Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia (UVA)
The McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s dream of an active astronomy program at the university. It was built with a gift from Leander McCormick, of mechanical reaper fame, in 1882-1884. It was the largest refracting telescope in America at the time and is still the tenth largest such telescope in the world. Between 1915 and the early 1990s, it was used to calculate distances of a quarter of the stars whose distances have been calculated. Today, research observations have moved to a different observatory, but the McCormick facilities remain fully operational and are used for introductory and public programs.
Backstory and Context
An active astronomy program was part of Thomas Jefferson’s original dream for the University of Virginia; he went as far as suggesting that a starscape be painted on the inside of the famous rotunda (this vision has been realized in recent years by use of projectors). Jefferson may have even built the first observatory in the United States when he constructed one in 1823 inside a house on UVA’s campus near Monore Hill. The university bought land—called Observatory Mountain, now renamed Mt. Jefferson—for another observatory in 1825. One was constructed in 1828; however, it was never completely finished or used and was demolished in 1859. Even though yet another small observatory was built near Monroe Hill in 1830, university administrators had no interest in developing an astronomy program until at least the 1860s.
Leander McCormick, of the McCormick mechanical reaper family and Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, began planning to donate what he hoped would be the largest telescope in the world to a university in his home state of Virginia in 1870. Having grown up in Rockbridge County, he first reached out to Washington College (which would become Washington and Lee University the next year). He also made an offer to the University of Virginia. There is some controversy over what happened next. W&L began planning and fundraising for the telescope, while McCormick continued to talk with UVA. The project was interrupted by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burnt most of McCormick’s properties and factories, and the Panic of 1873. Nevertheless, he remained committed to the telescope project, and chose to donate it to UVA in 1877. W&L administrators and Lexington residents, however, continued to operate under the assumption that they were receiving the telescope for some time. McCormick had made it a condition of his $68,000 gift that the receiving school raise a matching trust to pay staff and the remaining cost of an observatory building. His understanding, communicated to W&L in a letter sent later in 1877, was that only UVA could afford it. The telescope, despite protests from W&L, went to UVA, which was able to raise $75,000, including a $25,000 gift from William Vanderbilt.
McCormick ordered the device, a refracting telescope with a 26-inch lens, from Alvan Clark and Sons. They had produced a similar instrument for the US Naval Observatory a few years earlier and later manufactured what is still the largest refractory telescope in the world. The Romanesque Revival observatory building was designed by Wilson Brothers & Company. The unique dome, which is forty-five feet in diameter, was patented and built by Wilson and Swasey; Scientific American praised the design for its “ease of motion.” Construction—atop Observatory Mountain/Mt. Jefferson—began in 1882 and was completed in 1884. The observatory was dedicated on April 13th, 1885. At the time, it was the largest telescope in the United States and the second largest in the world (it is currently the tenth largest in the world).
A Queen Anne-style house for the observatory director, now known as the Alden House, was built in 1882-83 and still stands at the bottom of Mt. Jefferson. It was split into apartments in the 1970s and closed in 2004. An addition was built onto the observatory in 1930 with more classrooms and offices; another addition was completed in 1972. A much smaller observatory, equipped with an astrograph, was built nearby in 1934.
From 1914 until the early 1990s, the main telescope was used to measure stellar distances; by the end of the project, twenty-five percent of all measured star distances had been calculated using the McCormick telescope. Beginning in 1934, university astronomers used the astrograph to catalog nearby red dwarf stars according to the radiation they absorbed and emitted using spectroscopy. This data is still used in current astronomical research. As light pollution from Charlottesville began to increase, the university moved most of its research to a new observatory at Fan Mountain. Today, the McCormick Observatory is used for introductory and public programs; it is fully functioning with mostly original hardware and furnishings.
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