Sunday, August 30, 2009

Love and the Observatory

He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,—
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

-- by Emily Dickinson. More likely than not, that is. Most of it.

This fortieth summer after Woodstock has been a time for nostalgic tales involving youthful love by many of us boomers. By far the best of these that I have seen thus far is this one by Mike Peterson; below is my contribution to the genre.

During the summer of 1968, I worked closely with one I would fall deeply in love with, and whom I would ultimately lose in a terrible accident, but not before having forsaken her for another. I was a callow cad, and she was 120 years old.

She was a telescope.

Approach to the major dome, Amherst College Observatory ("Wilder Observatory"), August 1968.

But she wasn't just any telescope; she was the 7 1/4 inch refractor of the Amherst College Observatory. In the summer of '68, between my junior and senior years at the College, I was preparing for my Senior honors' thesis work. My first plan was to refurbish the old telescope -- unused for many many years -- and to use it to further some research it had been used for earlier in that century, the determination of asteroids' rotation periods by monitoring periodic fluctuations in their brightnesses.

7 1/4 inch telescope, Amherst College Observatory, August 1968. It was 120 years old when this photo was taken.

The old telescope had a very, very high-class pedigree. It was one of the first instruments manufactured for sale by the legendary firm of Alvan Clark and Sons, acquired by Amherst in 1848 for installation in its first observatory. The instrument had already been used by the Clarks to discover the binary nature of several stars, and was sold to the College for the staggering sum of $1800. With its 7 1/4 inch aperture and more than 100-inch focal length, it was considered to be a large telescope for its time. The Clark firm would eventually produce the largest working refractors ever built, even to this day: the 36" telescope of Lick Observatory (1888) and Yerkes Observatory's 40" instrument in 1897. (A vastly larger telescope of a radically different design also went into operation in 1848, though: Lord Rosse's 72" Leviathan of Parsonstown.)

The first Amherst College Observatory with the original tower built for the 7 1/4 inch Clark refractor. Called "The Octagon," this building is still a fixture of Amherst's historic campus, but no longer as an observatory or geology museum ("cabinet").
Photo from the Amherst College library's online archive, credited thusly: "Photo by Lovell, Amherst -- from Wood 1884 Class Album".

By the time I arrived at Amherst for my freshman year in 1965, Amherst had acquired another, much larger telescope from the Clark firm, and both had been installed in the "new" observatory (Wilder Observatory) on a hill south of campus in 1903.

The College, by 1965, had also pretty much lost interest in both of them. There was no astronomer on the faculty then (one was hired by my sophomore year), the offices and workshops of the observatory had been vacant for several years, and the larger telescope was used only once in a great while for simple star- and planet-gazing. The smaller one, the 7 1/4 inch, had not been used in so long that the axles in its mounting structure had welded themselves into immobility by corrosion.

The 7 1/4 inch's "new" home: its dome at the East end of the Wilder Observatory, constructed in 1903. I took this photo in August, 1968.

But its optics apprared to be in fine shape, at least by visual inspection of the lenses themselves (it couldn't be pointed at anything to test them directly), as did the optics in the wonderful box riding piggyback on it:

The 7 1/4 inch and its symbiont, the Ross Camera, August 1968.

That box is a "Ross Camera," the lens-type predecessor to the later and and better-known Schmidt cameras. These cameras were used to record large areas of the sky for surveys, rather than to zero in on intimate details. When in operation, the elegant old main telescope would be used as a guide telescope while the Ross Camera recorded its wide view on a large glass photographic plate at its rear.

During the spring of 1968, I talked with Dr. William Plummer, a young, savvy member of the Astronomy faculty at the University of Massachusetts (the big U at the other end of town from little Amherst College, another of the "colleges" in the Five College Astronomy Department of the time) about whether the old telescope mount could be renovated.

It could, and we did.

At each step along the way, as we carefully disassembled the telescope's mount, sometimes using power drills to dislodge corrosion's welds, I carefully recorded the various pieces' relationships to one another by photos like these:

I mug in the "studio" Tom set up for the parts photos, August 1968.

That documentation was done with expert help, too. My friend Tom, the only other honors-track Astronomy major in my time at Amherst, was one year behind me, and was a highly-accomplished professional photographer before he entered college. He taught me just about everything I ever learned about black-and-white photographic processing. Above is a photo of me with our "parts studio;" below Tom is letting me know that the current batch of prints has only about one minute left in the wash cycle.

Tom is now over 60, a longtime highly-respected faculty member in astronomy at a major American state university. I'm not giving his last name here because I don't want any of his students to stumble across this photo of him by way of a search engine!

The resulting parts photos, along with diagrams and a long narrative, were bound in several copies of a manuscript against the time when something like that project would have to be done again.

The project was a great success by mid-summer; the mount worked smoothly and the telescope could once again be pointed in any direction with ease. However, once we could look through the telescope, it was obvious that the optics needed cleaning and perhaps anti-reflection coating as well. We would have proceeded with that had not something else happened: a remarkable piece of equipment became available that might be adapted to the bigger, 18" telescope in the observatory in time for use in a completely different thesis project.

I switched topics and telescopes in mid-stream then, abandoning the ancient instrument for another that was merely old. Exactly what the new project was is beside the point here; the point is that we didn't clean the 7 1/4 inch lenses.

Somebody else tried to do that a few years later, though. And dropped the lens assembly. And shattered the 125-year-old glass.

Without its heart, the telescope was useless. Without the telescope, the dome was useless. Both were removed; this image from the current Google Earth database shows only a square roof at the East end of the observatory building, looking like a healed-over amputation stump to me; it saddens my heart deeply:

Current Google Earth image of Amherst College's Wilder Observatory. There is no dome on the right.

That wasn't the first time an instrument was removed from the Wilder Observatory, though. The old photo below, not credited in my source, Wolfgang Steinicke's webpages, shows two characteristic roof-slots for "transit telescopes" between the two domes. Transit telescopes, which monitor a site's meridian, are used to calibrate time and position with great precision, and historically were used to regulate clocks and measure wobbles of Earth's axis of rotation. By the time I arrived at Amherst, no trace of these transit instruments remained.

Wilder Observatory, probably circa 1910. Between the two domes, on the roof, are two sets of what look like walkway railings. They are actually supports for hinged parts of the roof between each pair of railings; those hinged parts of the roof would open for use of the two transit telescopes.

But looking for pictures of them led me to this remarkable snapshot from 1910 in Yale University's online archives:

Eben Jenks Loomis visits the observatory with his daughter and son-in-law in 1911, the year before his death. (Eben was born in Upstate New York close in time and space to where the notorious outlaw family "the Loomis Gang" held sway in Nine Mile Swamp. I have not been able to establish any connection, but that's never kept a blog from innuendo-mongering, has it?)

The white-haired gentleman at left is Eben Jenks Loomis, a longtime astronomer of little note with the United States Naval Observatory in Washington DC. The other two are his daughter, Mabel, and Mabel's husband, David Peck Todd. Todd was Amherst's astronomer from 1881 until his retirement in 1917, and was something of an astronomical celebrity from the 1890's onward.

David was lured back to Amherst, his undergraduate alma mater, for a faculty position by the College's Treasurer, W. Austin Dickinson. Dickinson's family was a prominent one in the town of Amherst, and his father had served as a U.S. Congressman. (The older of Dickinson's two younger sisters, Emily, was a reclusive eccentric who lived in their parents' home.)

[NOTE ADDED TWO DAYS AFTER THIS WAS FIRST POSTED: some of the information below is incomplete. Please make sure to read this update.]

Before coming back to Amherst and his new faculty position, Todd worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, and fell in love with and married Eben Loomis's daughter in 1875, when she was only 18 (and he was all of 20.) When they arrived in Amherst, her beauty was luminous and her style was unmistakably modern.

David and Mabel's engagement portrait by Bowdoin's Gallery, Washington DC, 1878. Public domain photo from the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

1883 portrait of Mabel taken by the Lovell Studio, Amherst. Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. Copyright unknown.

Along with great beauty, Mabel had great... well... enthusiasm. Within a year of arrival in Amherst, she was having an affair with the son of her husband's sponsor, Austin Dickinson, an affair which she quickly ended in favor of one with Austin himself. That affair continued, almost flagrantly, until Austin died in 1895. Her behavior at Austin's funeral is reported to have been scandalous, and the rift in Amherst society between her supporters and Austin's widow, Susan's, was deep and lasting.

Meanwhile, Austin's reclusive sister, Emily, passed away in 1886, leaving behind her famous hundreds of poems written on scraps of paper and bundled into "fascicles" in her room. Emily's sister, Lavinia, invited Mabel Todd to help her sort through them, and Mabel (along with Atlantic Monthly editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson) edited the poems to a point they deemed publishable.

Whether they actually improved Emily's work or not will never be known, since the full extent of editing is not known. Mabel fancied herself to be an author and poet, too (her novel, Footprints, had been published in 1883), she said matter-of-factly that she "corrected" some of what she found, and it is said that she did much of her editing with scissors. So, when you read a poem by Emily Dickinson, there is a chance that part of what you're reading is actually Mabel Loomis Todd's work.

The whole era of love, lust, romance, and poetry is nicely encapsulated for me by this photograph from the Yale University Archives:

"The Shutesbury School of Philosophy," 1882, public domain photograph, Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. Shutesbury is a very small town in the western Massachusetts hills near Amherst. I don't know why this gang called themselves by that name.

Taken in 1882, it is titled "Shutesbury School of Philosophy," and shows ten young adults in the prime of their energy and vigor. The central figure, dressed in white, is without doubt Mabel Loomis Todd, dominating the tableau as her personality would demand. The archive photo description notes that the people in the picture include "Mrs. William Austin Dickinson [Susan], Mrs. David Peck Todd [Mabel Todd], David Peck Todd, Edward Dickinson, Bradford Hitchcock, Miss Mattie Dickinson, Miss Allie Mather, Mr. Will Mather, Miss Bessie Marvin, William B. Clark, and Gilbert Dickinson." Notice that W. Austin Dickinson is not among those mentioned; it is possible that he took the picture, although it's pretty clearly a studio shot.

While it's not clear from the archives' description which one is Susan, I'm pretty sure it's the young lady at upper-left. Not only is she the first one mentioned (which might imply that position), but, when you look closely at her...

Susan and Mabel.

... she's got a revolver pointed at Mabel.

Anyone who uses this article as the basis for any part of a term paper or the like is a complete idiot.
Serious references available upon serious request.
Uncredited photos by S. Harrington.


Brian Fies said...

I loved this post, start to finish. Thank you.

Sherwood Harrington said...

That means a lot to me Brian... since you're about the only person I could think of who might actually read the whole thing!

And, slightly more seriously, your noting a couple of years ago in your blog that, for people like us, observatories we have worked in are much like cathedrals, was a significant impetus for this post. A delayed response, but a true one.

Thanks, Brian.

Jessamyn said...

I loved the whole post, too - and am reminded to blame all those damned exclamation points on Mary.

You should send this post as an article for the Amherst Alum something or other. I imagine there's a magazine, yes?

Jessamyn said...

Xtreme English said...

what an incredible post. thank you, sherwood. my goodness...what else lurks in that lively brain of yours?
btw, it would be a piece of cake to find an astronomy prof named tom at an american state university. i've already eliminated two of them...just sayin....:)

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Once one starts reading it, it's impossible to stop reading it!

It's a shame that there's no CSI: Amherst. You've got a great pilot episode here in which you entirely absolve yourself of responsibility for the demise of the lens. As for Susan and Mabel... Hmm...

Brian Fies said...

Speaking of cathedrals, I just learned that Mt. Wilson is in the path of the "Station" wildfire in Southern California. The last I read, firefighters were planning to make a last stand at the observatory peak. Yikes!

ronnie said...

Sherwood, I have no doubt that you're a very good astronomer.

However, you are a very, very, VERY good historian.

Ruth is right - how could one not finish riding this fascinating trolley to the end of the line?

Sherwood Harrington said...

Wow. The responses to this, here and on Facebook and Flickr, have been kind of surprising. In a good way, but surprising, still. It must have hit some sort of chord that I still don't quite understand. I thought it would be an astro-geeky thing that Brian, maybe, would like, but too long and disconnected for anybody else to particularly want to follow.

Thanks, sincerely and sincerely surprisedly, to those who actually LIKED it, whether you left a comment or not. And I'm very, very happy that the effort that went into this thing was beneficial to more people than I had expected it to be.

Jessamyn: I sent you an e-mail alerting you to this post right after I published it, but that e-mail bounced back. Happily, you seem to have subscribed to the blog in some way, so the e-mail wasn't necessary, but if you could send me a current e-mail address, I'd appreciate it.

Part of my message to you was that your correction of my initial geographic mis-identification of this photo on Flickr led me to the group photo at the end, because of its odd Shutesbury tie.

And thanks for going to the trouble of tracking down the Amherst Alumni mag's particulars.

Mary Ellen, less lurks there than yesterday, but that's something all of us over a certain age just learn to deal with, right?

And, as concerns Tom's identity, sure, you should be able to figure out who he is, if you want to go to the trouble. You already have seen the picture. What I'm trying to avoid is people who have not seen the picture (like his current students) from finding it by idle Googling. If I don't put his name in the same post as the picture appears in, that can't happen. I think. Hope.

Ruth, oh you wouldn't believe the number of subplot lines I didn't go into here. Susan and Mabel? Hah. You should -- and can -- check out the rumors about Susan and Emily.

When I was an undergrad, I used to make some money house-sitting for faculty and admins while they were on vacation. One of those families was the Longworths. Polly Longworth published this collection of Mabel and Austin's love letters, which you, as a bibliophile, might really want to acquire.

Brian, I'm following the progress of the Sation fire as often as the overloaded CalFire site will allow me to. While I've only visited Mt. Wilson once, and then as a tourist, its loss would be devastating to anyone tuned in to the history of astronomy over the past two or three centuries. However, ever since George Davidson convinced James Lick that remote, arid mountaintops were the places to put observatories, we've risked this. Mount Stromlo won't be the last, I'm afraid, but it was the first. The reward is still much greater than the risk.

ronnie, ronnie, ronnie. Did you know that the "trolley to the end of the line" allusion would be so powerful to me? If you did, then thank you.

And, if you didn't, then thank you anyway.

Mike said...

I was going to observe that there were a couple of good college astronomers in the area in the 19th century, but couldn't find the name of the woman at Smith. Then realized I've had significant contact with two women's college and was thinking of Maria Mitchell at Vassar, where there was also an observatory built later than Amherst's but still in an era where curious people were gathered together for the edification of young undergraduates because they were so darned interesting.

It was a simpler age. Or perhaps simply more stratified.

Mark Jackson said...

Sherwood, for specific, timely updates about conditions at Mount Wilson go here.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Thanks, Mark, for putting a link in here to Hal McAlister's updates -- I should have done that earlier! It took me a while to stumble across them, but now his comments constitute the best reliable information available on a timely basis that I know of.

At this point, things are looking good for the preservation of the observatory structures.

Adam said...


A few notes:

I think Tom would appreciate his anonymity here, not so much for the Bronx salute but for the questionable attire. Nice shoes Tom.

I can't be the only one who noticed the similarities in appearance between '68 Sherwood Harrington and '78 David Todd. The coifs in particular.

Am I wrong in thinking that the regular old "house" windows on the Wilder dome looked a little out of place?

I was with you on that trip to Mt. Wilson, wasn't I?

Lastly, haven't all the great Harringtons of the world done enough FOR the world to warrant not having spellcheck come up every time I type our name?

Perhaps this post will be the proverbial straw.

This was fascinating Dad. Thanks.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Hey, Adam -

No, you're not the first to notice the similarities in appearance between the young David Todd and the young Your Dad. The resemblance gets even spookier if you look at more pictures from the same time in both of our lives. Just goes to show that all of us white guys look alike if you squint up just right.

Yes, those windows were always weird. Sort of like most of Amherst, actually.

And, yes, you were with me on that trip up Mt. Wilson. That was the same ASP meeting as the one when a WHOLE GANG of ASTRONOMY WIMMIN absolutely TRASHED ME in public at a restaurant for not letting you order exactly what you wanted.

But, really. Ordering a hamburger "well done" just isn't genteel, you know?

It was also the same ASP meeting during which you made a connection with Mark McGwire's family and/or friends, right? If so, this comments stream may establish a remarkable "degrees of separation" trail from Mark McGwire to Emily Dickinson.

Chris Clarke said...

Another whole-post reader, here, and the whole update too, then I went and read the 90 pages Google would let me read of the collected letters book.

Wonderful work. Do submit it.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Chris -

Thanks so much for taking an interest in this episode; it means a great deal to me.

As concerns submitting it to Amherst for alumni publications, as you and Jessamyn have urged, I'm greatly push-pulled on that. That the two of you think it's good is enormous to me in my own evaluation of the effort, but my intimidation by all things Amherst is a wall not easily scaled. Maybe I'll just send them a link and let them do what they want with it.

Of course, that would out Tom as a sophomore being... well, sophomoric, wouldn't it? Enh, his students would probably love the photo, anyway.

We'll see.

Meanwhile, I would really, really, REALLY love it if you could read Mabel's chapter about the natural history of the Connecticut Valley in the the old Amherst "Handbook" and let me know what you think about it, including changes in objective geological/paleontological perception between 1894 and now as concerns what she wrote.

I know that's a lot to ask, but if I don't ask, I won't have any chance of getting an answer.

At the moment, I have two major book ideas on my mental plate for the last few years of my life: one on the Parsons family of Ireland, and, now, one on Mabel Loomis Todd. Your input could be valuable in helping me choose.

Thanks, Chris. This will teach you to comment on SherWords, won't it?

Chris Clarke said...

It will!

And I'd love to take a look at her Natural History chapter. Can't get the page to load in my browser, but it's probably just me being brain dead. will try again tomorrow.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Chris -

The first several pages of the manuscript are blank, and are reproduced faithfully by the download, leading you to think that the damn' thing isn't working.

I downloaded the ms about eight times before I figured that out.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson said...

Dear Sherwood: Just found your delightful and informative blog. Speaking of which, I try to be delightful and informative on my Facebook page for Emily Dickinson,inspired by the novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson - published in 2010, or I would have found you earlier. Come visit - we featured your blog on the Shutesbury School of Philosophy today - it fits perfectly with our post on the Amherst Community Mural.- Lenore from

Anonymous said...

Sherwood; alias "Woody"
A well written blog. I enjoyed it very much. I remember using the smaller Alvin Clark and Ross Camera. One night, we thought we captured a comet, but alas, was disappointed when we turned the camera back to the position after excitedly waiting several nights for clear weather to return.
I still have your old 6 inch Criterian reflector. Also have a paper you wrote on deep sky objects. A few years ago- I purchased a 10" Mead. Graduated as an ME from Villanova in '76, and I have fond memories of the observatory. If you recall, my Dad was a UMass Professor- Carl Keyser.
Best regards,
Paul Keyser

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the wonderful love story about the 7 1/4" Clark telescope. I came upon your web article last night as I was considering buying this exact instrument which is currently listed on Ebay but as an 8" Clark Refractor from Amherst College. Your archive answered a very important question about the authenticity of the original objective. You stated the original Clark objective was broken sometime in the early '70s during a cleaning attempt and then the telescope and observatory were abandoned. It is apparent now the original 7 1/4 objective was replaced sometime after this by it's new owner with an 8" achromat of later 20th century vintage.... however if it can be verified that the 8" replacement is also a Clark objective that would restore my interest however I am very disappointed to learn it is not the originally objective yet relieved to learn the truth.

I completely understand your sentiment of an observatory feeling like a cathedral. So much so I have built two of my own and made a life career in astronomical instrumentation for all the major "cathedrals".

Best regards, Brian Lula