Counting Stars

Counting Stars Blog BannerWelcome to the musings and maunderings of the staff of Dudley Observatory at the Museum of Science and Innovation.

Email the blog at counting.stars@dudleyobservatory.org, or drop by the Dudley Facebook page.


From the Collection: Groundbreaking Soil

Groundbreaking Dirt from Planetarium

Groundbreaking Dirt from Planetarium

As a museum worker, it’s always nice to have things in your collection that are a little unconventional.  Books and artworks are great, but there’s something fun about having a few taxidermied animals and Victorian hair catchers.  Still, even I’m stymied when I see a glass box full of dirt.

This mix of greyish soil and dried grass is the result of a shovel-full lifted by Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgard, Princess of the Netherlands, during the ground breaking ceremony for the Hudson-Champlain Planetarium on September 19th, 1959.  At the time, Princess Beatrice was the heir presumptive on a formal visit to the former colony of the New Netherlands, Albany, New York.

Princess Beatrix breaking ground for the Hudson Planetarium, Sept. 19, 1959

Princess Beatrix breaking ground for the Hudson Planetarium, Sept. 19, 1959

The planetarium was to be located near the Dudley Observatory’s South Lake observatory, which means this dirt came from what is now the grounds of Albany Med.  The event was the primary photo opportunity for the Princess’ visit, and it was attended by Mayor Corning, Governor Rockefeller, various state commissioners, various local religious dignitaries,  Dr. Benjamin Boss and Dr. Curtis Hemenway of Dudley, and young Miss Laura Terlaak-Poot, a Dutch immigrant who presented the Princess with flowers.

From here on, it gets a little embarrassing.  The capital campaign to build the planetarium stalled, and the planetarium was never built.  By the next year, the observatory and the grounds had been sold to Albany Med.  Plans to merge the observatory and the planetarium with SUNY Albany fell through.  The observatory building burned in 1970.

According to legend, the visit by Princess Beatrix, and the shabby look of Albany at the time, embarrassed Governor Rockefeller enough that he made plans  to rebuild the capitol area.  This led to the construction of the Empire State Plaza.

Eventually the planetarium was installed in the Albany Heritage Area Visitor’s Center as the Henry Hudson Planetarium, no longer tied to Dudley.  Ironically, after sixty years, the Observatory now shares a building and a close relationship with the Suits-Bueche Planetarium here at miSci.

The Battle of the Board

Benjamin A. Gould

Benjamin A. Gould (1824-1896), the first director of Dudley Observatory

It’s an unfortunate fact that the Dudley Observatory, no matter what it has accomplished and no matter what it may accomplish, will always best be known to historians for its near collapse just as it got started.

The simple version of the story is that a split occurred on the board not long after Dudley was founded. On one side was the Scientific Council, made up of the scientific advisers along with the first director, Benjamin Gould, and his patron Alexander Dallas Bache. On the other side were the Trustees, the financial backers like Thomas Olcott and Dr. James Armsby. The two sides argued, in person, in the press, in the backrooms and in the courtroom, until Gould was forced to leave. People all over the nation followed the arguments, and still today the fight is studied by historians of American science.

Figuring out what the argument was about takes some work. Anyone familiar with board fights, or internet arguments, can probably guess the arc: everyone started out as friends with a polite disagreement, and by the end everyone else was the antichrist. Both sides had long and well-practiced lists of complaints about the other.

Reading between the lines of those lists, it looks like the Scientific Council and the Trustees had different visions of what Dudley would be. The Council wanted a top notch scientific institution that would do serious science and nothing else. The Trustees, representing the people who put forth the money, wanted an observatory that would serve the Capitol Region, both by doing useful science and by adding luster to the city’s reputation.

Alexander Dallas Bache (1806–1867), director of the Coast Survey

Alexander Dallas Bache (1806–1867), director of the Coast Survey

These goals were not incompatible at first. But in 1857, while the observatory was still incomplete, a financial crisis made money tight. That meant one side or another would not get their vision of the observatory. The Scientific Council thought that the observatory should be shut down until sufficient money was raised to run it properly; better to let it sit unused than do poor quality work. The Trustees wanted the observatory to start work with whatever equipment it had, to serve the public that had footed the bill to construct it.

The details of the arguments that followed would fill a book (specifically, that book is Elites in Conflict: the antebellum clash over the Dudley Observatory by Mary Ann James). All of that is something to cover at another time. For this post, it’s probably best to ask: why should anyone care? With the exception of us poor souls who are paid to care, why should this interest anyone?

American science was in a transition that would take it out of the hands of gentleman hobbyists in the early part of the 19th century and leave it with professional scientists by the end. This process, called the “professionalization of science,” turned science into a job, created familiar scientific institutions and granted scientists the social authority they have today.

At the center of this process was Alexander Dallas Bache. Great-grandson of the ultimate gentleman scientist, Benjamin Franklin, Bache nevertheless worked towards a vision of science that would make his ancestor’s career impossible. Some historians say that Bache did for American science what FDR did for American government: reorganize it on a much grander scale. Bache was well connected, shrewd and (usually) diplomatic, and he was firmly in support of his ally Benjamin Gould and a Dudley Observatory run along professional lines.

And he failed. It’s one of the few times he did so, which is part of why it’s so interesting. The Battle of the Board sits right in the middle of several of the major disputes of professionalization: how to pay for the new science?  How to organize a scientific institution?  Who should be in charge?  By following the arguments we can get a sense of what forces were at work in this large and important transition.

From the Collection: Dopplemayer’s “Atlas novus coelesti”

The night sky has always been a source of inspiration for art that borders on science (or maybe the other way around).  Examples are as ancient as the Dunhuang Star Chart, from the Tang Dynsaty in China (618–907), and the Farnese Atlas from the 2nd century BCE. During the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists and illustrators in Europe brought forth their own contributions by creating gorgeous illustrated atlases of the night sky.

One of the most famous examples comes from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr (1677-1750), a German mathematician and cartographer.  Doppelmayer’s Atlas novus coelesti,  published in 1742, is a fantastic example of the genre.  In it, Doppelmayer goes beyond depicting the star field and the constellations, he compiles the best astronomical knowledge available in his time into one book.  It’s an awkward  size for digitizing, but here’s a good photograph of the central plate.

Central Plate of Dopplemayer's "Atlas novus coelesti"

Central Plate of Dopplemayer’s “Atlas novus coelesti”

Historian Nick Kanas notes, “In a sense, this beautiful plate depicts the state of astronomical knowledge in the early 1700s.”  It’s a remarkable work of art in its own right, but it is also packed with information.  At the top left is a scale drawing of the planets relative to the sun.    Beneath that is a diagram of a solar eclipse that occurred on May 12, 1706, depicting that shadow of the moon being cast on a tiny map of the earth’s surface.  The bottom right shows the three major theories of the solar system: the Ptolemaic geocentric model on the left (partially obscured by scientific instruments in a not-so-subtle jab), the hybrid system invented by Tycho Brache (now mostly forgotten) in the middle and the Copernican heliocentric model on the right.  The Copernican model is labeled “sic ratione” or “according to reason,” making Dopplemayer’s verdict on the theories clear.

Of course, Copernicus’ model takes pride of place in the center of the work.  Depicted are the known planets and their moons, and the zodiac taking up the outer edge.  Included is text with dimensions and distances for the planets.  The largest text on the page, after the title, reads “Ex His Creatorem,” or “From This [We See] the Creator”.

This is just one of the plates in the text, and Atlas novus coelesti is a crown jewel in our rare book collection.  We are indebted to Union College Special Collections for housing this and all our other rare books, which are simply too old and fragile to sit next to the old GE refrigerators in miSci’s collection storage.

From the Collection: Gemini S-10 Particle Collector

The S-10 Particle Collector for the Gemini Space Program

The S-10 Particle Collector for the Gemini Space Program

Few pieces in our collection have traveled as far as this one, or seen quite so much.  This is the S-10 Particle Collector, from the Gemini space program.

How Dudley went from building observatories and looking through telescopes to building particle collectors and looking through electron microscopes is a story that deserves its own post.  Suffice it to say that under Director Curtis Hemenway, Dudley hitched its wagon to NASA and the space race, then started creating things like this collector.

Image of crater from S-10 experiment (50µ)

Image of crater from S-10 experiment (50µ)

The S-10 was a micrometeoroid collector, meaning that it was intended to capture very small meteoroids in the very upper edges of the earth’s atmosphere.  The device would be launched into space.  At a certain point an astronaut would open it like a book – you can see the hinge in the middle – and the various surfaces inside would be open to whatever chose to bombard them.  After a time it would be closed, prevented any terrestrial particles from getting inside when it was returned to earth.

The goal was to catch very small particles, sometimes called “space dust”.  In this case, the S-10 collector was attached to an Agena Target Vehicle (ATV), an unmanned spacecraft launched as part of the Gemini space program.  The ATV provided a number of different services for the Gemini capsule, such as help with maneuvering, acting as something to dock with and providing a platform for devices like the S-10.

The Gemini program was doing something that no one had imagined doing just decades before, so there’s little surprise that it was beset by problem.  The Dudley’s micrometeorite program didn’t escape those problems.

Agena Target Vehicle (ATV) from Gemini 8, aourtesy of NASA

Agena Target Vehicle (ATV) from Gemini 8, courtesy of NASA

This S-10 was mounted on the ATV for mission Gemini 8.  When the Gemini capsule docked with the ATV, pilots Neil Armstrong and David Scott noticed that the combined crafts were entering an uncontrolled spin.  After disengaging and trying to correct, the Gemini 8 capsule was forced to return to earth far sooner than expected.

Gemini 9 had an ATV of its own with a particle collector. But the shroud that protected the ATV during launch failed to detach, so the collector was never recovered.

Gemini 10 managed to retrieve the S-10 collector from the Gemini 8 ATV.  Pilot Michael Collins successfully left the capsule and performed an Extravehicular activity (EVA) which took him to the Gemini 8 ATV, becoming the first person to travel from vehicle to vehicle in space.

Gemini 12 also had an S-10, but it was left on the ATV to record the results of long exposure and never retrieved.

This S-10 may be the only one that made it back to earth.  It is now on display in the museum’s gallery, in a case to the left of the door to the Suits-Bueche Planetarium, along with a number of other devices for collecting and retrieving space dust created by the Dudley Observatory.

Dudley’s Female Computers

Dudley Observatory has spent most of its 160 years as a working science institution, and not a museum.  That means that its employees weren’t always focused on saving the kind of materials that a museum would preserve.  Of course, they saved the astronomical materials they were working with, but not always the bits and pieces of their own history that would be so interesting today.

Which explains why we have so little about the staff of Dudley itself.  Even from Dudley’s height, about 1905-1935, there are only two staff photographs.  One of which survives only because it was used as a bookmark.

Here’s one of those photographs, taken at the South Lake observatory, around 1915:

HumanCalculators[Back: William B. Varnum, Harry Raymond, Benjamin Boss, Sherwood B. Grant, Mrs. Helen McNeill, Miss Grace I. Buffum, Henry Jenkins, Mrs. Livia Clark, Arthur Roy
Middle: (kneeling): Miss Isabella Lange, Miss Alice Fuller
Front: Misses Mary E. Bingham, Florence Gale, Bertha W. Jones, Mabel Aline Dyer]

Page of Albany Directory from 1922 listing Isabella & Marie Lange as Dudley computers

Page of Albany Directory from 1922 listing Isabella & Marie Lange as Dudley computers

One thing you’ll notice: out of the fifteen people here, nine of them are women.  Since Dudley is usually associated with male astronomers – like Benjamin Gould or the Boss family – what are these women doing here?

They were doing what women had done in the field of astronomy since Caroline Herschel became the first female professional astronomer in the 18th century: mathematics.  The Dudley was focused on creating a star catalog, which meant recording the exact positions of stars in the night sky.  Fixing these positions required massive amounts of computation.  Observations had to be run through a tricky statistical equation in order to get the most accurate possible result. At the time, the people who did this kind of work were called “computers”, and for a variety of reasons we can get into later, they were frequently women.

The director of Dudley, Lewis Boss, started the process, and when he died in 1912, his son Benjamin Boss took over. Their ambition was to create the largest and most accurate catalog of its time.  It would ultimately include over 30,000 stars.  This required so many computers that little Dudley Observatory in the sleepy town of Albany became the largest employer of women in American astronomy during the period that that catalog was in the works.  In total, they employed 81 women during this period between 1900 – 1940.

In other times and places, women computers in astronomy would go on to become notable astronomers.  Alas, not at Dudley, where the limited scope of work and limited resources didn’t allow women to branch out.  Just as frustratingly – at least for us – Dudley didn’t collect any personal material from these women.  I can tell you who was on Benjamin Boss’ Christmas card list, but not what Isabella Lange thought of her career in astronomy.

 So, a personal appeal: if you happen to know anything about the women in the photograph above, or any other of Dudley’s female computers, please drop us a line at: counting.stars@dudleyobservatory.org .

One, Two, Three ..

… gosh, there are a lot of them, aren’t there?

DudleyLogoOLWelcome to Counting Stars, a repository for writings on the history of and around the Dudley Observatory.

Those of you joining us from Facebook or All Over Albany may be unfamiliar with the Dudley Observatory.  Here’s a nutshell version:  Dudley is an observatory founded in the 1850s here in the Capital region.  It is an independent observatory, and the oldest of its kind in America.  While the institution is currently between observatories, it has been housed in two famous buildings in the past and done world class work there.  After a century of useful scientific work, the Dudley became a foundation and an educational institution.  It continues on in that capacity, serving as the Capital Region’s Astronomy Resource.

The current face of the Dudley Observatory is Dr. Valerie Rapson, a Doctor of Astrophysical Sciences and Technology from RIT.  By now you’ve probably seen her on the local news explaining the most recent astronomical discovery. My name is Josh Hauck, and I’m the resident librarian and archives rat.  The Dudley is currently housed at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, NY, and we work closely with the staff here, and in particular with the Suits-Bueche Planetarium.

I’m hoping to use this page to highlight the Dudley’s historical collection, which hasn’t been explored much in the past.  We are just beginning the process of building a small observatory to house our primary telescope, and hopefully that will be chronicled here.  And in general, this page will serve as the clearinghouse for things related to Dudley’s history.  Welcome, and I hope you enjoy.

 

From the Collection: the Pruyn Brashear Equatorial Telescope

Dudley Director Benjamin Boss looks at the Pruyn Brashear Equitorial telescope, ca. 1930s

Dudley Director Benjamin Boss looks at the Pruyn Brashear Equitorial telescope, ca. 1930s

With the recent announcement that Dudley will be building an observatory, it seems like a good time to introduce the piece that will be at the heart of that observatory: the Pruyn Brashear Equitorial.  After all, an observatory isn’t much use without a telescope.

The Pruyn is a refracting telescope, which means it is exactly what you think when you hear the word “telescope.”  It is about 14 feet long, with a twelve inch aperture.  It has been with the Dudley since the second observatory was built at South Lake in 1893, making it just a bit over 120 years old.

It has held up well for all that time.  It stayed at South Lake until that observatory was sold to Albany Med in 1965.  It was packed up and stored at a warehouse owned by the New York State Museum until recently.  A few readers may remember that it went on display at the NYS Museum during the seventies.

The Pruyn was named after Robert Hewson Pruyn.  The Pruyn ( usually pronounced “prine”) family is one of the great old dutch families that make up so much of Albany history.  Robert H. Pruyn may be the most famous member, serving as the Minister to Japan during the American Civil War.  He was also, naturally, a member of the Dudley board.

hemenway_albany_high

Director Curtis Hemenway shows the Pruyn to a group of Albany High students. Left to right: Curtis Hemenway, David Shivrick, Martin Lewis, Arnold Patashnick and Harvey Brand, ca. 1957.

The telescope was named in his memory by his two sons, Robert C. and Clarence L. Pruyn.  These two followed in their father’s footsteps as lawyers and politicians, but they’re probably most famous as businessmen running the Embossing Company, one of America’s most successful manufacturers of puzzle, toys and games during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Which means that the Pruyn was purchased with board game money, so to speak.

Brashear refers to the manufacturer, the John A. Brashear Company of Pittsburgh, PA.  An amateur astronomer working in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Brashear went on to become a world renown maker of telescopes and other scientific instruments.

The purchase of an American made telescope represents a major shift in American astronomy.  The first director of the Dudley, Benjamin Gould, made a serious attempt to buy American in the 1850s.  It backfired magnificently.  One important device, called a heliometer, never materialized.  It turns out the man contracted to build the device had never actually seen a heliometer before.  The predecessor to the Pruyn was made by the company of Henry Fitz in New York City, but it wound up being too inaccurate for scientific work. (Somehow that Fitz telescope found its way to the Arunah Hill Natural Science Center.)Fast forward a few decades, and the Dudley was able to purchase a telescope suitable for scientific use, using all American materials and American labor.

During its time at the South Lake observatory, the Pruyn supported the Olcott Meridain Circle, a more specialized telescope made by the German company of Pistor and Martins.  But the main job of the Pruyn was for what you might call “pubic astronomy”.  The Pruyn was an ideal telescope for the average visitor to the observatory, making it useful for special events and regular public viewings.  The Dudley Observatory is a community created observatory, built using funds donated by private citizens from the Capital region, and so it has always tried to serve the community as well as perform research.  With luck, and probably a great deal of effort, we can restore the Pruyn and make it available to the community once again.

Counting Questions: Dudley Observatory FAQ

To start off, I thought I would use this space to answer some of the most common questions that I receive on the exhibit floor:

Where is the Observatory?

Funny story about that. We’re actually an observatory without an observatory.

During the sixties and the space race, Dudley Observatory shifted away from astronomical observation and focused on lab research of things like micrometeorites. At the time, that was where the money was. The shift meant the telescopes went away and the microscopes came out. At that point the observatory was located on the corner of South Lake Ave. and New Scotland, where the Psychiatric Center of Albany Medical College is currently. Lacking a need for the building, Dudley sold it to Albany Med in the late sixties. It burned down in 1970, and you can see photos of this in the Times Union archive. The remains were destroyed and the CDPC was built on the site.

Since then, Dudley has been without an observatory. We still have most of our old telescopes and other equipment, and those are in storage with the miSci collections. We hope to build a small observatory on the greenspace beside the miSci building and reconstruct one of our major telescopes for installation there.

Who was Charles Dudley?

Charles Edward Dudley (1780-1841) was an Albany merchant and politician. He served in the State Senate and the US Senate, and was twice mayor of Albany. His wife, Blandina Bleeker Dudley, survived him and donated a large sum of money towards the building of the Observatory.

Did he have any connection to astronomy?

Supposedly he had an amateur’s interest in astronomy, but it didn’t leave a mark on history. He’s most famous for being a member of Martin Van Buren’s Albany Regency.

The Albany what?

Real quick: when Martin van Buren was elected for the US Senate in 1821, he worried about leaving New York in the hands of his opponents. So he organized a group of friends and allies to keep running things while he went to Washington, and this turned out to be much more effective than anyone probably expected. The group, which quickly included Charles Dudley, voted and organized as a unit and handed out patronage to loyal members. In short, the Regency was America’s first political machine.

What telescopes do you have?

Our major telescope right now is the 12″ refractor, purchased from the company of John A. Brashear in Pittsburgh with money from the Pruyn family. This is the one we’re hoping to set up in a new observatory. We also still have the trunk of our original Meridan Circle, named after the banker Thomas Olcott. This one is damaged and incomplete, but hopefully we can put it on display. Our most famous telescope is the Clarke Comet Seeker, currently on display in the gallery, which has found two comets and an asteroid. We also have several antique brass telescopes, including a Pistor & Martins and two Bardou’s.

What is your connection to Union College?

In the 1870s, both Union and Dudley were part of an attempt to create a full university out of various institutions in Albany, including Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany Law and Albany Med. This federation of institutions still exists, but it isn’t very active. Beyond that, Union Archives and Special Collections houses our collection of rare astronomical texts, including first editions of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

If you have any questions, you are more than welcome to ask them at counting.stars@dudleyobservatory.org, or check out the Dudley Facebook Page.

The All-Cut Come-It

comet seeker displayDr. Rapson put together this display in our Planetarium Gallery.  That’s the Dudley’s Comet Seeker telescope, built by Alvan Clark & Co., along with articles from the Astronomical Journal detailing the two comets that the telescope discovered.  The first was discovered by Dr. Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters, known as C.H.F. Peters for obvious reasons.

In the summer of 1857, Dr. Peters was in charge of the observatory.  The actual director, Benjamin Gould, was away in Cambridge, and Peters was stuck with the unenviable task of running an observatory that was still in the slow, halting stages of being constructed.  Peters was well aware that that the Dudley’s trustees were unhappy with the slow progress of the construction.  The Detroit Observatory in Ann Arbor had been commissioned in 1854, around the same time as the Dudley Observatory, but was almost complete.  Meanwhile, the Dudley Observatory had been inaugurated in August, 1856, but the building was not functional at that point, and a year later it still hadn’t set up its primary telescope.

All Peters had to work with was the Comet Seeker, so he sought comets.  On July 25, 1857, he found one.  In the Astronomical Journal, he announced:

The Comet was found (as astronomers have been notified by Circular) on the evening of July 25, at the Dudley Observatory. If the priority of discovery remains to me, I propose to call it the Olcott Comet, after the very beloved and esteemed name of the distinguished citizen who is identified with the history of the erection of this observatory.

If that last part was a bit obsequious, it was also very shrewd.  Thomas Olcott was the President of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank of Albany, one of the wealthiest banks of the era.  Tremendous amounts of raw goods and farm products flowed through Albany, much of it purchased through loans provided by Olcott’s bank.  Thomas Olcott was also one of the primary movers on the board of Dudley.  Finding a comet and making a big production out of it could go a long way towards proving that the proto-observatory was functional, and placating the trustees.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  Benjamin Gould was on record as opposed to naming comets and asteroids.  The sober Gould thought they should be given an index number and nothing else.  So the “Olcott Comet,” the fourth comet discovered in 1857, should have been Comet 1857-IV.  Having a person who was technically his subordinate go against his wishes made Gould look bad, and his relationship to Peters soured.  When Gould suggested that the name be dropped, his relationship to Olcott and the rest of the board suffered.

Apparently Gould wasn’t the only one unimpressed by Peter’s gesture.  Consider this political cartoon:

 

all cut come it

Showman PETER, “now mein Herr, you shust keep your eye mit der Glass and you shall zee die grnde ALL-CUT-Come-it vich I discovare expressly you to do Honor.
Old Foozle, Pray Doctor, wich is the All-Cut-Come-It? There appear to be two ,
Showman PETER: Shust vich you please mien Herr, either vill answer.”

This cartoon by an unknown artist writing as “Snooks” shows “Showman Peter” (presumably C.H.F. Peters) talking to “Old Foozle” (presumably Thomas Olcott) in an absurd accent (Peters was an immigrant, born in Denmark).  Foozle sees two comets, one labeled “Canal Bank,” the other “Watervliet.”

Unfortunately, the exact scandal that this comments on is now lost to history.  This was during the Panic of 1857, and Olcott’s bank was suffering like all the rest.  Perhaps he had to choose a bank to liquidate?  Regardless, it seems that the artist was less than impressed with Peters.  Just above Foozle is a picture labeled ‘Dudley Observatory’ hanging upside down.