History of the Dudley Observatory

The first Dudley Observatory built c. 1854 on Dudley Heights in Albany, New York.

The first Dudley Observatory built c. 1854 on Dudley Heights in Albany, New York.

The Dudley Observatory was chartered by an act of the Legislature of the State of New York in 1852. Its initial funding came from citizens of Albany, New York, with the largest contribution given by Blandina Bleecker Dudley. It was named in honor of her late husband Senator Charles E. Dudley, an Albany merchant and political leader. It is the oldest organization in the U.S. outside of academia and government dedicated to the support of astronomical research

The first Dudley Observatory was constructed on a hill in North Albany between 1852 and 1856. It was dedicated in a major ceremony on August 28, 1856, attended by a number of prominent figures in U.S. science and politics. Edward Everett delivered the oration “On the Uses of Astronomy.” At that time the Observatory’s trustees established a Scientific Council and an alliance with the U.S. government’s Coast Survey aimed at making the Dudley Observatory a major contributor to astronomical research. This effort was to be led by Benjamin Apthorp Gould, the first American to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Unfortunately, a controversy between the trustees and the Scientific Council led to the firing of Gould and the dismissal of the Scientific Council by the Observatory’s trustees in 1858-1859. Nor were the next two directors able to obtain the funding and staff needed for significant astronomical efforts. It was not until the arrival of Lewis Boss as director of the Observatory in 1876 that the Dudley Observatory was able to launch a significant program of research.

Lewis Boss and his son Benjamin Boss directed the Observatory for the next 80 years. In that era the Dudley Observatory’s astronomers achieved world class status in the field of astrometry by their accurate determination of the positions and motions of more than 30,000 stars. They produced two major reference works widely used by astronomers around the world, the Preliminary General Catalog of 6788 Stars (1909), and the General Catalog of 33,343 Stars (1937). This research was supported by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. From 1905 until 1937 the Observatory served as the Department of Meridian Astrometry of the Carnegie Institution. In that capacity, it operated the San Luis, Argentina, Observatory from 1909 to 1913, where precise observations of star positions were made with the Dudley Observatory’s Olcott Meridian Circle. The results of these observations, published as the San Luis Catalog of 15,333 Stars for the Epoch 1910 (1928). When these are combined with the subsequent Albany Catalog of 20,811 Stars for the Epoch 1910 (1931) they form the sole example in the history of astronomy of the precise position and proper motion determination of all stars visible to the unaided eye with a single high precision telescope.

Later view (c. 1950) of the second Dudley Observatory

Later view (c. 1950) of the second Dudley Observatory

Under Lewis Boss, a second Observatory was built on Lake Avenue in southwestern Albany. It was dedicated in 1893, and remained in operation until 1965. Instruments used by the Dudley Observatory’s astronomers include the Olcott Meridian Circle (1857), the Clark “Comet Catcher” telescope (1857), the Transit Telescope (1857), the Fitz Equatorial Telescope (1860) , the Pruyn Equatorial Telescope (1893), and the Frank L. Fullam Radio Telescope (1972) as well as high precision astronomical clocks built by the noted clock makers Riefler of Germany and Fasoldt of Albany. In addition, the Dudley purchased in 1856 a pioneering ancestor of the computer, the Scheutz difference engine, based on an earlier difference engine developed by Charles Babbage. The Scheutz was the first machine used to automate to astronomical calculations. It is now in the Smithsonian Institution.

Other highlights of the Dudley Observatory’s research include the discovery by Lewis Boss of the convergent point on the celestial sphere toward which the members of the Hyades star cluster are moving, an important step in the measurement of star distances, and the discovery by Benjamin Boss of the preferential motion toward one celestial hemisphere of the “fast” stars, those with high speeds relative to the sun. This provided important evidence that the Milky Way galaxy is rotating. The Dudley Observatory also, from 1912 until 1941, published the Astronomical Journal, the oldest astronomical publication in the U.S.

From 1956 to 1976, the Observatory was a world leader in the study of micrometeorites, tiny particles less than one-ten-thousandth of a meter in diameter that bombard the earth from space. During the 1970s, the Dudley Observatory also operated a 100-foot radio telescope at Bolton Landing, New York. Its primary use was to develop an instrument for Fast Fourier Transform spectroscopy.

Since 1976, the Dudley Observatory has focused on providing astronomical educational activities in the Capital Region of New York State and has made its new home in partnership with miSci, the Museum of Innovation & Science in Schenectady where it maintains an outstanding collection of historic scientific instruments, archives, library and rare books.

During the nearly 120 years it carried out research in astronomy and space science Dudley Observatory had been directed by astronomers Benjamin A. Gould (1858); Ormsby McKnight Mitchel (1860-62); George W. Hough (1862-1874); Lewis Boss (1876-1911); Benjamin Boss (1912-1956); and physicist and space scientist, Curtis L. Hemenway 1956-1976.) From 1986 to 2000, the Administrator of the Dudley Observatory was Ralph Alpher, an astrophysicist. M. Colleen Gino was appointed Executive Director of the Dudley Observatory in October of 2002, and Janie Schwab held the post from July, 2004 until July 2013. Elissa Kane then became Interim Executive Director as Dudley and miSci, the Museum of Innovation and Science began an exciting new collaboration.  In September 2015, two years after the Dudley Observatory moved to miSci, the 163-year old astronomy institution and the region’s science center strengthened their existing collaboration into a new strategic partnership with the appointment of Dr. Valerie Rapson, Dudley Observatory Astronomer, with miSci providing administrative support to the Dudley Observatory.

Observatory Founders

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Observatory buildings

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  • Insert text here – The first Dudley Observatory
  • Insert text here – “On Uses of Astronomy” (link provided leads to an unacceptable page – please provide the correct text)

Books & articles about Dudley Observatory or by Dudley staff

Dudley Observatory Astronomers & Administrators

Dudley Artifacts

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Dudley Library & Archives

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