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Van Vleck Observatory

StarDate: 
June 15, 2016

When the Van Vleck Observatory was dedicated 100 years ago tomorrow, it included just about everything astronomers and their students might need: a library, a lecture hall, a room for the observatory clocks, and two rooms for computers — young men and women who used pencil, paper, and a mechanical calculator to turn observations into data.

What it didn’t have was its telescope. The glass lens had been ordered from a German company, but when World War I began, the order couldn’t be fulfilled. So the observatory made do with a couple of older, smaller instruments until the 20-inch refractor was completed.

Tomorrow, astronomers and students from Van Vleck and elsewhere will gather on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, to commemorate the observatory’s 100th anniversary.

The observatory is named for John Monroe Van Vleck, an astronomer and mathematician at Wesleyan in the 19th and 20th centuries. His family established a fund to pay for the new observatory. Van Vleck died in 1912, and Wesleyan hired Frederick Slocum, an up-and-comer from Yerkes Observatory, to complete and direct it. Slocum worked with the architect, Henry Bacon — best known for designing the Lincoln Memorial — to create a modern facility that was well adapted to the harsh northeastern climate.

Slocum dedicated the observatory to measuring the distances to the stars. That work and much more continues today — a century later.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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