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HUV 1210

Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory, 1860-1964: an inventory

Harvard University Archives

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Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: HUV 1210
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Title: Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory, 1860-1964
Date(s): 1860-1964
Quantity: 1 cubic feet (207 photographs)
Abstract: The Harvard College Observatory was established in 1839 when, after decades of attempts to develop an observatory, the Harvard Corporation hired William Cranch Bond, a Boston clockmaker, as the Astronomical Observer to the University. In 1844, the University moved the equipment to the main building at a site now known as Observatory Hill that is fifty feet higher in elevation than the rest of Cambridge. The Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory provides a visual record of Harvard University's historically renowned research institution for astronomical research, as well as its grounds and surroundings, from 1860 to 1964. The 207 images include photograph prints and an instrument schematic. Print formats include albumen prints, collodion prints, collotype prints, gelatin silver prints, and cyanotype prints.

Acquisition information:

These images were acquired by the Harvard University Archives from the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth century.

Processing Information:

This finding aid was created by Amanda Sherman in June 2016.
Description of the Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory, 1860-1964, was supported by the Harvard Library's Hidden Collection initiative.

Researcher Access:

Open for research.

Online access:

All of the images have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Preferred Citation:

Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory, 1860-1964. HUV 1210, Harvard University Archives.

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Historical Note

The Harvard College Observatory was established in 1839 when, after decades of attempts to develop an observatory, the Harvard Corporation hired William Cranch Bond, a Boston clockmaker, as the Astronomical Observer to the University. His personal astronomical equipment was transferred to the Dana House (now the Dana-Palmer House), where the observatory was housed until 1843. Scholars and students at Harvard University had studied astronomy since the seventeenth century, but it wasn't until a large comet sparked public interest in 1843 that donors began to give funds to build an observatory. A bequest from Edmund Phillips provided $100,000 toward the construction of a new observatory, and President Josiah Quincy secured $25,730 from ninety-four donors that year, with Daniel Sears pledging $5,500. That same year, Harvard placed an order for a fifteen-inch diameter lens from Merz and Mahler of Munich to build their own Great Refractor telescope. In 1844, the University moved the equipment to the main building at a site now known as Observatory Hill that is fifty feet higher in elevation than the rest of Cambridge.
The main building was designed as a Palladian scheme, with a center section and two side wings. The center section, which has a Greek Revival entrance and housed the observatory and was named Sears Tower, and the east wing, which served as the director's residence, were completed in 1843, while the west wing containing a library and classrooms was completed in 1851. Several sheds and detached telescope domes were built around this main building over the years. Sears Tower was built around a granite pier that serves as a support structure for the Great Refractor telescope. The pier is topped by an eleven ton granite block that supports the telescope mount. The telescope itself is a twenty foot tapered wooden tube with a fifteen-inch lens, and it matched the telescope at the Poulkovo Observatory in Russia as largest in the world at the time. On top of the observatory is a mobile, thirty-foot dome that can turn to face the section of the sky to be observed on a given night. Using the telescope, Bond and his son, George P. Bond, discovered the eighth moon of Saturn and observed the planet's innermost ring for the first time. J. A. Whipple took the first ever daguerreotype photograph of a star when he photographed Vega, and an early photograph of the double star, Mizar and Alcor, was taken with the Great Refractor. The telescope was in regular use for seventy-five years, and is now only used for public observatory nights, student projects, and special research projects.
When Edward Charles Pickering was appointed director of the Observatory in 1877, he established a photographic program which heavily used the Great Refractor. The program was funded in 1886 by Anna Draper, widow of Henry Draper, who was an established physician and amateur astronomer. The project, called the Henry Draper Memorial, focused on both the northern and southern hemispheres, and an observatory station was constructed in Peru for the purpose of studying the southern hemisphere. The project produced a collection of 500,000 glass plate photographs, which comprises twenty-five percent of the world's total astronomical plates and is the only collection to cover both hemispheres. A Photographic Library was built in 1892 to house the glass plate photographs, and when that library was full, an addition was built in 1904. A Georgian Revival brick building designed by Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbot was constructed in 1931 to provide more photograph storage space.
With new technologies being developed, Pickering realized it was possible to begin photographing light patterns around stars and to collect data based on those photographs. He convinced the Corporation to hire women to work as "computers" to identify and catalogue the spectra of the stars in the photographs, as well as to carry out astronomical calculations. Over the life of the project, eighty women identified 400,000 stars, and some of the women made important contributions to the field of astronomy. Annie Jump Cannon, the first women to be elected an officer of the American Astronomical Society, developed a classification scheme for dividing stars into spectral classes that is still used today and cataloged 350,000 stars. Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury both worked on classification schemes that were precursors to Cannon's scheme, and Henrietta Leavitt Swan developed a law to calculate stellar distances.
In the 1950s, plans emerged to demolish the original wings of the main observatory building and build new, larger wings. In 1954, the west wing was demolished and an International Style brick building designed by W. P. Hooper was constructed. The east wing was replaced in 1960 with two brick L-shaped buildings designed by Griswold, Boyden, Wylde and Ames, which were similar in appearance to the west wing. The last new building, the Perkin Building, was constructed in 1970 and designed by the Cambridge Seven Associates.
The observatory established a long relationship with the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory in 1955 when its headquarters moved to Cambridge with encouragement from Donald Menzel, the director of the Harvard College Observatory. In 1973, a joint research center between Harvard and Smithsonian was founded and is known as the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

References

Arrangement

The Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory has a legacy arrangement reflecting over 100 years of interfiling individual photographs of the structure from many sources into one collection. The images are arranged into twenty-eight folders, with the photographs loosely arranged in chronological order. Folders 1 to 14 are in Box 1, and Folders 15 to 28 are in Box 2.This collection is part of the Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Views, in which Archives staff compiled images, whether acquired individually or removed from larger collections, and arranged them in categories based on locations, buildings, or landscape features for ease of reference.

Scope and Content

The Photographic views of the Harvard College Observatory provides a visual record of Harvard University's historically renowned research institution for astronomical research, as well as its grounds and surroundings, from 1860 to 1964. The 207 images include photograph prints and an instrument schematic. Print formats include albumen prints, collodion prints, collotype prints, gelatin silver prints, and cyanotype prints. Some photographs were taken by noted architectural photographer F. S. Lincoln and architecture historian Kenneth Conant, Jr.
Exterior photographs show the Harvard College Observatory and the grounds from a variety of angles. Images show the original main building, including Sears Tower, the directors' residence, and its two telescope domes, one housing the Great Refractor fifteen inch telescope and the other housing a twelve inch polar telescope. Other images depict the buildings that replaced the wings of the main building, including an architectural sketch of the 1954 addition. Images also show the other buildings of the complex, including the observatory's Photographic Library, several detached telescope buildings and domes, and sheds, as well as an outdoor twelve inch horizontal telescope. Some images show the unveiling of a newly designed telescope-camera built by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation in 1951 and a Perkin-Elmer employee loading film into the camera. These include images of the construction of the Photographic Library, its addition, and some of the telescope buildings. Images of the grounds include a rose garden, pine trees, the driveway to the observatory, a view of Cambridge from the top of the observatory hill, and a tree-lined road adjacent to the observatory.
Interior photographs show the telescopes, equipment, and rooms of the Harvard College Observatory, including some located in Harvard's observatory station in Peru and possibly California and Colorado. Telescopes and equipment included are the fifteen inch Great Refractor telescope, a twelve inch meridian photometer, the twenty-four inch Bruce photographic telescope, the eleven inch Draper telescope, the sixteen inch Metcalf telescope, the Agassiz telescope, a twenty-eight and twenty-four inch reflector telescope, a sixty inch telescope, an eight inch photographic doublet telescope, meteor cameras, clocks, and celestial globes. Other images show the observatory's work spaces, including the stacks of the Photographic Library, laboratories, office spaces full of books and charts, and chairs and switches in the telescope buildings and domes. A series of photographs taken by Kenneth Conant, Jr., show the drawing room, library, and work room of the director's residence.
The collection also contains photographs of the observatory staff. Images from the late nineteenth century show the "Harvard Computers," a group of women working at the observatory, including Mary Palmer Draper, Antonia Maury, and Williamina Fleming, as well as the director, Edward Charles Pickering. A series of 1895 photographs show staff uninstalling the twenty-four inch Bruce telescope from its dome in Cambridge in preparation to move it to Peru. A 1910 photograph shows more Computers, such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Sarah Frances Whiting, Florence Cushman, Williamina Fleming, and Annie Jump Cannon, as well as Director Pickering. Other images show the staff at work repairing equipment, using telescopes, and inspecting a satellite dish in 1957.
Three images show telescopes used during Astronomer Royal of the Royal Observatory George Biddell Airy's expedition to observe the transit of Venus in 1874. Two images show a telescope and photoheliograph set up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and another image shows a portable altazimuth telescope used in the Kerguelen Island station in the southern Indian Ocean.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 June 27.

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