History of the Observatory:

George McVittie and the modern department (1951-1972)

At the time of Baker's retirement in the fall of 1951, the Astronomy Department was in poor health and the University was considering abandoning astronomy and incorporating the Observatory and the elementary classes back into the Mathematics Department.  The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science, Henning Larsen, wrote Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley and requested his advice.  Shapley's four-page reply created sympathetic interest and understanding among the Trustees.  Shapley explained that with Illinois' large research budget and excellent physics, chemistry and math departments, the Astronomy Department should be expanded.  Since the Department did not own a large research instrument, he also suggested the pursuit of theoretical astrophysics.  In an inspired suggestion, he recommended Dr. George C. McVittie (1904-1988) as a possible new leader.

McVittie proved to be an excellent choice.  He was born in Turkey to British parents, educated at Cambridge University and Edinburgh University.  He earned his doctorate in 1930 from Edinburgh for his work on unified field theories.  He earned a distinguished reputation for research on relativity and cosmological theory.  During World War II, McVittie was a central participant in the interception of meteorological data from the enemy and worked on the cryptanalysis of codes and ciphers for which he was rewarded with an appointment as Officer of the Order of the British Empire.  Illinois President Stoddard visited McVittie at Queen Mary College and invited him to Urbana.  He was formally appointed department head and Observatory director in 1952.

After his arrival in the fall of 1952, McVittie began the refurbishment of the Observatory's major instruments.  The Equatorial had been neglected and was in need of major restoration.  J.W. Fecker Inc. was contracted to refurbish and upgrade the refractor, transit circle, micrometer, spectroscope and polarizing photometer.  The Equatorial was removed in April of 1953 and sent to Fecker's shops in Pittsburgh were it was modernized with the additions of electric motors, replacing the gravity drive clock and hand slow motion controls.  Other work included painting, cleaning and reconditioning of the gears, replacing the draw tube, cleaning the objective and replacing small missing parts.  Fecker also provided equipment for a small machine room located in the basement under the classroom.  The refurbishment, costing $14,250, was completed by the beginning of summer session in 1953. 

Another early project was the establishment of an astronomy club.  In December of 1953, the University of Illinois Astronomical Society held its first meeting.  Starting with just four members, the club was very active and enjoyed excellent relationship with the Department.  Some of the early club activities included building a log cabin at the Vermillion River Observatory site, tracking satellites for IGY in 1958, hosting public open houses, cleaning and using the Ross camera, and using the refractor for several observing projects.  Club members and the Astronomy department made key observations after the launch of Sputnik in October 1957.  The observations where made on what Mrs. McVittie refereed to as  "an enormous lavatory roll." The radio telescope was located in the “backyard” of the observatory and the receivers in room 28 of the Observatory. Illinois published some of the earliest orbital data on Sputnik in the November 9, 1957 issue of Nature magazine.

In 1954, McVittie attended a conference on the establishment of a national radio astronomy observatory.  Upon his return, he and Professor Edward Jordan of the Electrical Engineering Department, pursued the idea of establishing radio astronomy at Illinois.  Jordan and McVittie appointed George W. Swenson Jr. to half-time professorships in each department starting in 1956.  Swenson was assigned to design an antenna suitable for survey work and capable of detecting very faint sources.  Their results would receive an additional boost when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 prompting increase funding of the U.S. science effort.  The end result was a 600 x 400 foot parabolic cylinder dish that was carved in the ground and operated at 610.5 MHz.  Funding was approved by the Office of Naval Research and construction began in September 1959.

The Vermillion River Observatory, located near Danville Illinois, was dedicated on 9 November 1962.  It began its survey with the hopes of compiling a catalogue of extragalactic radio sources.  The telescope was joined by another telescope in 1967.  Originally planned as a three-element interferometer, so little funding was received from the National Science Foundation and the University that only one dish could be built, and the staff of the observatory had to build it using military surplus equipment.  The end result was a 120-foot partially steerable dish completed in 1970.  That year also marked the retirement of the 600 x 400 foot telescope, its mission now complete. 

McVittie soon realized no astronomy department could function efficiently without a modern optical telescope.  Starting in 1965, with the help of Professor Kenneth M. Yoss, funding was secured from the National Science Foundation for a 40-inch telescope.  The telescope, by Astro Mechanics of Texas, was a 40-inch, f/3 reflector with a f/8 and f/15 Cassegrain foci and a f/30 Coude' focus.  Once completed and operational in 1968, most of the research, in Illinois tradition, was photometric, but a plate camera and spectrograph were also used.  The telescope's new photometer was first tested and used for research on the 12-inch refractor in 1967.  The new observatory was complete with sleeping quarters, a dark room and an elevating floor for the telescope.  The Prairie Observatory site was located about 35 miles south east of Urbana near Oakland.  In addition to the new reflector, the Ross camera was moved there in 1968 after it was removed in 1966 to widen Florida Avenue.

Through out most of the department's history, the Observatory's staff had consisted of one astronomer.  McVittie changed that, slowly expanding the staff.  Dr. Stanley Wyatt joined the faculty in 1953, Swenson and Ivan King in 1956, Kennth Yoss, John Dickel and James Kaler in 1964 and Edward Olson in 1966.  By the time of his retirement, the staff consisted of nine senior faculty members and three research assistants.  Research topics included relativity, cosmology, celestial mechanics, perturbation theory, dynamics of star clusters, planetary nebulae, planets, supernovae and radio astronomy.  The department which produced only five advanced degrees prior to 1951 graduated 29 Masters and 14 Doctoral student during the McVittie administration. 

With the growing faculty and new additions to the departments research equipment, the Observatory proved to small.  In 1957, a small addition was built in the south-west corner. A radio astronomy lab, new photographic darkroom and new offices were added.  A much larger addition was completed in 1967 on the east side of the Observatory.  An optics lab, new larger radio astronomy lab, larger darkroom and more office space were included in these additions.  After seven decades, the Observatory was better equipped to serve as the center of astronomy in central Illinois.

Dr. McVittie retired in 1970 and returned to his home in England in 1972 where he taught at the University of Kent until his death in 1988.  Dr. McVittie revitalized astronomy in Illinois by becoming the architect who transformed the department into one of the nation's leading academic institutions. The astronomical community remembers his important contributions by renaming asteroid 2417 as McVittie in his honor.



Schrieffer, A.H., Yang, K.S, & Swenson, G. “The Illinois 120-foot radio telescope. Reprint from Sky and Telescope, vol 41, no. 3, pp. 132-138, March 1970. Online at http://www.ece.illinois.edu/about/history/reminiscence/120ft.html

Swenson, George. “At the Dawn of the Space Age.” Online at http://www.ece.illinois.edu/about/history/reminiscence/space.html

Swenson, George. “The Illinois 400-foot radio telescope.” Online at http://www.ece.illinois.edu/about/history/reminiscence/400ft.html