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.