Student Observatory History

The observatory's history is described below, starting with an article from OWU's newspaper, The Transcript, from the time of the observatory's construction, and followed by a summary which was partially adapted from an article written by the Physics and Astronomy department's Dr. Barbara Andereck in the 1980s. Both of these articles are available as handouts to visitors at the observatory.

from The College Transcipt, June 17 1896

Perkins Astronomical Observatory

The Building

The Perkins Observatory now so nearly completed is one of the most attractive and commodious buildings on the property of the University. It is located on West William Street between the residencies of Prof. Perkins and Prof. Davies, and occupies one of the most commanding sites in the city. Is it built of pressed brick, has a frontage of sixty- two feet, and will afford unparalleled facilities for astronomical study and observation.

The observatory contains besides the transit, a clock room, library, and computing room. All necessary accessories to a thorougly equipped observatory will be had and will enable the students to pursue studies in astronomy with facilities equal to the best in the land. With such advantages the course in mathematics will hold out greater attractions and doubtless will be one of the most popular courses in the University in the future.

The Telescope

The building will contain one of the largest and best telescopes in possession of any college or university in the west. This telescope contains a refracting lens nine and one-half inches in diameter, made by John Breshear for exhibition at the World's Columbian Exhibition. Astronomical experts pronounce the lens in clearness of definition superior to many noted ones of much larger diameter. It is perfectly adapted to class room work, and will enable to the student to study the starry heavens and examine the planets with a glass stronger than the famous telescope of Sir John Herschel.

The telescope will be mounted about July 1, and will be ready for use at the beginning of next college year.

This addition to our college buildings and the splended advantages that such a well equipped observatory will afford, will doubtless give a new impetus to the pursuit of studies in this neglected line.

When the Student Observatory was built in 1896 is was known as "Perkins Astronomical Observatory", named after Professor Hiram Mills Perkins, the man who funded its construction. A few decades later, Hiram began construction on the larger Perkins Observatory, located a few miles south of Delaware on State Route 23. At that time the name of the smaller facility was changed to the Student Observatory.

Hiram Perkins was born in 1833 in Madison County and grew up on his father's hog farm. At the age of 20 he began his studies at Ohio Wesleyan University, which at that time was only nine years old. Upon graduation he began teaching at OWU as a mathematics professor, but when the Civil War forced the University to cut costs, Hiram volunteered to resign, so that a faculty member with less seniority would be able to keep working. He tried to enlist in the army, but since he was 6'4" and 97 pounds (you can see why the students gave him the nickname of the "human skeleton"), the army was less than enthusiastic about accepting him. His rejection from the army did not stop him from helping their cause, however. He retired to his father's hog farm to raise food for the Union army.

[Image of Hiram Perkins]
A large portrait of Hiram in the observatory classroom.

By selling hogs to the federal government to be used as rations, the Perkins family became rich. At the end of the war, Hiram and his wife Caroline Barkdull Perkins (OWU class of 1862) returned to Ohio Wesleyan, where he resumed his teaching of mathematics and astronomy, and they built a home on William Street. Their house is still owned by the university, and is currently the location of the Peace and Justice House, one of a set of "Small Living Units" in which students can choose to live instead of a dormatory. The Perkins weren't comfortable with benefitting financially so highly from a messy business like war, so they began to put away money in hopes of building an astronomical observatory. Overall, they donated over $200,000 dollars to the university: a very generous gift by any standards, but quite extraordinary when one considers the higher value of a dollar a full century ago.

[Image of the Observatory and surrounding buildings]
From left to right, the observatory annex, the Perkins house, and the observatory.

Construction on the observatory, located next door to Hiram and Caroline's home, was completed in 1896. The main telescope was built by Warner and Swasey of Cleveland and has a main lens 9.5 inches in diameter that was ground by John Breshear. The praise given to this lens in the article above is not undeserved -- the image produced by the S.O. telescope is stunning, appearing much more crisp and clear than in almost any other telescope of its size. Some objects even look better at the Student Observatory than through the 32-inch reflecting telescope being used at Perkins Observatory.

The building was originally small and rectangular, but in 1923 Clifford C. Crump, then director of Perkins Observatory, supervised the addition of a classroom and office to the east wing, resulting in the floor plan we have today, shown (fairly accurately) below. The dome, of course, is on the second floor above the round entrance.

[Diagram of the observatory's floorplan]

Around 1969-70 the observatory went through a few more changes. Warner and Swasey reconditioned the main telescope, preserving the original mounting and optics. The clock drive, which allows the telescope to automatically follow stars as they rise and set, was upgraded from a weight-driven design to one with an electric motor. Also, Professor Phil Stanger, who worked at the S.O. and taught astronomy at OWU for 30 years, cooperated with Larry Decker, the technician for the S.O. and Perkins Observatory telescopes since the 1950's, to build a new observing ladder, using the original design as a guide.

When Dr. Stanger left Ohio Wesleyan, his chair in the department of physics and astronomy was filled by a replacement, but his role in the observatory's maintenence was left empty, and it began to fall into neglect. Although the building was still used for class observing sessions, there was no one there to give it TLC. Layers of dust formed, spiders set up base in the transit room, and grime built up on the walls. However, in the early 1990's a group of students formed the campus Astronomical Society, an organization for anyone, scientist or not, who enjoys looking up at the stars. The A.S. has made efforts to bring the observatory back to life by doing cleaning and painting, and by simply trying to use the telescope on a regular basis and raise awareness on campus of the facility's existence and availability.

Since that time, A.S. members have found an impressive array of artifacts from the observatory's history which had been locked away, hidden under piles of junk, or lost among stacks of papers and books. Newspaper clippings announcing such things as the launching of the first "man made moons" (satellites) and the fantastic idea of taking pictures of the far side of the moon with rockets were found among the largest stack of junk in the basement. Postcards from other observatories sent in the first half of the 20th century from as far away as Russia for the purpose of arranging cooperative observations were discovered. Two gigantic and hefty electric adding machines, bigger than most typewriters, were stowed away in the transit room. Today a handheld calculator has more functions. Among the documents in the office was a folder of semi-professional correspondance and paperwork that once belonged to Dr. Stanger, including a letter granting him an honorable discharge from the armed forces. Some of the more attractive and interesting objects, which are now on display in glass cabinets, are shown below.

[Photo of S.O. artifacts]

The center object is an antique ship's timepiece: a beautiful brass clock mounted on a set of bevels within the wooden box in order to keep the clock's movement steady, and thus the time accurate. When A.S. members pulled this timepiece out of storage and removed the clock and its box from its outer wooden case, a small, folded piece of paper was discovered lying on the velvet lining between the two boxes. The paper was a letter to the director of Perkins from someone who had serviced, or perhaps built, the clock, penned in 1943. Above, the letter is unfolded and leaning against the clock's case. Below are shown a scan of the letter and a transcription of its text.

[Image of the old letter] Y.M.C.A. Elgin Ill
June 1st 43

Dr. N.J. Bobrovnikoff
Perkins Observatory
Delaware, Ohio.

Dear Sir '-

I am very glad to say, that the chronometer is finally ready for shipment and hope it will arive safely, and that it will give satisfaction.

For best results, please take notice of the small dial up near the figure 12. I considerate advisable to match this indicator, and not to wind the movement past the figure 8 on this small dial, and in 24 hours it will have run down, so that the indicator hand shows at 34. in this way, the main-spring is never wound up tight, nor entirely run down.

Hoping the chronometer will give good service, I am yours very sincerely
Robert S. Newcomb

You may view a bigger picture (200k) or a downright huge picture (840k) of the letter if you wish. It's worth the download time -- you can clearly see the texture of the paper and the details of Mr. Newcomb's penstrokes.

Shortly after the Observatory's centennial, a member of the A.S. corresponded brielfy with an OWU alum named Gerald May and received this story of Gerry's memory of the S.O.:

My wife-to-be, Betty, and I started at OWU in the fall of 1958, and I'm sure it was late fall that year when we hit the observatory. I remember it so well. Betty and I, on what I believe was our first real "date," walked up there late one night and poked our heads in, as the door was unlocked but no one seemed to be around. Found our way to the telescope by feeling along the walls, cause there was no light anywhere, and when we got there a great gaunt hooded figure loomed over us, a spectre-shadow against the starlight, and this deep voice echoed back and forth from the curved walls, "Hi there, wanna see the moon?"

It was the astronomy prof, stayin' up late and enjoying his solitude, but he showed us all these wonderful craters and mountains on the quarter-moon, and he was SO proud of the scope and the observatory and of being able to entrance a couple of freshmen. Such a sweet memory.

Betty took off after her sophomore year to nursing school in NYC. We finally got married the summer after my freshman year at med school.

And the rest is history--well, I guess it's ALL history! :-)

The history of the Student Observatory is most easily described in terms of construction dates and sources of finance, but it is the human history of the building that makes it someplace truly special. For over a century, students, professors, and towspeople have gathered beneath the observatory's wooden dome to look through the telescope and see the planets. People have worked within the walls, and left parts of themselves and of their lives there. Snapshots of those lives, like the chronometer letter and Gerry's first date with his wife, can be found still. Thanks to the long history of great people who have been there before us, the Student Observatory has become one of those rare buildings with a soul. And you can feel it as soon as you walk in the door.

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