History of the Observatory:

George W. Myers and the Founding of the Observatory (1896-1900)

Most University of Illinois students  probably paid little heed to a brief notice in the 12 March 1897 Daily Illini "The Astronomical Observatory is now fully equipped with the necessary instruments, and Prof. Myers is improving his opportunity and making observations every clear evening." Yet this bland announcement marked the realization of 33-year old George W. Myers' (1864-1931) dream of an observatory for the U of I.

Myers joined the U of I faculty in 1888 as a mathematics instructor after graduating from Illinois as valedictorian. Fortunately for him, the job required not only the teaching of math, but also of astronomy, his great passion. One of his students later described what sort of educator Myers was:

And what a teacher was Myers! He could sense a student's difficulty quickly and remove it with clearness and brevity. He assumed reasonable effort on the student's part and had no small patience for the lazy. He looked the personification of intellect, but acquaintance proved he kindly heart that made us love as well as admire him.

Myers pursued the construction of a larger student observatory. At the Board of Trustee's 8 March 1892 meeting, Thomas Burrill, acting regent, reported that a library, a building for the engineering college, and a museum were the most urgently needed structures according to the faculty. But, in his report, Burrill also mentioned that an observatory was desired. Myers, now as assistant professor of mathematics, stepped up pressure for an observatory during the winter of 1893-4. He, Samuel Shattuck and Edgar Townsend, both math professors, planned an astronomy course on the European model, one free of practical applications and heavily on mathematical. An important element of their plan was a larger student observatory. The postitive response from Burrill and the Board to their idea fueled the trio's determination according to Myers: "When we saw the willingness of the Board to help us we pledged with one another that we would have in the University of Illinois a math and astronomy course second to none on either side of the water."  Burrill may have had these men in mind when, in an 1893 letter to Dr. R.H. Thurston, he wrote: "Our professors are perhaps more inclined now than ever before to push forward their various departments and to make them places of investigation, original or otherwise, to the extent of their opportunity and ability, as well as to furnish routine instruction.”

While Myers was studying mathematical astromony at the Ludwig Maxmillian Universitat in Munich under the noted astronomy Hugo Seeliger, University President Draper and the Trustees were preparing to lobby the Legislature for a large University appropriation. On 5 December 1894, the Trustees agreed to seek $15,000 for an observatory out of a total request of $783,500. After some political maneuvers that saw the funding completely cut before being restored to $15,000, the Observatory appropriation was approved along with funding for a new Library building today known as Altgeld Hall.

A small, grassy knoll located south of University was chosen as the site for the observatory.  Contracts were awarded in early April of 1896, with the Bevis Company of Urbana the building contract for approximately $6500. The firm of Warner & Swasey was commissioned to supply the telescope and other astronomical equipment for $7250.  John Brashear, a noted optician, crafted the telescope's lens. The building was completed  by the middle of August 1896: the telescope arrived and was inplace by November. The telescope was chiefly a teaching aid, as the professor himself admitted:

Our chief work, however, is and will continue to be, instruction in the use of instruments and in the methods pursued in a working observatory. All research work must of course be subordinated and subservient to this end.

Dr. Myers returned from Europe in the spring of 1896. That summer he worked with Professor G.C. Comstock of Washburn Observatory in Madison Wisconsin. In September, Myers arrived and found an observatory and directorship awaiting him, just as he had hoped. The long period of preparation and perseverance had not been in vain.

One of his first projects was the determination of the latitude and longitude of the Observatory using the 3-inch Warner & Swasey transit telescope.  A telegraph connection, provided free by Western Union, with Professor Comstock at Washburn Observatory allowed the comparison of the times of transits of stars across the meridian.  From the difference in the transit times and the difference in the stars altitude, the astronomers could determine the UI Observatory's terrestrial coordinates.  After a several month delay due to bad weather at either one of the stations, Myers along with several students finally determined the latitude to be North 40 degrees, 6 minutes and 20.6 seconds, longitude West 88 degrees, 13 minutes and 30 seconds, and elevation of 740 feet.

Myers studied variable stars in order to determine the reason for their brightness changes; he subsequently published mathematical analyses of these variations. Myers continued his work begun in Munich on the mathematical analysis of one of the least understood variable stars, Beta Lyrae. The explanations for the star's change in brightness varied from a single luminous body with bright stops on it to the satellite theory in which two luminous stars revolving around each other.  Using the light curve produced by Argelander in 1859, Myers developed a mathematical method to describe the Beta Lyrae system.  At the dedication conference for Yerkes Observatory in 1897, Myers announced his findings.  The Beta Lyrae system was described as two ellipsoid stars, nearly touching, rotating about a common centre of mass.  He also found the orbital plane to pass almost exactly through the Sun.  Myers also noted the apparent presence of a nebulous condition leading him to believe the two stars to be surrounded by an envelope of gas.  Myers' work was the first theoretical study of the Beta Lyrae system.  Sixty years later, Beta Lyrae expert Dr. Otto Struve praised the work of Myers and noted he could do little more than to fill in the details in the broad picture drawn by Myers.

After studying the variable star Nu Pegasi, Myers resigned in the fall of 1900 and left for a new position with the University of Chicago as Professor of Teaching of Mathematics and Astronomy. He had been hired by progressive educator Colonel Parker. The reason for his departure is not known, but in 1899, the state legislature killed a $6,000 appropriation for the Observatory and the University of Chicago was attracting many new faculty with large salary offers.  At Chicago, Myers became a nationally recognized educator and helped establish the journal School Science and Mathematics.  He prepared several textbooks for elementary mathematics and authored many articles on the instruction of math, physics and astronomy.   After a lingering illness, he died in 1931 and was laid to rest in Mt. Hope cemetery, Urbana, a quarter mile south of the Observatory he helped establish.

After Myers' departure, an instructor in mathematics, W.C. Brenke, was placed in charge of the Observatory and astronomy classes until a new director could be found.  He observed Nova Persei in 1901, several variable stars, and watched 467 Leonid meteors an hour, also in 1901.  Brenke was replaced in September 1903.  He left Illinois in 1904 and eventually became the Chairman of the Astronomy and Mathematics Department at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln

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