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Stargazers’ Tools

Exploring Vassar’s Artifacts: In this series, we “go to the source” to bring you objects that offer insight into what teaching, learning, and living at Vassar was like through the ages.

This telescope, used by astronomer and Vassar faculty member Maria Mitchell in the late 1800s, remains among Vassar's treasures.
This telescope, used by astronomer and Vassar faculty member Maria Mitchell in the late 1800s, remains among Vassar's treasures.

The antique brass telescope that sits in a corner of an astronomy classroom in Sanders Physics has no practical use anymore. There’s a much larger and more powerful one in the college observatory elsewhere on campus. But the 150-year-old relic has a proud history: Renowned astronomer Maria Mitchell used it regularly when she taught at Vassar from 1865 to 1888.

“I know (Mitchell) used this telescope because we have pictures of her looking through it hanging in our observatory,” says astronomy professor Fred Chromey.

Mitchell’s old telescope is one of several historically significant artifacts used by Vassar astronomy professors that will soon need a new home. Renovations to Sanders will begin as early as next spring when the college hopes to break ground for its new science center.

A committee of faculty and staff has formed the Vassar College Artifacts Project (VCAP) to identify and find ways to preserve and display dozens of science teaching tools that have accumulated since the college was founded.

Other astronomical equipment that will need to be preserved: a pair of celestial globes used by Mitchell and her successors to show the locations of constellations and a century-old blink comparator, a large optical device that helped astronomers detect the movement of planets or comets or changes in the size of stars.

This century-old blink comparator, used to detect the movement of planets and changes in stars, is one of only two still in existence.
This century-old blink comparator, used to detect the movement of planets and changes in stars, is one of only two still in existence.

Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., was using a blink comparator similar to the one at Vassar when he discovered Pluto in 1930.

“For the first half of the 20th century, it was the workhorse of astronomers’ tools,” Chromey says.  It has since been replaced by a computerized system that runs on common software, he says.

The blink comparator in the attic of Sanders Science is one of only two still in existence in the United States, Chromey says. The other is on display at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, Calif.

It was unusual for a small liberal arts college to have purchased such an expensive device, Chromey notes. “The larger research universities – Stanford, Harvard, Chicago—all had them at one time, but for a place the size of Vassar, that was remarkable,” he says.

Physics Professor James Challey, a member of the VCAP committee and an expert on the history of science, says Mitchell’s legacy had played a major role in Vassar’s acquisition of numerous pieces of state-of-the-art science equipment long after her death.

These globes helped Maria Mitchell’s students learn about the constellations.
These globes helped Maria Mitchell’s students learn about the constellations.

“Vassar has more astronomy-related stuff and physics equipment related to astronomy than many universities,” he says. “All our astronomy equipment is top of the line because that’s one of the things that made the college famous in its early years—Maria Mitchell being here,” Challey says.

Challey says the VCAP committee also hopes to find a way to preserve and display a device called a spectrometer that was installed in Sanders Science when it was built in the mid-1920s. The spectrometer measures wavelengths of sunlight to determine what elements exist on the sun.

“It’s historically important because the work that was done on spectrometers eventually led to the development of quantum mechanics,” he says.

Challey says he was confident the college would find ways to save all of the old science equipment that is worth saving. He says committee members have already held preliminary talks with architects for the new science center about finding space to display at least some of the artifacts.

“It’s important that we do this,” he says. “It will show how Vassar fits into the bigger picture of the development of science, especially physics and astronomy.”

–Larry Hertz

Photos copyright Vassar College / Buck Lewis

Posted Wednesday, August 15, 2012