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Friday, May 29, 2015

Telescope Identification

(I seem to be going off-topic more and more, but any research I end up doing on history is basically an off-shoot (or sidetrack or zig-zag) of my typography research, so it might as well go here.)

Slate published a great story about some brothers from the late 19th century in New Hampshire who wrote a series of books set in a fictional universe (they had no TV or Internet back then so they were forced to do something creative I suppose).  Someone discovered their books years later and there is now an online archive at Amherst College.  At any rate, one of the things they created for their fictional universe was this telescope.

Nelson brothers drawing, likely from early 1890s.
"The Great Monarch telescope at Picnic City B.C. [a town in their fictional world] is mounted already for shipment to N.P. to be set up under a solid steel roof on top of the great tower at Allenstown the great foundation upon which the telescope rests is made of the best B.C. Granite and Marble"
As it happens I work at the Harvard College Observatory (for the Smithsonian, not Harvard), where we have the Harvard Great Refractor from 1847, the largest(-ish) telescope in its day (bad timing between lens grinding and telescope construction meant we didn't quite get to be the largest) at 15 inches diameter (it's about 19 feet long I believe; all sizes given hereafter will be diameter in inches so assume the length is a similar size in feet).  I have seen this telescope many times and even acted as tour guide in a pinch.  I also have the privilege of using a 1912 Clark nine-inch telescope here from time to time.  So I knew from my exposure to these telescopes that this imaginary telescope seemed very detailed and realistic, and wondered what their inspiration was.  Even their text was very accurate, the appropriate use of the word "Great", the description of the granite and marble tower on which to mount the telescope, and (to some degree) the steel dome all rang true.  So I set out to figure out if there was any telescope back then that looked just like this.

After looking at dozens of telescopes, and pulling my hair out a bit, the answer is that the inspiration is almost certainly the U.S. Naval Observatory's 26-inch telescope, installed in 1873, and itself a record holder for the largest telescope in the world for about seven years.

U.S. Naval Observatory 26-inch Equatorial Refractor.

The brick pier (the permanent "stand" for the telescope), is somewhat distinctive, as most top quality telescopes used either solid marble or steel piers.  The ladder on the side is quite distinctive too, as others have stairs or spiral stairs or nothing fixed there at all.  The shape of the mounting bracket on top of the pier is also very similar.  Even the wheels that the dome sits on are somewhat distinctive in their spacing (and in being there at all, and visible).  But the real clincher is the split arched door panels that access a space in the pier.  I haven't found any other telescope anywhere with this feature. I can only assume that space was for the clockwork mechanism used to keep the telescope rotating in synch with the earth so the stars wouldn't drift out of view.  Such mechanisms were completely standard equipment, and sometimes inside the pier, other times on the outside.

It was a bit harder than it should have been to find this telescope, because in 1896 the Naval Observatory moved the telescope to a more remote location away from the foggy river, and replaced this pier with one that was inspired by the record-setting 36 inch James Lick telescope from 1888.  That telescope featured a movable floor that could be raised or lowered to match the height of the bottom of the telescope regardless of the angle.  The Navy's new dome copied this movable floor, and the new pier looks much like the Lick telescope's pier.

Most images of the Navy 26-inch show the new pier from 1896, very different from the original.
Image from Scientific American,  July 1896.
It is notable that the new location was commissioned in 1891 and a "steel" dome was ordered to house the telescope, although this may have only meant a steel frame, which would be more typical.  Depending on when they wrote this description, the Nelson brothers may have heard of these plans to move to a new steel dome, and that may have been part of their inspiration.  (By the way, the Lick Telescope was almost the end of the line for refractors.  The Yerkes telescope is the only one to beat it, in 1897, at 40 inches, a record that stands to this day.  The Yerkes also featured the same movable floor design, and the pier looks like a brother of the Lick and Naval telescope piers.  The difficulty of making lenses this large, together with improvements in stabilizing large mirror designs, meant the astronomy community switched to reflector telescopes for their ever larger designs.  The current record for reflectors is now 10.4 meters, or for comparison purposes, 409 inches in diameter.  Reflectors also can be extremely short relative to their diameter, hardly longer than they are wide, whereas a 19th century refractor this diameter would have to be 300-500 feet long.)

I don't know if this telescope was mounted on a tower.  But the Naval Observatory's best telescope from 1844 was mounted as shown below.  Likewise, the Great Refractor here at Harvard is similarly mounted on a tower built inside a building (although it isn't as tall, and from the outside you'd never think of calling it a tower).  The tower provides a stable base all the way to the bedrock, to prevent telescope movement.  It also provides additional height to make sure the telescope clears any nearby trees or other obstructions.

"Tower" used to support the Navy's best telescope in 1944.  Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1874.

With the identification made, I wondered what their inspiration might be.  It is possible that they were able to visit the telescope in Washington D.C. but I don't know how much, or even if, they travelled.  I didn't find any satisfactory answer, but I did find several different drawings of this telescope, which is basically why I'm writing this blog.  So, preamble over, here are some popular depictions I found of just this one telescope.


I should first note that I can only tell you the date where I found these images.  This is not necessarily the date when the image was created, as later publications often borrowed or stole images from earlier publications.  This image from "American Observatories" in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, volume 30 (1890) is clearly a reproduction of the photograph near the top of this article, which I don't have a date on, but I believe was taken in 1873 or 1874.

From Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine, 1888
This image, from a different Frank Leslie publication, Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine from 1888, is frankly horrible.  The scale is off, and the details don't quite match the real telescope.  I can only wonder if it was reproduced from older pre-construction drawings of the telescope.  The Nelson brothers' drawing, while less tidy, is much more accurate than this one so I tend to believe this was not their inspiration.  On the other hand, it is from the same angle, and the telescope position on the mount is the same.

From Johnson's New Universal Cyclopaedia, 1880

This image from Johnson's New Universal Cyclopaedia: A Scientific and Populary Treasury of Useful Knowledge in 1880 is a better depiction of the telescope.  It also matches the telescope position and point of view the Nelson Brothers drew, but I think it differs too much in details to really be their inspiration.

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1874
This image from an article called "Observatories in the United States" from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, volume 48, May 1874 is also very similar to the photograph I have.  Not quite as similar as the previous drawing found in 1890, but similar enough that I still think it is likely linked to the photograph, and it is the reason why I think the photo dates back this far.

It's hard to judge exactly where they were exposed to information on this telescope.  It's possible they had multiple sources available.  It's entirely likely that I haven't found all the images that were floating around in their day.  It is clear though that there were plenty of popular depictions available.  This is possibly related to one of my favorite topics, the Linotype.  As much as I love to talk about its typographic shortcomings, the revolution brought about by this machine made newspapers four times longer, and made cheap magazines and books available to everyone.  From what I've read, the Nelson brothers did their work within the first decade of the Linotype's existence.  Was this too soon after the invention to be related?  Or did our culture change that quickly?

One other interesting thing I noticed in all of this is that the illustrators never seem to be credited.  Some of their depictions are awful, but others are amazingly detailed and beautiful.  There's a fantastic drawing of the Lick Telescope that puts any modern steampunk artwork to shame, and which I finally managed to find a high-resoution scan.  It's signed "E. Steinmetz", and yet I can find no sign anywhere of who this person is.  I'd love to see more of his or her work.

In the meantime, look for future blogs on QWERTY keyboard layout, and more on the Tic-Tac-Toe machine.  And someday I'll get back to the subject of sentence spacing.


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