Observatory a ‘star’ in AU’s history


















By Bryan Clark, Communications Intern

As Alfred University (AU) celebrates the 150th anniversary of astronomy studies and having an observatory on campus, David DeGraff, professor of physics, reflects on the University’s astronomical tradition.

The current laboratory for the skies “is a unique observatory,” says DeGraff. “Getting students involved in astronomy is something we can do on campus. It’s not something you have to go away to do.”

“It’s important for any institution to maintain a tie with its roots,” adds David Toot, another physics professor and director of the Stull Observatory.

To mark that connection, Toot says the observatory will host public open houses on clear Friday nights in September and hopes to hold an event in late September or early October to commemorate the anniversary, adding he enjoys watching people marvel at what they see through the observatory’s telescopes.

DeGraff says he has fond memories of students viewing rarely seen “white dwarfs” (the stars), Saturn, and naming an asteroid a student discovered in honor of the late Scott Weaver, a geology professor who taught physics and astronomy classes. DeGraff says he hopes students will continue to use the observatory’s automated telescopes for research and awe-inspiring work.

“The number and size of the telescopes is unprecedented on a small college campus,” says DeGraff. “It’s quite a resource. It’s a great set of toys to play with. It’s something I really treasure. It’s the reason I’m here.”

William RogersOpened in 1863 halfway through the American Civil War, the University established an observatory to facilitate instruction in astronomy and perform astronomical work after William A. Rogers and Henry Fitz donated a 9-inch refractor to be housed in the observatory. Rogers offered his wide expertise of astronomical knowledge and donated funds to purchase all of the observatory’s instruments.

“The Fitz” telescope was one of the last telescopes Fitz, an optician, designed before his death in 1865. The observatory, consisting of four parts, stood near Alumni Hall, now occupied by Howell Hall’s kitchen. On June 21, 1898, the Board of Trustees voted to name the facility after Rogers.

“There cannot have been anything more disruptive in American history than the Civil War,” remarked Toot. “Yet they managed to establish an observatory at that time.”

During the first half of the 20th century, interest in astronomy subsided and instructors used the telescope, stored in Seidlin Hall, occasionally in class or recreationally.  In 1936, Professor Fred Ross undertook a project to build a telescope to replace the old refractor, which had “long since degenerated beyond repair.”

“In the early part of the 20th century, (general) interest in the subject lagged,” agreed the late Dr. John Stull in remarks made in 1965.  “There was a tendency to feel that everything it was necessary to know already was known. College and university observatories fell into disuse, including that at Alfred.”

But in the 1950s, Stull had learned of the telescope and started using it in his backyard and on campus.  Then, a few years later students Kathryn Wirth ’62 and Dick Antonius ’61 felt the University should offer an astronomy course.

Antonius met Hal Metzger, a local resident and retired NBC executive, who told him about the old telescope. Together Antonius and Stull searched the Seidlin Hall attic and found not only the Fitz refractor, but also most of the transit instrument. In 1963, the University introduced the course “Introduction to Astronomy and Physics” that attempted to combine astronomy with simple physical laws. One hundred students enrolled in the class.

Then, in 1965 Stull noted, “There has been a re-wakening of interest in astronomy as a result of man’s first steps in exploration of space.”

In 1966, Stull went to then University President M. Ellis Drake with the idea to build an observatory if the University would match his donation.

As a result, the University built the new observatory on a small piece of land next to the soon-to-disappear Theta Chi Pond, purchased from Dean John McMahon. Stull funded the construction with royalties from the “Linear Airtrack,” a physics laboratory apparatus he designed and manufactured for the Ealing Corp of Cambridge, Mass.

In 1969, Stull and the University split the cost with Ealing Corp. on a 16-inch f/11 “Educator” telescope, named after Paul D. Grindle, president of Ealing Corp. and to this day one of only two AU telescopes not designed and constructed in the Physical Science machine shop.

The early 1970s saw more improvements, with the rebuilding of the Fitz refractor and the construction of a 20-inch f/5.5 Newtonian telescope, named “The Metzger” after Hal Metzger, replacing the Cave telescope, which the Corning Astronomical Society purchased.

Additions and improvements continued throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

Stull took a sabbatical during the 1975-76 academic year spring semester and used the time to design and construct a 14-inch f/6 Newtonian telescope, named for I.E. “Ole” Olson, late president of Ash Manufacturing, who donated a used (but pristine) 14-foot dome for the instrument. He later donated half of a 16-foot dome for the Austin-Fellows telescope; the Austin-Fellows telescope was computerized in 1996 with funds from the National Science Foundation.

In the mid-1970s Hilah Iaulus ’77 and a fellow student did a study of sunspots, using an aperture mask and 4 X 5’’ camera back attached to the Grindle telescope. It was named for M. Richard “Rich” Rose, then AU president.

In 1985, Stull went to then Provost S. Gene Odle and then President Edward G. Coll, Jr. for money to a design a 29-inch telescope. In 1993, Coll and the Board of Trustees named the observatory in Stull’s honor.

One of the last significant events involving AU’s observatory occurred this century, on Aug. 28, 2003, when hundreds of people lined up to get a glimpse of Mars during its "closest encounter" to earth in recorded history.

3 responses to “Observatory a ‘star’ in AU’s history”

  1. Seth Lefferts - '75 Says:
    The observatories were one of the reasons that my education at Alfred was so complete and exciting. Another reason was Dr. John Stull.

    Thank you for this article.
  2. Richard Antonius Says:
    Brought back a lot of memories.
    I helped john work on the scope and pour the concrete pad in his back yard.
    Spent some winter evenings freezing using the scope when there were no heat wave distortions.
    John was a brilliant man and a friend
  3. Joseph Baird Says:
    As the "student" in the picture above, I have only wonderful memories of John. I had helped that spring and summer with the scope and then the building. In the fall of '76, the school had that publicity still taken for a press release. I still have the leather jacket (and the long hair...)

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