Virtual Tour (circa 1897)

According to the Daily Illini, one of the first public open houses at the Observatory was September 1897. Below is a fictional account of that open house based on the historic record.

The Observatory Director, George W. Myers, greets us at the door leading us into the foyer.  A huge brick pier that serves as a base to the telescope above dominates the foyer. On the walls are photographs of comets, nebulae, sun spots, planets, and stars. Against the west wall of the hall is a large bookcase filled with astronomical journals and textbooks. We walk through the foyer toward the classroom in the south wing.

University of Illinois Observatory Floorplan, circa 1897

In the classroom we sit at wooden tables.  Professor Myers uses an orrery to demonstrate the phases of the moon. He then uses the lantern slide projector to illustrate his lecture on the moon and planets.  Black and white photographs of the moon and planets taken at large observatories prepare us for what we will soon see with our eyes.

After the lecture, the night sky is now dark enough to observe. We pass through the foyer and climb the dark staircase lite by the astronomer’s hand lamp and find ourselves in a dimly lighted circular room with a dome above. The shutter has been rolled aside, leaving a wide opening through which we can see stars.

A tall hollow iron column, weighing 2 tons, in the middle of the room supports the telescope. Through a glass door in the column we can see clockwork in motion; it is the driving clock that keeps the telescope turning westward just as fast as the stars go, so that a star remains in view as long as the astronomer wishes to observe it.

The 12-inch refractor at the University of Illinois Observatory

The telescope, built by the world renown Warner & Swasey, turns on two steel axes that we see at the top of the column.  One axis slants upwards toward the north pole of the heavens; the other at right angles to it, and it is to this one that the tube of the telescope is attached. The instrument can be turned on these axes toward any part of the sky. Dr. Myers tells us that despite being a heavy instrument, it is so finely balanced that it can be moved with your finger.

“This is a refracting telescope,” Myers continues.  “Two large glass lenses, 12-inches in diameter, set one behind the other at the upper end of the hollow tube, focus starlight, forming an image of the star here near the lower end.  The eyepiece through which you are looking is a combination of small lenses for viewing and magnifying the image that the large lenses form.”

We each have our turn looking at Saturn, it’s rings easily seen along with several of its satellites including Titan, the largest satellite in the solar system. A student assistant pulls a chain to move the dome, and the astronomer gently repositions the telescope on Jupiter.

Our time is almost up.  As Dr. Myers leads us back downstairs, we stop to visit a student, Harry Coffern. He is working on the 3-inch transit telescope attempting to determine the local time by observing the transit of stars across the meridian, the line that runs north-south. The ceiling in this rectangular room opens to the sky and the windows sink below the wall.

A transit telescope at the University of Illinois Observatory, circa 1897

The accurate pendulum clocks, visible in the adjacent clock room through a small window, sends out a signal every second to a telegraph sounder.  The clock was made by world famous Clemens Riefler in Munich Germany and gives the time for the true period of rotation of the earth – the sidereal day which is four minutes shorter than a mean solar day. A small device on the Riefler mean time clock rewinds the electrical time piece every few seconds. A chronograph is also located in the small clockroom. The time is checked frequenlty by connecting to a similar clock at the US Naval Observatory over telegraph wires.

After checking our watches, the even is complete and we leave Professor Myers and his students. Our evening is over but theirs is just beginning.