridian circle, which is fixed to one horizontal axis so it can be swung only due north and south. In a type of observation that was an important staple in the 19th century (but rarely conducted today), Loomis waited for stars to transit, or drift across, crosshairs in the telescope's field of view, carefully timing those stellar transits to derive local time and longitude.
With its original equipment in its original location for nearly 170 years, the Loomis Observatory is worth a pilgrimage during the rare occasions each year it is open to the public. The next time will be this autumn during the annual Treasures of the Western Reserve Academy tour. (Tip: take your camera to capture the green patina of the copper dome and the red brick of the building against the colorful fall foliage.) For exact date and reservation information, contact Thomas Vince, Western Reserve Academy archivist and historian, at 330/650-5825 or VinceT@wra.net
Stephens Memorial Observatory
"We get our money out of machinery and our glory out of telescopes," declared Ambrose Swasey, who with Worcester Reed Warner established their famous machine-tool factory on Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland in 1881. Although Warner & Swasey profited mostly from their turret lathes and weaving machines, they established their worldwide reputation for precision engineering by winning contracts to craft the mechanical parts -- mounts, clockwork, piers, domes (everything but the optics) -- of the world's largest telescopes and observatories.
Vintage Warner & Swasey telescopes of modest size abound throughout Ohio. An excellent example of classic Warner & Swasey design is the curved rectangular pier and brass fittings of the 9-inch refractor at Hiram College's Stephens Memorial Observatory. Although its lens was ground and polished by highly regarded Pittsburgh optician John A. Brashear in 1901, the telescope's original observatory succumbed to a fire in 1939, so its present dome is "only" about 70 years old. Now being lovingly restored by director James R. Guilford and a team of volunteers, it offers public observing nights about once a month. The next one is Sept. 22, 9–11 p.m.; for further information, see www.stephensobservatory.org
or contact email@example.com
Clear skies, and happy time travel!