When it was founded in 1831, Wesleyan University listed astronomy as a course given by Prof. Augustus W. Smith, M.A., Professor of Mathematics, who later became President of the University (1852-1857). In 1843 Prof. Smith headed the new Department of Mathematics and Astronomy, and was succeeded by Prof. John M. Van Vleck, M.A., for whom the present observatory is named.

As early as 1832 the Prudential Committee (Trustees) considered construction of an observatory on South College, then called the Lyceum Building, but this was deferred, probably for lack of funds. Several letters to President Fisk in these early years are on file in Olin Library and show his interest in astronomy. One from Elysha Burritt of New Britain, Conn., dated Aug. 14, 1833, refers to a "class book for the study of astronomy" in preparation. Another, from E. P. Tracy of Salem, Conn., dated Nov. 18, 1834, diagrams a proposed modification to the Newtonian reflector, using an "achromatic prismatic lens" instead of a diagonal flat mirror.

In 1835 President and Mrs. Fisk, accompanied by Harvey B. Lane, Class of 1835, went to Europe for a year, partly for the purpose of purchasing a telescope and other scientific equipment for Wesleyan. President Fisk discussed telescopes with Airy at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and in a letter to Augustus Smith tells of a visit to Houghton and Simms in London, where he saw a "beautiful instrument just finished for India" which "Mr. Simms thinks would be all you would want for astronomical purposes". It was so costly (£150) that plans for other instruments (a heliostat and transit) would have to be dropped if Fisk bought it.

FiskFinally, in April, 1836, President Fisk and Mr. Lane obtained the 6-inch refractor from M. Lerebours, telescope maker in Paris, and got the Director of the Paris Observatory, M. Arago, to test it. On May 2, 1836 Fisk paid 6,000 French francs for the telescope, and 960 francs for shipping it to Middletown. Arago, who provided a "certificate" of his approval (on file in Olin Library), also advised Lane to purchase a magnetic compass, since "accurate magnetic observations in the U.S.A. are more needed than any other". In a letter dated June 5, 1836, Augustus Smith expressed his delight at the purchase of the telescope and said that the "magnetic instrument will be very desirable". On August 15 he wrote: "The telescope arrived about the middle of July and I think it equal to that at New Haven. The focal distance is less and the aperture greater".

It was one of the first astronomical telescopes in New England, and had a visual doublet of 6 inches aperture and focal length 7 feet in a brass tube mounted equatorially on a teak wood stand. Other early refractors in the United States included:

  • 1828 Yale University, New Haven, Conn.: a 5-inch
  • 1840 Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.: the Dana 2 3/4-inch and Shortt 4-inch
  • 1845 Cincinnati, Ohio: a 12-inch
  • 1846 Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.: a 15-inch

In addition, refractors were installed at the U. S. Military Academy in 1841, and at the U. S. Naval Observatory and Georgetown University in 1844.

Apparently Wesleyan's purchase of a planetarium in 1836 (a "one-ton Columbian Orrery with 36-foot zodiac and 45-foot diameter orbit of Neptune, containing 500 cog wheels principally of brass") somewhat overshadowed the Fisk Telescope, which was not mounted until 1838 in a nine-foot octagonal wooden building behind Prof. Smith's house on Cross Street near the present location of Scott Physics Lab. For 12 years the 6-inch remained in service in this shed, used by students and faculty, until 1866 when the building had to be moved to construction of Rich Hall. At this point the telescope was removed from service, and the observatory shed was turned in to a chicken coop by "Mr. Tuit near Indian Hill". This was the fate of Wesleyan's first observatory, and it became the brunt of jokes around campus for more than a decade afterwards.

The 6-inch telescope reappears in the spring of 1868 when the second observatory was built on the roof of the old Boarding House on Foss Hill. This observatory was cylindrical in form and became known as "The Observatory". The building was then referred to as Observatory Hall, or O.H. This same year Professor John M. Van Vleck secured a twelve-inch refractor from the Alvan Clark Company and the 6 inch was retired in January of 1869. It appears that the 6-inch was rarely used in the 56 years between 1869 and 1925, when it would once again put into service.

Obs_Hall"The Observatory"
Observatory Hall, circa 1868

A fund was started by Mr. Joseph Van Vleck, brother of Professor Van Vleck, in 1903 to build a new observatory. He gave $25,000 to start the fund and after good investments and additional gifts from other members of the Van Vleck family, they had enough to pay for the new observatory and its equipment. Ground was broke in 1914 for the Van Vleck Observatory.


Original floor plans for VVO.

VVO Plan

The new observatory was primarily designed with teaching in mind and its principal instrument would be a 20-inch refractor with a focal length of 27.6 feet to be used for demonstration and research. Dr. Frederick Slocum became the first Professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan, and Director of the new Van Vleck Observatory when it was first opened for classwork and observations in the fall of 1915. The official dedication of the observatory was on June 16, 1916.

VVO OldThe glass for the lens of the 20-inch telescope was ordered by the Alvan Clark Company in July of 1914 from Schott & Company of Germany. The outbreak of World War I delayed the delivery of the glass and in 1920 the order was renewed and the glass was delivered later that year. The glass disks were 21 inches in diameter and because of the very good quality out to the edges, the lens had a clear aperture of 20 inches instead of the 18.5 inches that had been originally planned."The lens was ground by Mr. C.A.R. Lundin of the Alvan Clark Company, and was installed in the Warner and Swasey mounting in July, 1922." The telescope saw "first light" that same year.

The 20-inch refractor has been used intensively over the years by Professors Frederick Slocum, Carl L. Stearns, Heinrich K. Eichhorn and Arthur R. Upgren, assisted by Bancroft Sitterly, James Gibson, Ed Weis, and Roger Grossenbacher. Used sometimes as a teaching device, the telescope has been primarily a research tool taking star field images for stellar parallax measurements.

When Frederick Slocum was director of the observatory from 1914 to 1944, he brought back use of the old 6-inch telescope, most notably for two solar eclipses. For the solar eclipse of 1925, the 6-inch was mounted on the 20-inch along with several other instruments, and was used to take photos during the eclipse. A team of astronomers from Wesleyan traveled to Center Conway, NH for the 1932 solar eclipse, and included the 6-inch in the equipment hauled along, but due to unstable mounting the use of the telescope was unsuccessful.

In 1959, the Trustees provided $20,700, with matching funds coming from the National Science Foundation, to establish a computing center for the use of the Astronomy, Chemistry, Economics, Math, and Russian Departments. A Royal McBee LGP-30 electronic computer was installed in the basement of the Van Vleck Observatory on 17 Februrary 1960. One of the first desk-sized computers, the LGP-30 had a 4096 word memory, where each word was 31 Bits (including a sign bit, totalling a little less than 16 kilobytes) and operated at a clock speed of 120 kHz.

1959 also saw the director Carl Stearns reinstate the 6-inch telescope for student use and had it remounted in a new small dome on the west end of VVO. In 1967, guided by Professor Art Upgren, the telescope was renovated, the old teakwood mounting was restored, and it was dedicated as the Wilbur Fisk Telescope on May 23, 1968. The Fisk was retired to its current display position in the main entrance of the observatory in 1986 by Dr. William Herbst. When previously this telescope had been stored away in the basement, it was now displayed in a place fitting of its historical importance.

DomeIn 1971 Van Vleck Observatory acquired the 24 inch Perkin reflector which is in the dome separate from the building on the west end. Manufactured for Mr. Richard S. Perkin in 1966 by Boller and Chivens, a subsidiary of the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, this telescope was donated to Wesleyan by the Perkin family. The Perkin Reflector has a primary mirror 24 inches in diameter and a focal length of 27 feet. Grants from the Perkin Fund, Research Corporation and the National Science Foundation helped us automate and equip the telescope. A CCD detector for recording images digitally was obtained in 1991 through a grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation. The Perkin telescope is currently used for departmental research, including many senior and graduate student theses,  primarily studying supernovae and variable stars, known as T Tauri stars, in a program directed by Professor Herbst, and exoplanet transits in a program directed by Professor Redfield. 

We will fill in more details of our history as time permits so stay tuned.

Much of the above was taken from the introductory sections of "Publications of the Van Vleck Observatory" Volume I, Stellar Parallaxes, and from a display in Van Vleck Observatory by Debra Herbst. Some of the information about the Fisk Telescope was obtained from a pamphlet written by Thornton Page, Director of Van Vleck Observatory from 1960-1971, with special note:
Most of the historical material for this article provided by John W. Spaeth, University Archivist
Additional material by Roy Kilgard

Directors of Van Vleck Observatory

1914 - 44: Frederick Slocum

1944 - 60: Carl L. Stearns

1960 - 71: Thornton L. Page

1973 - 93: Arthur R. Upgren

1993 - 99: William Herbst

1999 - 2004: John Salzer

2004 - 2008: William Herbst

2008 - 2011: Ed Moran

2011 - 2014: William Herbst

2014 - 2017: Ed Moran

2017 - 2020: Seth Redfield

2020 - 2023: Ed Moran

2023 - present: Meredith Hughes

Some Early Famous Visitors to Van Vleck Observatory

1916 George E. Hale - Pasadena, CA

1921 Anne J. Cannon - Cambridge, Mass

1921 Harlow Shapley - Cambridge, Mass

1924 Jan Oort - Leiden, Holland

1928 W. de Sitter - Leiden, Holland

1932 Edwin Hubble - Mt. Wilson Observatory

1936 S. Chandresekhar - Trinity College, Cambridge, England

1936 G.P. Kuiper - Harvard & McDonald Observatory