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A Short History of Perkins Observatory

by Earl W. Phillips, Jr.
from EJASA, the Electronic Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Atlantic, Volume 3, Number 7 - February 1992, reprinted by permission

Perkins Observatory began as a vision of OWU Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy, Hiram Mills Perkins (1833-1924). Shortly before his death, he gave $200,000.00 to Ohio Wesleyan "to build an observatory of the first magnitude". Professor Perkins insisted that the telescope should exceed in size all other telescopes in this country at that time, except the 100 inch at Mt. Wilson. The ground-breaking occurred on May 23, 1923, with Professor Perkins himself turning the first sod. Telescope construction was carried out by the Warner & Swasey Company, of Cleveland; at the time among the world's best in such work. The 3000 pound, 12.5 inch thick main mirror was cast at the U.S. Bureau of Standards. After a cooling period of 8 months, the mirror blank was shipped to the J.W. Fecker Company, of Pittsburgh, Pa, for grinding and polishing. When completed, the main mirror was 9.5 inches thick, and achieved optical specifications of 1/10th of a wavelength of yellow light. Once installed, Perkins Observatory ranked third in size among the world's observatories; after the 100 inch at Mt. Wilson, Ca, and the 72 inch at Victoria, B.C. Upon completion, it was stated that the telescope had "the light gathering power of more than 100,000 times that of the human eye, and estimated to be able to photograph faint galaxies fifty million light years distant".

The result of Professor Perkins' dream has thrived in the hands of dedicated staff and volunteers since it inception. Past directors include Drs. Crump, Stetson, Bobrovnikoff, Keller, Keenan, Slettebak, and Capriotti. Among the more well known astronomers to carry out research at Perkins, were Drs. Willem De Sitter, Jan H. Oort, and E.C. Slipher.

From its beginnings, Perkins Observatory has set marks in adaptability in technology, as well as in its administration. A telescope that started at 60 inches grew very quickly to 69 inches. It was realized shortly after the casting of the mirror at the National Bureau of Standards that the quality and size of the casting would make possible a mirror larger than the 61 inch originally planned. Thanks to the loan of a 60 inch mirror from the Harvard College Observatory, the Perkins telescope was first put into use in January 1925. The figuring of the 69 inch mirror was begun in August, 1929, and proceeded without interruption until passing the tests of experts on November 10-15, 1931.

The tradition of adaptation and improvement led in 1961 to the relocation of the Perkins reflector to a superior observing site near Flagstaff, Arizona. This was made possible through an agreement with the Lowell Observatory. G. Keller and P.C. Keenan of the Perkins Observatory, and J. Hall and G. Putnam of the Lowell Observatory worked to make the agreement a reality.

During the Directorship of A. Slettebak, upgrading of the telescope itself culminated in its being equipped with a new 72 inch mirror of low expansion glass; and an airbag support system, the better to guarantee the mirror figure. The 69 inch mirror has not been completely retired, for it stands today as a fascinating optical display in the halls of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), in downtown Columbus.

Telescope instrumentation has been kept at the cutting edge of astronomical research through the development efforts at the Lowell and Perkins Observatories. The telescope drive and setting mechanisms have been completely modernized.

Professor Perkins' vision included not only first class equipment, but also an inspirational setting for the pursuit of research and education in astronomy. Visitors to the observatory are impressed by the worldwide and historical scope of Perkins' vision, when they behold the names of seventeen greats engraved in gold upon the building's green marble frieze. They range from the Greek Eratosthenes, with whose early measurement of the globe every child is familiar; to Barnard, a 19th century American and sharp-eyed sweeper of the Milky Way. Another impressive aspect of the building's design, is the concave sculpture above the main entrance to the observatory. The sculpture represents the watering of the four horses of the sun. The work is a copy of the original by Robert le Lorain, executed in 1738. The original was commissioned by Cardinal Rohan, who had earlier been Bishop of Strasbourg. He brought the sculptor to Paris to help decorate the Chateau Rohan. The frieze was over the entrance to the original stables. Chateau Rohan is now Hotel Rohan, which is part of the complex of buildings of the French National Archives. The original was executed on a flat wall. The unknown artist who made the copy over our entrance was obliged to adapt the design to concave space, which he did very well. The building itself was constructed under the supervision of the architectural firm of Talmadge and Watson, of Chicago, Il.

In 1931, Ohio Wesleyan University and Ohio State University entered into an agreement, at the instigation of N.T. Bobrovnikoff, under which the observatory facilities became available also to the larger institution, which took on the operating expenses.

An integral part of Professor Perkins' dream, was to make the observatory available to members of the general public interested in astronomy. As Professor Perkins himself stated, he wished "the facilities be open at stated intervals for the educational benefit of the public". From the start, Perkins Observatory has offered monthly public programs. Monthly public programs are currently sponsored by Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan; and the Columbus Astronomical Society has offered public programs since 1988.

The wish of Hiram Perkins to provide a suitable telescope for public education and research has been sustained at the observatory through the gifts from M. Schottland to Ohio Wesleyan, of his 32 inch reflecting telescope, 16 inch and 8 inch Schmidt telescopes, and a 4 inch Ross camera. The Schottland 32 inch reflector is housed in the main dome, and is one of the largest telescopes in use in Ohio. The larger Schmidt is in use at Flagstaff. A 14 inch telescope was recently donated to Ohio Wesleyan, which is now housed in a smaller observatory building on site. Instrumentation at Perkins Observatory includes a photoelectric photometer, as well as a low dispersion spectrograph. Both these instruments are currently being used in research programs utilizing the 32 inch telescope.

With the encouragement of G. Keller, then Director of Perkins, J. Kraus undertook in the early 1960's the construction of the "Big Ear" radio telescope, on a site east of the Perkins dome. The telescope attained a size, in its standing parabola, of 360 feet wide by 70 feet tall. Modernization of this telescope has been underway for some time, and it will be returned to full use in the very near future. Like the Perkins Observatory, "Big Ear" continues to be an important and interesting place to visit for teachers, students, and the general public. Volunteers are very active at both facilities. Tours of both observatories are offered, and are scheduled for times and dates convenient to all.

In March 1931, Perkins Observatory began publishing a quarterly review, called "The Telescope". The first paragraph of Series 1, Number 1 reads; "With the publication of this number of "The Telescope", there is inaugurated the first of a series of Quarterly Reviews of the work in progress at the Perkins Observatory". The observatory continued publishing this review until it became part of the now familiar "Sky & Telescope" magazine, now widely read by amateur and professional astronomers alike.

For more information on tours, or for more information regarding Perkins Observatory or "Big Ear", write to: Perkins Observatory, P.O.Box 449, Delaware, Oh 43015; or call (614)363-1257. The secretary's hours are: Monday & Friday 9am to noon; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday noon to 4pm. If no answer, call Earl Phillips at (614) 764-0476.

OSU Professors Emeritus
Dr. Walter E. Mitchell, Jr.
Dr. Philip C. Keenan

"The Telescope" quarterly review; March 1931 - Winter 1932.
"Scientific American" magazine; October 1930.

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