Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Birthplace of American Astronomy

Greetings to all. Today it is my pleasure to regale you with a tale about America's First Public observatory and the oldest observatory in the western hemisphere and....home of the oldest continuously operating telescope in the world. It all started in a small metropolis in the mid west. Cincinnati was a city of hard working blue collar folks mostly of German decent. This town housed Cincinnati College. In 1836 the College had been rebuilt because of a fire and was looking for Teachers. A man by the name of Ormsby Mitchel McKnight took a position there teaching mathematics, civil engineering, mechanics and astronomy. It did not take long for the public to hear about this great lecturer. McKnight was asked to give a series of public lectures on astronomy which was met with so much enthusiasm that McKnight proposed forming the Cincinnati Astronomical Society. Mitchel continued to give lectures on astronomy and began to dream of bigger things for Cincinnati. Mitchel wanted the first pulic observatory in the nation built right in Cincinnati. To raise capital for this grand undertaking, Mitchel began selling stock in the Cincinnati Astronomical Society at 25 dollars a share. This was a LOT of money in the 1840'sAlthough Mitchel got backing from 300 or so wealthy families. a lot of money came from the common folk of Cincinnati mostly because McKnight was selling something he believed in and secondly the promise that this observatory was to be used by all. when he had acquired enough funding Mitchel set foot abroad in search of a first rate instument that would put Cincinnati and the USA on the map astronomically. One of his first stops was England. there were no telescopes of sizable aperture to be found here. But one thing he did find was a friendship with George Airy a world renown astronomer and engineer. With George's advice he set out for Germany. While there in Munich, he found the Merz-Mahler Optics company. Mitchel went in and said he was looking for a good telescope. So he was shown some 6" and an 8" objectives but he was not going to build an observatory of world class caliber toting a 8" telescope back to the people of Cincinnati. The fine folks there had just made an objective lens that measured 11 3/4 inches of Franhaufer design ( two lens of Crown and flint glass). With one look he said that's the one. The only problem was he did not have enough money for the lens/scope ($7500) so he gave them all he had($5000) and told them not to sell it till got back to Cincinnati to raise the additional capital. He made that mad dash for the States and to Cincinnati to once again go to the well and door to door he went until he had the difference. The complete telescope with mount and eyepieces cost about 10,000 dollars back in 1842! Mitchel raced back to Munich and procured the lens and arranged for the shipment to Cincinnati. Then once more he stopped in England to ask Geoge Airey a favor. He asked for a crash course in observatory management which George Airy was all too happy to give. For a few weeks he stayed with Airy and learned the ropes. Mitchel was then Cincinnati bound and ready to start the process of making it all come together. During this time of waiting for the telescope to arrive he started the building process for the building that would house this new scope. The problem was he did not have enough monies to complete the building and this is where the fine people of Cincinnati stepped up and came to the aid of a world class dream. The remaining work was "donated" by the craftsmen of Cincinnati in exchange for stock in the Cincinnati Astronomical Society. Mitchel himself used his own funds for this project as well.

The corner stone was to be layed soon and Mitchel needed a big name to do it. He settled on asking John Quincey Adams, former President of the United States and a real friend to the science community. Adams had always believed that having a national observatory would give the USA international prestige. The funny thing was Adams did not like Mitchel the man. He called him a snit . One thing was undeniable and that was Mitchels conviction. President Adams was hooked and on November 9, 1842 John Q. Adams laid this Cornerstone and then gave the last public speech of his life. In this speech he called this observatory a tribute to the people of Cincinnati. He was right. The scopes home was Mount Ida but in Adams honor it was changed to Mount Adams. Now keep in mind there was no money to pay anyone so Mitchel became the director. He relied on the salary from teaching at Cincinnati College. When the College burned down again. Yes again. He was without gainful employment. To his credit he stayed on anyway.

When this scope was built, it was one of the largest refractor in the world. Mitchel and the scope went on to discover the companion to Antares. Mitchel also discovered a formation on Mars (Mountains of Mitchel) named in his honor. He started the "Sidereal Messenger", the first astronomical publication in the US. Unfortunately the messenger was stopped a few years later due to lack of funds. Mitchel was having a hard time with the telescope as Cincinnati was becoming a major industrial center and the Soft coal used to heat was throwing smoke and ash into the air. Mitchel moved on to start the Dudley Observatory and to teach at that University.

The Cincinnati Astronomical Society decided to close the Mt Adams site The scope was donated to the city of Cincinnati to later be given to the newly formed University of Cincinnati and further that an observatory would be built. The descision was made to move the observatory to the present day grounds back in 1873. since the move there have been some rather notable additions such as the 1904 Alvin Clark and son's'16" refractor. There have been lots of firsts from those hallowed halls. The first weather service was formed here. Cleveland Abbe Director of the Observatory would telegraph western points to get weather readings and then noticed similar weather would show up two or three days later. he would publish this and Washington DC took notice and asked Abbe to start the National weather service! after World War II the IAU placed the minor planet research center at Cincinnati under the guidance of Dr. Paul Herget. He became the internationally known leader in this field. As all other directors be fore him he had a keen interest in the public and as all previous directors the building was open to the public on a regular basis. The Cincinnati Observatory Center (COC) was formed in 1997 to preserve the heritage and the buildings. and start a vigorous outreach/education program. It continues to this day. So if you ever get the chance to stop in Cincinnati take an hour of two out of your day and visit the COC Just to get to see the Merz und Mahler scope is enough reason. It is a functioning work of art. You can see all the time keeping instruments used to make precise calculations back in the mid 19th century.There is so much to see. Until then...

Clear skies and great seeing too!

Steve T

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