Fridays with Fred: The Science Behind Smith Observatory

Beloit College and the history of the Smith Observatory.

During the 1870s, science gradually took on a greater role in what was, until then, a strongly classics-based curriculum. Beloit College students began clamoring for more scientific apparatus and facilities, including what seemed like a pipe dream to the underfunded young college, an “astronomical observatory.” In 1876, the year the U.S. celebrated its centennial, student Joseph P. Dyas made astronomy the subject of his public rhetorical:

Smith Observatory circa 1892.

“If what our good Professor [Henry M. Whitney] tells us is true - and he ought to know - that ‘more can be learned from Nature than from books,’ it would be best for us often to lay aside our books and pay Dame Nature frequent visits to search into the eternal verities with our own eyes instead of through the eyes and brain of another…Now, for botany, geology, and some of the other sciences we have the objects of study near at hand. Not so, however, with astronomy. For an intelligent and practical understanding of this science there is not yet the first instrument…Now just what we want is an observatory with a telescope, clock and transit instrument…” Dyas suggested that the students start a subscription for building an observatory, much the way they had forced the issue of building the college’s first gymnasium four years earlier.

Furthering the cause, in 1880 Professor Joseph Emerson received $500 from his Yale classmates to purchase a telescope in honor of their fellow classmate, the late Professor Jackson J. Bushnell. At the same time, the college also created a collection of valuable books and pamphlets known as the Bushnell Astronomical Library.

At the close of the Commencement exercises on June 29, 1881, President Aaron Lucius Chapin asked the audience to adjourn to the bluff near the southwest corner of the college campus, not far from the turtle effigy mound. He led them up the hill to where someone had laid out stakes and cords outlining the shape of foundation walls. As the crowd gathered, a carriage rolled up unpaved Bushnell Street, carrying an elderly woman, Mrs. J. S. Herrick, who handed Trustee Henry A. Miner an envelope. Miner presented the contents to those gathered: a draft for $10,000, enough to build an observatory and purchase its requisite equipment, including a powerful telescope. The gift was in honor of her late brother, John F. Smith, a former Vermonter-turned-pioneer who made his riches via an iron mine in Ironton, Wis.

Trustee Samuel D. Hastings accepted her gift on behalf of the college and then, after a pause, President Chapin lifted up a spade and struck the ground repeatedly until able to break the hard-packed turf. “In turning this sod today,” he said, “I do in behalf of the friends of Beloit College consecrate this ground to the study of the heavens for the enlightenment of man and to the glory of God.” The college band tuned up and then those assembled sang the doxology, concluding the ceremony.

The Trustees quickly appointed a building committee, which included Thomas A. Smith, the professor who would be in charge of the Smith Observatory, and Thomas C. Chamberlin, class of 1866, and already a nationally prominent scientist. The committee consulted with an architect, who drew up plans for the building, described by the Beloit Daily Free Press:

“The structure will consist of a tower and two wings, built of stone, trimmed with brown stone. The tower will be about 20 feet in diameter, and the walls will be about 30 feet in height. It will be divided into two stories, the lower story being octagon in shape, and the upper round. The wings, which will extend north and east, will be one story high, one 18x25 feet in size, the other 18x16 feet in size. The main entrance for the public will be on the south side, and there will be a private entrance on the east side.” As expenses mounted, Mrs. Herrick assured the college of additional funding. By November 1881, work on the foundation continued, but a Round Tablereporter grumbled that “the building of the Observatory progresses somewhat more slowly than the enthusiasm aroused in anticipation would lead us to expect.”

A look inside the Smith Observatory.

By February, although the observatory wasn’t ready, its equipment began to arrive, piece by piece, including, according to the Round Table, “a sextant, a sidereal chronometer, and a transit of two and three-fourths inch object glass.” In June, the paper described the rising walls in vivid detail: “The Observatory’s two wings, an airy word for an airy thing, are now feathered with board and tin roofs, and the building has assumed the shape of a great star-visiting bird; but the bird lacks a head. The paper dome will not be developed until autumn… Everything about the building is substantial, solid, like the everlasting hill which bears it up. As a building, the new Observatory is certainly a conspicuous addition to the college grounds, and will serve a purpose that few western colleges have the means to carry out.”

The long-awaited dome arrived at last on Sept. 6, just in time for the start of the semester. Constructed by the Waters company of Troy, New York, a manufacturer of paper boats, the dome consisted of 24 sections of paper board, one-eighth inch thick, stretched over a framework of light but very hard wood. The finished building included room for study, where, said the Round Table in a jab at the frigid college library, “an inviting fireplace gives assurance that, when Memorial Hall gets too cold for any one but a snow-man, the Astronomical Library will offer an easy chair by the chimney-corner, to the benumbed student.” On the outside of the building workers installed two marble tablets, one engraved with the words, “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” and the other, “in memoriam, John F. Smith.”

In October, W. R. Warner, of the Warner & Swazey Company, makers of the college’s new telescope, mounted the 11-and-a-half-foot instrument, with its aperture set at 9.5 inches, according to the Round Table, “eight feet above the floor, supported by an iron pedestal resting on a pier of masonry.” Nine adjustable eye pieces provided powers ranging from 70 to 600 diameters. The telescope’s lens was apparently one of the finest in the country, ground by the renowned firm of Alvan Clark & Sons of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The instrument is a beautiful one, and is pronounced by experts to be also an unusually perfect one.”

On Oct. 14, as darkness fell on a city still two decades away from its 20th-century glow of electric lights, for the first time, Professor Thomas A. Smith and his students focused on the stars, the moon, and the planets. That December, Smith and his students made valuable observations of the transit of Venus at a time when most other viewers around the United States saw nothing but clouds. The crowd of onlookers varied in their responses, noted the Round Table: “Some were a little disappointed to see nothing but the shadow of a penny on a sheet of writing paper, and one ventured to call it the “biggest sell yet.” But such murmurs were lost amid the general admiration, and the prevalent urgency of the bystanders to ‘move on.’”

The Smith Observatory served the college well for many years. When its original telescope mounting became unstable, the college replaced it in 1916 and sent the original to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The building had fallen into disuse by the time Chamberlin Hall opened in the late 1960’s with its newfangled 22 inch Celestron telescope, and the college advertised Smith’s vintage equipment in Sky and Telescope magazine and received numerous responses, including one from a high school student who offered to trade his collection of Popular Electronics. After some dickering, retired radio and television personality Dave Garroway purchased the telescope with its original 1882 lens for $5,000 and entertained school children and others at his home observatory on Long Island.

Outside view of Smith Observatory.

Old Smith had become a glorified storage closet for disused art prints, rusting file cabinets and discarded furniture, as well as a comfortable home to hundreds of pigeons. In the summer of 1967, a college group known as the “Student Religious Liberals,” a Unitarian organization, decided to turn the building into a coffee house. “It’s a very comfortable place to sit and talk at night, when the skylight is open to the stars,” one student said to a Beloit Daily News reporter. Students installed an art gallery and hosted concerts, student-made film showings, and readings, including one by visiting poet Stephen Spender. Although the impromptu coffee house showed promise, the college had other plans, finally tearing down Smith Observatory in April 1969 to make way for the Neese Theatre complex. Some of the dismantled limestone ended up in a retaining wall behind Wood and Haven halls, a last reminder of one of old Beloit’s storied buildings.

March 24, 2011

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