The Observatory

Today, we think of observatories as places built to house telescopes. But observatories existed before the telescope and used instruments such as quadrants, which were used to measure the angle of stars, to observe and track planetary motion. In order to become the instrument of choice for astronomical observation, and central to observatories, the telescope needed to combine its powers of magnification with other qualities.

Hugh Vail

Hugh Vail, the astronomy professor at Haverford College in the 1850s, was not content with Haverford’s early observatory, which was little more than a shack, because he wanted to conduct astronomical research. He did not simply want a new building, however; he wanted to acquire a telescope worthy of building an observatory around. To make their telescope, the College went to Henry Fitz, one of the best telescope makers in the United States. When the Board of Managers chose a site surrounded by trees, Vail corrected them and placed the observatory where it would be most useful for conducting research.

Other Observatory Instruments

While early telescopes had been overlooked in observatories, by the 19th century, the observatory became an accessory to the telescope. Every step was taken to further improve the telescope’s capabilities. Other accessories, like sidereal clocks that timed observations, were installed in observatories in order to assist with telescopic observations.

Sketch of Haverford College Observatory on a pamphlet for the 1885-1886 school year.

Observatories at Institutions

The telescope’s centrality in observatories reflects its development as an instrument. By the 19th century, an observatory was only called so because it housed a telescope. A telescope with any intention of being used for astronomical research could not be haphazardly acquired and used, it had to be planned. Unfortunately for private or hobby astronomers wishing to conduct research, this meant powerful telescopes became exclusive to institutions capable of housing them.

Timeline