Astronomy Education at Haverford College

In 1857, Haverford College built a new observatory for an 8 ¼ inch refracting telescope, said to be the 9th largest in the US, but it was not used for astronomical research until the 1880s. Astronomy professors were often not dedicated astronomers and often the “excessive daily duties of the Professor…made it impossible to satisfy any demand for higher scientific investigation.” However, a shifting attitude towards astronomy as an academic field incentivized colleges to allocate more resources to its pursuit. Student interest combined with the increasing specialization of professors in American colleges in the late 19th century spurred the growth of astronomical education. The Haverford College newspaper noted that “Astronomy [was] reviving at Haverford…[and] the Observatory [was] quite a popular resort with the scientific seniors” in the 1880s.

Pamphlet page outlining rules for using Haverford College's Observatory for educational purposes.

Colleges as Places of Research

At the end of the 19th century, colleges were beginning to use their powerful telescopes for research instead of simply teaching students basic astronomy and how to use the instruments. After being appointed the professor of astronomy at Haverford, Isaac Sharpless went to the Cincinnati Observatory for two weeks to learn observational methods and calculations. While this illustrates a growing desire to use resources for research, it also reveals the state of astronomy education at the time.

Humanist Education

In the 19th century, American colleges focused on a classical education meant to propagate European culture in the United States. Thus, many colleges, including Haverford, treated natural sciences such as astronomy in a tangential manner. Students recognized this, noting in the Haverfordian in 1879 that “it cannot be denied that natural science [...] is almost wholly neglected” at Haverford. Haverford maintained that their education “kept the vocational idea in the background and exalted that of humanism,” limiting the science curriculum to basic familiarity. However, these colleges also owned some of the best and most powerful telescope in the world, but underutilized their capabilities.