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.

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