by Bill Possel
When you think of famous astronomical places, Ohio probably isn’t very high on your list. Yet, there are a few lesser known but quite interesting sites in the Buckeye State that have made significant contributions to the science. One is the home of the late Leslie Peltier, author of Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer, and the other is the Cincinnati Observatory.
Delphos, Ohio is a small, rural town on the north-western side of the state, about 20 miles from Lima. I have read Peltier’s book, Starlight Nights, several times and was fascinated by his experiences. David Levy describes the book as “Many books explain how to observe the sky; Starlight Nights explains why. I have not encountered a single work that comes close to capturing the passion of skywatching.” Peltier lived in Delphos his entire life, from 1900 to 1980. There he made 132,000 variable star observations and discovered 12 comets and 6 nova, most of them with a 6″ telescope.
My Mom lives in Lima (and bought me the book several years ago) so it was an easy to convince her to make the field trip with me. The town has changed very little from when Peltier was alive but much of the surrounding farm land is now housing developments. The Delphos library was well prepared for tourists and had a thick binder of newspaper and magazine articles about Peltier. One thing that struck me was how famous Leslie was in astronomical circles but locally an unknown. Astronomers such as Walter Scott Houston, David Levy and Harlow Shapley came to see him! It wasn’t until late in his life that the town realized they had a famous amateur astronomer in their midst. In front of the library are two markers; one from the Ohio Historical Society and the other from the American Association of Variable Star Observers. His home is on the edge of town and his wife, now 95 years old, still lives there. Unfortunately, his observatory deteriorated over the years and was taken down.
The next stop was my annual pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Observatory. This was my fifth visit but as always, I learned something new. The observatory is located on top of a hill in an older part of town called Mt Lookout. I attended one of their public nights but the weather didn’t cooperate. So instead we had a wonderful lecture and tour from the staff.
The observatory was founded by Ormsby McKnight Mitchel (who later discovered the “Mountains of Mitchel” on Mars) in 1842. He was a professor and generated local interest in astronomy through a series of lectures. The Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS) was formed by Mitchel and 300 “shareholders” who helped fund the new telescope. Mitchel had the observatory building constructed and bought a 12 inch objective lens from the famous physicist, Fraunhofer of Munich. It was originally intended to be for another telescope at the Czar’s observatory in Pulkova, Russia, but when Fraunhofer died before the lens was finished, the Czar was no longer interested in having it. Mitchel heard about the lens and worked a deal with Fraunhofer’s company to purchase it. This lens was later refigured to 11 inches and the refractor’s tube shortened. The telescope was built by Merz und Mahler and is the oldest telescope still in use in the US.
One historic tidbit is that the scope made one of the observations which confirmed the discovery of Neptune. The story is that Mitchel’s wife made the observation and the report was telegraphed to the Berlin Observatory. The 160+ year old telescope tube is still the original ash wood, veneered with mahogany, and in excellent condition. Instead of baffles, the wood tube tapers from 11 inches at the upper end to a couple inches at the eyepiece. In 1904 another observatory building was added and the new owners, the University of Cincinnati, purchased a 16 inch Alvin Clark & Sons. During the 1900’s both telescopes were active in minor planet research and public education.travel
Today the Cincinnati Observatory Center, a partnership between the university, the observatory’s neighborhood residents, and the local amateur astronomers, manages the buildings and grounds. These magnificent telescopes are still active today with classes for local K-12 schools and amateurs giving public viewing sessions. Also, the Friends of the Observatory and the Cincinnati Astronomical Society are working to develop techniques to use the scopes for variable star measurements and extrasolar planet search.
The University of Cincinnati continues to fund the observatory but the center hopes to run operations independently within the next five years. The local community and the amateurs seemed determined to keep this going and I believe the “O” will continue to inspire future astronomers for years to come. If you’re ever in the area, make sure you visit it.
For more information, their website is http://www.cincinnatiobservatory.org/