McCormick Observatory Today Marks 125th Anniversary

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Fariss Samarrai:

April 13, 2010 — Today, the birthday of University of Virginia founder Thomas Jefferson, marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the University's Leander McCormick Observatory – one of the oldest operating observatories in the world.

On April 13, 1885, in the Public Hall of the Rotunda Annex, U.Va. faculty and guests gathered to dedicate the new observatory, which was made possible by a gift from Leander McCormick, from the McCormick family of mechanical reaper fame.

At the time of its dedication, the McCormick telescope was state-of-the-art. With its 26-inch lens, it was the second-largest telescope in the world and the largest in the United States.

Without electric lights filling the 19th-century night sky and little atmospheric pollution, the telescope's location atop Mount Jefferson (also known as Observatory Hill) was nearly ideal for serious astronomical research, stargazing and planet viewing.

The construction of the observatory fulfilled Jefferson's original plans for the University, which included an outline for construction of an astronomical observatory. An earlier, modest observatory was built on the site in the 1820s, followed by another near Monroe Hill in the 1830s, but both of these buildings were gone by 1860.

For many decades, some of the world's most important research in astrometry – the science of measuring the distances to stars, which thereby informs investigations into the distances between galaxies – was conducted at the observatory.

The telescope today, while fully operational, can no longer compete with the University's sophisticated research telescopes located on Fan Mountain in Albemarle County, or with the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, of which U.Va. is a partner in a research consortium. But it remains an excellent teaching tool for astronomy students and is part of a continually growing public outreach program.

Visitors are invited to the McCormick Observatory on the first and third Fridays of each month for free public viewings of the night sky. About 4,000 people visit each year, at least half of them children and young adults on school tours.

"The telescope still is as good as ever. It's just been superseded as a research instrument," said Ricky Patterson, a research astronomer and the observatory's caretaker. "But it's great for introducing students to astronomy and for engaging the public in the wonders of the universe."

In 2004, the McCormick Observatory was named to the National Register of Historic Places, and it also is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register. In 2005, the Office of the University Architect rated the observatory as an essential University building, just below the Rotunda and the Lawn in importance to the University's heritage.

"It is a part of the University's history, and more broadly, part of the world's astronomical heritage," said Ed Murphy, an associate professor of astronomy.

While some universities are decommissioning their old observatories and either selling off the land or constructing modern observatories on the sites, U.Va. remains committed to keeping McCormick Observatory as a vibrant and living part of its character.

"McCormick Observatory is one of the few that has made the transition from research to education and is still the original telescope, mount and facility," Murphy said. 

He and Patterson are overseeing an ongoing restoration of the facility to its original condition. Outdated electronics from the early 1960s have been replaced with less visible electronics, vinyl tiles have been removed from the floor, and the original hardwood has been restored. The dome currently is being painted a fresh white, the original color (replacing a recent but historically inaccurate silver).

"The University respects its history, so we've been able to keep the observatory in good condition," Patterson said. "Our hope is to restore it as fully as possible to its original condition."

The College of Arts & Sciences is working to raise funds for a science outreach center that would serve all of the science departments at the University. The associate dean for the sciences, Jim Galloway, is leading the effort to hire a director for science education and outreach to enhance current outreach activities, such as continuing education programs for schoolteachers and additional programs for the community.

Some of these outreach activities may be housed at Alden House, the former residence of observatory directors, built in 1883 on observatory grounds. Alden House is slowly being restored.

The astronomy department in the College of Arts & Sciences is marking the 125th anniversary with a private gathering this evening of members of the Friends of the McCormick Observatory. Weather permitting, they will view Mars and Saturn.

In September, an organization that works to document and preserve old telescopes, the Antique Telescope Society – of which McCormick Observatory is a member – will hold a meeting at McCormick in recognition of its long history.

— By Fariss Samarrai