Albion Interactive History / Observatory

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / Buildings / Albion College

Observatory, 1883-1884

Block +
US Census Block # 34-118

Historic Designation +
Albion Area Historical Architectural Survey, 1985
State Register Listed, January 25, 1985

One of Albion’s oldest buildings, the Observatory wasthe first building constructed west of Ingham Street. Ingham was closed betweenCass and Porter to make way for the Observatory, later creating the outline forAlbion’s quadrangle. Funding and design of theObservatory was undertaken by young professor Dr. Samuel Dickie, who would latergo on the become college president. TheObservatory housed a classroom, offices, an astronomical observation room on thesecond floor, and a telescope beneath the retractable dome on the third floor.Today the Observatory is home of Albion’s Honors Institute.

The 1887-1888 yearbook of Albion College was published in 1888. On page 71, it states the following:

“OBSERVATORY The Observatory erected in 1883 is a substantial brick structure two stories high The first floor contains the lecture room of the department of Astronomy and Applied Mathematics together with the pier rooms through which pass the brick supports for the fixed instruments above On the second floor is the instrument room containing the Transit Circle Clock and Chronograph Also on the second floor are three rooms designed respectively for an astronomical library a computing room and a room for portable instruments The round tower containing the Equatorial and surmounted by the dome rises sufficiently above the main building to give an uninterrupted view in all directions The equipment of the Observatory includes the following pieces 1 A Refractor of eight inches clear aperture manufactured by Alvan Clark & Sons and supplied with Circles Driving clock Micrometer etc etc”

The Sigma Chi Quarterly: The Official Organ of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, Volume 5, #1 has a discussion regarding Albion College and various endowments and states:

“…three college buildings of brick three and four stories in height and a new observatory and science building, not large but well equipped, with apparatus and a new eight inch refracting telescope” (p. 271, Oct. 1885).

From this we know the telescope was in place at least as early as 1885. Another highly reliable source that pins the date down further is found in page 79 of Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Michigan: With Accompanying Documents, for the Year 1885, Volume 49. This report is for the 1884-1885 school year.

“ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY Since my last report the instruments for the Observatory have been mounted. They consist of the following 1 A refractor of eight inches clear aperture manufactured by Alvan Clark & Sons and supplied with circles driving clock micrometer etc etc 2 A transit circle with four inch telescope and circles of 16 inches diameter read by two micrometer microscopes to single seconds iv 3 An astronomical clock with battery connections and break attachment 4 A chronograph of latest style supplied with Saegmuller’s maintaining power…”

The prior year’s report for Year 1884 was published in 1885 but refers to the 1883-1884 school year. At the bottom of page 119 of Pres. Fiske’s report, the following detail appears:

The building for the Astronomical Observatory is nearly completed, and the instruments will be in place in a few weeks. As the year 1884 is the centennial of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America – the church being organized the latter part of the year 1784 – measures have been inagurated to increase the endowment of the College. A considerable augmentation of our funds is anticipated. All of which is respectfully submitted, L.R. Fiske, President.

Based on these observations, Bart Fried concludes:

I think it is safe to conclude that the observatory building was finished in 1883 and the telescope was installed not long after. It is very likely that the telescope was ordered in 1883 or earlier, when the observatory was designed. It was certainly in place in 1884 and it may have been in place as early as late 1883.

State Register of Historic Places

Albion College Astronomical Observatory, ID Number P22680
Photo Information: The Albion College Astronomical Observatory, photo submitted in 1985.
Significant Dates: Built 1883-1884
State Register Listed: 01/25/1985
Marker Erected: 4/19/1985

Narrative Description
The Albion College Astronomical Observatory is a basicallyrectangular, two-story, hipped-roof, red brick building with around corner tower topped by the observatory dome. Thestructure has dentil-trimmed cornices and console-supportedwindow caps. The interior contained a lecture and class roomon the first floor and three smaller rooms upstairs. Fewchanges have been made and the original telescope, installedin 1884, remains in place and in use.

Statement of Significance
The Albion College Astronomical Observatory has historicalsignificance as one of only two nineteenth-century observatorybuildings thus far identified in Michigan. On December 21,1882, Albion College Professor of Mathematics SamuelDickie, later installed as college president, wrote to the Boardof Trustees to request authority to solicit $10,000 toconstructed and to equip an astronomical observatory.Dedicated in June, 1884, the observatory was equipped with atelescope constructed and mounted by the early Americantelescope manufacturer, Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridge,Massachusetts. Subsequently used as an army barracks and asoffices for the local Methodist Church, the observatory is onceagain a functioning academic building.

Marker Text
THE OBSERVATORY | The Albion College AstronomicalObservatory was built in 1883-1884 at the urging of Dr.Samuel Dickie, who later became president of the college.Dickie helped raise $10,000 to build and equip the facility.The observatory still harbors its original telescope, transitcircle, sidereal clock and chronograph. The building hashoused classrooms, a bookstore, faculty offices and the WestMichigan Methodist Conference archives. In 1984 it wasrefurbished as the college Ethics Center.


Postcards that helped to establish the reputation of Albion’s most famous building.

Historical marker dedicated April 1985.

Main entrance and painted wooden plaque.

Observatory with Goodrich Chapel in the background.

This eight-inch refracting telescope, built by Alvan Clark and Sons, is still in use in the Observatory.

Stairs to second floor after being painted in new color scheme.

Orange safety fence protecting west face of Observatory where subterranean room removed.

Source: Isaac Kremer, August 2003.

From the Albion College Archives

Astronomical Observatory

Advertisement for “The Old Reliable Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco” on the left. Gift of Keith Bricker.

This building, currently housing the Honors Institute, was built in 1884 for $10,000, including equipment, in right field of the campus baseball diamond. Previously, the room on the first floor of the Observatory was used as a class and lecture room, the upper floor consisted of three rooms (computing, library and storeroom), and the telescope, a fine old Alvan Clark 8.25″ refractor was placed in the tower. The original telescope, which the Smithsonian has tried to purchase, is still in constant use by astronomy students.

The green portion of this telescope is the Clark refractor previous to its renovation in the early 1990s. The blue portion is the solar prominence telescope prototype invented and donated by Marvin Vann ’40. The solar prominence telescope was used by the College for almost 20 years before the filter in the telescope became ineffective due to its age – it was removed when the Clark was renovated. The black rings were used to hold a wide-angle camera that had been borrowed from the University of Michigan Astronomy Department.

This is how the Clark refractor looked after its renovation, and is essentially how the telescope appears today.

The solid brick pier, upon which the telescope sits, goes deep into the ground to bedrock and reportedly contains more bricks than the rest of the building put together. The building is a State of Michigan registered historical site.

All photographs from the Albion College Archives Postcard Collection, unless otherwise noted.


See also:
Gates, Tiffany. (1998, February 13). “Reaching the Stars.” Albion College Pleiad. Retrieved 10 June 2003,
Physics Department, Albion College. (2002, October). “Astronomy at Albion College.” Retrieved 10 June 2003,
Physics Department, Albion College. (2000, May). “Astronomy at Albion College 1883-1999.” Retrieved 10 June 2003,
Bruce J. Annett, Jr. The Observatory at Albion College: A History.

The Observatory at Albion College: A History
By Bruce J. Annett, Jr., Class of 1974

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the science of astronomy, while still in it’s relative infancy, caught the public imagination. It was thought that the astronomer could explore deep into space, discover new worlds, and provide mankind with an almost god-like perspective. It was possible, and even probable, for dedicated amateur and academic astronomers to be able to make significant contributions to the field in terms of discovering celestial object, and/or charting and measuring their apparent movement and brightness. This relatively simple method of accomplishing important, pioneering research and discovery, in addition to providing a means of scientific instruction, prompted many colleges and universities of the period to establish astronomical observatories on their campuses. Albion College was one such institution.

Old Albion, a college history published by the junior class of 1909, credits Dr. Samuel Dickie, then professor of mathematics, with being the primary promoter of constructing an observatory at Albion. The plan which he presented to the Board of Trustees early in 1882, was to build and equip an astronomy building by obtaining one hundred donations of $100 each. The board voted to put the entire project in Dr. Dickie’s charge. In less than a year, the required monies were raised, allowing construction to begin. The cornerstone was laid during ceremonies held on September 8, 1883. The December 1883 Pleiad reported:

The erection of the Observatory is rapidly progressing. Already the walls of the building are nearly completed…The building, when completed, is to cost $3,650. Alvan Clark & Sons, of Cambridgeport, Mass., are the makers of the principal telescope…The entire cost of the telescope placed in the observatory and ready for use, is to be $2,700. The other instruments are to be made by Fauth & Co., of Washington, D.C. They are to consist of a transit circle and telescope, $1,650, a Chronograph, $350, and a Sidereal clock, $450.

Thus, the Observatory was built and equipped for $8,800. The same Pleiad article concludes that the balance of the completely successful “Observatory Fund” was to be expended on pieces of “astronomical appliances,” such as celestial maps, charts, and probably books. The sources of the fund were not uncovered during my research.

Upon the completion of the Observatory during the summer of 1884, the College possessed an excellently equipped facility for instruction and research in astronomy. In fact, the building was so well equipped that the Smithsonian Institute recently expressed interest in acquiring the equipment for it’s historical significance if the College ever wishes to dispose of it.

The Observatory has changed little in appearance since it’s opening. It is the only College building of Victorian architectural style. The foundation above grade is cut stone, a prestige feature of the period. The exterior walls of the structure are of red brick, which was a marked deviation from the first three College buildings — North Hall, the old Central Building, and the Chapel, which had been stuccoed. The Observatory’s use of red brick influenced it’s use on all succeeding College structures: beginning with the old gymnasium, the McMillan Laboratory, rebuilding fire-struck Robinson Hall, the Gassette Administration Building, and all others built since.

On the first floor today is located a large room housing portions of the College archives and the Methodist Historical Collection. At first, this room was a classroom for physics, math, and astronomy. The first floor room also contained a small raised stage at one time, according to records of the Albion College Players, who consider the room the “birthplace” of their organization on the campus in 1922. During the 1923-24 academic year, the co-operative bookstore was established there, and remained for several decades. Also located on the first floor are several storage areas, and a recently added lavatory.

Climbing up the ornate circular stairway that winds around the inside of the tower, one reaches the second floor. This floor originally contained an astronomy library, a work room, and an office, in addition to an observing room for the transit telescope and related equipment.

The transit telescope is a 4″ refractor mounted on a single axis, so that it may be pointed only along the meridian, i.e., a north/south arc. In the eyepiece of the telescope are several parallel spider wires which are stretched vertically and horizontally across it. The transit instrument is used to record the passage of stars over the meridian, and thus enable an observer to find true sidereal time.

Electrically connected to the transit instrument are an astronomical clock and a chronograph. The grandfather-like clock keeps sidereal, or star time, rather than solar time. It’s dial is divided into 24 hours rather than 12, and it registers seconds as well as minutes. The chronograph is a revolving brass drummed instrument powered by a falling weight. The drum is covered with paper, on which a stylus records the time. This is accomplished by an observer at the transit telescope pressing a telegraph-like key the instant when a star crosses a spider thread in the telescope’s eyepiece. This allows the observer to calculate true sidereal time and correct for errors in the sidereal clock. All of these instruments are in the process of restoration.

A second short stairway brings one to the third floor domed observing room for the 8″ Clark refractor. This is the College’s primary telescope. The focal distance of the instrument is about 10.5 feet. The telescope rests on an equatorial mounting that tops a brick and masonry pier. This pier is structurally independent of the Observatory itself, and extends into bedrock. In fact, the smaller 4″ transit telescope, the sidereal clock, and the chronograph all have their own structurally independent piers. Of no small expense, these architectural features prove that competent and thorough research went into the building’s design. The independent piers assure that movement in the structure itself caused by walking or closing a door will not be transmitted to any of the instruments.

Alvan Clark and Sons firm, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the makers of the primary telescope, were probably the most highly regarded American telescope builders of the nineteenth century. Five times Alvan Clark and his two sons made the largest refracting telescopes in the world, including the 40″ instrument at the Yerkes Observatory. Their reputation was doubtless the reason for their selection for building the Albion telescope. Old Albion reports that the Albion instrument was made by Alvan Clark himself, and was the last telescope he made before his death. This claim may well be true, for Scientific American, September 24, 1887, (the year in which Alvan Clark died) states in an article about the Clark Company that Alvan stopped building telescopes about four years before he died, or 1883 — the year the Albion telescope was probably being built. Eighty years later, when the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley of the Mount Wilson Observatory examined the Albion instrument during the mid-1960’s, he told the College that it owns a “Rembrandt.”

Telescope making was a long and laborious process during the 1880’s, and precision was measurable primarily by the craftsman’s own eye, and not by the sensitive electronic measuring devices employable today. It was for their uncanny ability to produce high-quality, nearly perfect instruments that the Clarks were made famous, and their work so highly regarded.

Then, as now, the most important part of the refracting telescope was the quality of it’s lenses. Initially, the lens began as a lump of glass secured from a glass manufacturer. The best manufacturers of the period were European. The glass lump would be placed on a slab of fire clay within a form of the desired circular shape, and exposed to heat. Slowly, the lump would melt, flatten, and conform to the shape of the mold, thus furnishing the “blank.” If the blank proved to be clear and striae-free, it was ground into shape and polished, eventually becoming a lens.

The Clarks used iron filings to grind their lenses — a technique they adapted from granite polishers — instead of using emery which was the usual custom of the day. The iron grains would not wear out as rapidly as the emery. Belt-driven machinery provided the rotation of the grinding discs between which the blanks and filings were sandwiched. After several weeks of grinding, the blanks were removed from the discs, polished, cleaned, and checked for defects.

The Clarks tested their lenses by developing a method similar to, but preceding, Foucault’s knife-edge test. The image of a point source of light — either an actual star or an artificial light — was examined at the focal point of the lens. A perfectly figured lens would appear uniformly illuminated, while an imperfect lens would not. Once found, the irregularities would be marked with a red powder, and the Clarks would them retouch the imperfect areas.

Correcting a defect involved applying rouge and water to the proper area and rubbing. The lens would then have be repolished, recleaned, and retested. Usually, the entire process would need to be repeated several times, and would often involve several months of grinding and testing and retesting before the lens was finished. Alvan Clark’s sense of touch was said to be so sensitive that even when a lens appeared perfect to the eye, his fingers could still detect slight irregularities. Several years of effort was often required to perfect larger lenses. The Albion instrument, being relatively small, probably took several months to a year to complete.

Once the lens [sic] were perfected, they would be fitted to a metal telescope tube, dissassembled [sic], and shipped by rail or ship to the proper destination. Often, one of the Clarks themselves would reassemble the telescope and mount it in the observatory. How the Albion instrument was installed is unknown.

Evidence is lacking of any important astronomical discoveries at the Albion Observatory. Several Albion graduates in astronomy have made substantial contributions to the science during their lives however. Forest Ray Moulton ’94 became director of astronomy at the University of Chicago, and was the author of several books dealing with astronomy, math, and ballistics. One of these books was considered the standard text in celestial mechanics for many years. Wilber A. Cogshall ’95 worked at both the Lowell and Yerkes Observatorys [sic] and designed a special reflecting telescope designed to photograph the Milky Way and nebulae. From 1900 to 1941 he located the population center in the United States using astronomical observations and Census Bureau figures.

L. Wesley Underwood ’86 discovered an unknown star while still in high school, and built the Underwood Observatory at Lawrence College, housing a Clark refractor. Class of 1914 graduate John A. Aldrich’s graduate work in physical astronomy resulted in a better understanding of cepheid variables, which are used to determine the distances between galaxies.

Charles M. Huffer ’16 has served as secretary of the American Astronomical Society, was formerly the chairman of the astronomy department at the University of Wisconsin’s Washburn Observatory, and has authored several books in the science. Marvin J. Vann ’40 directs the observatory at Foothill College in California. He is the inventory of a solar prominence telescope now in commercial manufacture. In 1971 he donated the prototype instrument to the College in memory of Dr. Clement Rood ’94, professor of astronomy and physics at Albion from 1920 to 1939. All of these gentlemen’s interest in astronomy was sparked using the Albion Observatory.

In 1940, the Observatory’s revolving dome was electrified. Formerly, rotation of the dome was accomplished by using a hand-powered crank or, as professor emeritus of astronomy Rood told the May 17th Pleaid of that year, the old “armstrong method” was used.

In more recent years the Observatory and the instruments suffered substantial deferred maintenance [sic] and deterioration brought on by the belief that a new observatory would be built as part of the then-planned science center. Campus plans issued during the College’s APEX program (Albion Program for Excellence) during the early 1960’s reveal that the structure was to be torn down, but an effort to save the building at that time was successful. Shortly thereafter, restoration of the Clark telescope was initiated, as the years had taken their toll on the instrument. In 1965, Dr. Charles Ricker became the new physics department chairman, and continued the efforts of the former chairman, Dr. Robert L. Luttermoser, to restore the equipment. A team from the Yerkes Observatory came to the College to clean the main telescope, and the weight-driven clock drive of the instrument was replaced with an electrical mechanism a year or two later.

In the spring of 1971, the solar prominence telescope donated by Marvin Vann was mounted piggy-back on the Clark refractor. The new solar telescope allows the prominences of the sun to be studied without eye injury. During the summer of 1972, the exterior of the building was restored by the College. Much interior work remains to be done.

Today the physics department and the College maintains a structure and instruments of not only practical value in the instruction of astronomy, but of historical significance as well. Unfortunately, the focus of astronomy has shifted since 1884. The discipline is no longer as concerned with the visual discovery of the existence of celestial objects, as it is with studying their physical characteristics and their relative distances from the Earth. The present equipment is not sufficient for these new tasks.

In April of 1973, in consultation with Dr. John Williams, associate professor of physics, a building plan for an addition to the Observatory was drawn by the author and approved by the College. The plans call for the construction of a new domed tower adjacent and to the east of the existing building, and matching the original in architectural style. This addition would house a 24″ reflecting telescope, spectographic [sic] equipment, a planetarium, and a darkroom. Funding is now being sought, and the present building and equipment are slated for complete restoration.

If the addition becomes a reality, it would the College a centralized, updated, and complete astrophysical laboratory, and as the Albion College Astronomical Observatory enters it’s second century of service, it would be prepared for involvement in the new era of astronomy.

Source: Albion College Archives, 2003 [Downloaded July 3, 2003]

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