Monday, February 15, 2010

Stull Observatory

Just over twenty years after its start as a school, Alfred University saw the beginning of an astronomy program that would become one of the largest in New York State. However, in the 1860s, many discoveries were yet to be made in the field of astronomy. The earth was still the center of the universe, around which every other planetary body orbited. Space was a field of questions, and space travel? Out of the question.
The university’s first telescope was bought in 1863 by Professor William A Rogers from the instrument maker Henry Fitz, in order to start research on a relatively new astronomical discovery; asteroids. The Fitz refracting telescope contained a series of lenses that bent light, and nine inch aperture- characteristics that made the telescope one of superior quality.
In order to get the program up and running, however, Rogers made donations of both money and equipment, coming to around $4,300. With the money donated, the university built the original observatory, which was located on the same lot where Susan Howell Hall now resides. The observatory began to help develop Alfred University’s social and educational identity: it was a source of pride, and rightly so. The building contained a central dome, containing the main telescope. There were two additions: a class/computing room, and the meridian room, housing a meridian telescope, through which students and observers could track objects across the night sky through the slit in the roof and walls.
The observatory was used in classes and research for a time afterwards, but slowly fell into disrepair after the Civil War; its history is convoluted and confused towards its end. Professor Rogers left Alfred University around 1870 to work at the Harvard Observatory. There is no record of an astronomy class taught until 1896, when a man known as Professor Laforge became the man who taught astronomy at Alfred. From there, the observatory was open until around 1920; with the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1910 came a small surge in interest. By 1925, the main telescope had been removed however, and classes drifted on without use of a telescope until 1929, when classes were discontinued. The building was torn down in 1930, to make way for Howell Hall.
It was relatively easy to allow the astronomy program to fade away by the thirties: its economic value was not widely acknowledged, and its function remained a mystery to many people of that time period. The minds of the people were not focused on the stars until the age of space travel and possibility approached- then, finally, the importance of study, the function of astronomy was able to be communicated to the public. Before the age of possibility, there were few individuals and advocates for the cause, and it was not a part of a culture.
Astronomy did not resurface in Alfred until 1960, at the request of students. A resident recalled that the old Fitz refractor and the meridian telescope had been disassembled and stored in a building on campus: the Hall of Physics, now known as Seidlin Hall. Now aware of their existence, a physics professor (with a PhD in ceramic engineering) by the name of John Stull took them out and reassembled them. For the subsequent years, Stull used the telescopes in various spaces across campus, eventually ending up in his own backyard. Classes, taught with the new appreciation and vigor of John Stull, resumed their place in the catalog by 1963. However, with no definite place of meeting, and a traveling telescope supply, it became apparent that a set space was needed.
John Stull was the answer to that problem yet again. He made a generous donation to the University, on the condition that the university match it “dollar for dollar”. His challenge was accepted, and construction began in 1966. Since the site of the ole observatory was occupied, it was decided to build the new building at the south east end of campus, an area with less light pollution and pedestrian traffic.
For the first few years, the program was the bare bones of what it is today. One professor and two telescopes in the observatory that were suited well for observation only. Neither was good for any form of scientific photography. Since the observatory was one of aluminum and open to the elements, a heated addition to warm the observers was added by 1968.
As the observatory’s identity grew, and the program was once again recognized, more telescopes and new technological advances were added to the University’s collection. The “Ealing Educator”, otherwise known as “the Grindle”, was a new sixteen-inch telescope acquired with the help of Paul Grindle in 1969, and needed yet another dome addition to the building sprawl. Improvements were made through the 70s to the existing telescopes, and four new machines were constructed on campus, in the Alfred University machine shop, two of which remain key players in the astronomical search for knowledge at the university- the 14 inch “Olson”, and the six inch “Rose”, assembled by two students. The collection grew yet again in 1992, when the 32 inch Newtonian “Austin-Fellows” was assembled and completed, marking Alfred University as the location of one of New York State’s two largest telescopes.
Nearly all of the telescopes have been assembled or altered on campus in a labor of exploratory spirit by John Stull, the man who the observatory was dedicated to in 1993. The observatory may seem like a building built from pre-planned and pre-assembled metal. However, it is much more than that for all of those involved. The observatory still stands and offers what it was originally meant to accomplish; a dispersal and growth of knowledge and understanding of this unique and life changing science. The knowledge it imparts on the individuals who pass through improves their understanding, and its value is priceless. Its individual style and infusion of different buildings and donations is a key value of the Astronomy program; innovation. The technologies involved have changed with time, but the function of the Stull observatory has remained the same; exploration, observation, and education.

Works Cited
Horowitz, Gary S. A Sesquicentennial History of Alfred University; Essays in Change. Alfred: Alfred University Press, 1985
"Physics and Astronomy."Alfred University. 13 Feb. 2010 physics

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