A Science Not Earthbound: A Brief History of Astronomy at Carleton College
This content is excerpted from A Science Not Earthbound (1988), a short book by former Carleton archivist Mark A. Greene
“Few there are who realize that Carleton has on its campus an observatory which is nationally known for the work it has done for the advancement of astronomical knowledge.”– 1927 editorial in The Carletonian
Still fewer there are today — at Carleton or elsewhere — who realize the historical importance of the silver domes of Goodsell Observatory and the College’s astronomy program. Goodsell and the activities it housed contributed greatly to the early self-confidence of an otherwise average young school, inspiring student doggerel and the naming of the student annual. Indeed, astronomy played no small part in bringing attention and recognition to the young prairie college in Northfield, Minnesota. Most importantly, the observatory and the notable astronomers who directed it played a substantial role in the history of astronomy in the United States.
From the 1870s until the Second World War the Carleton observatory was among the best and most prominent in the United States. It set time for all the major railroads from Chicago to Seattle. It published the leading astronomical journals in the country. It was home to one of the nation’s first state weather services. Its astronomers published articles in both popular and scientific magazines. Its celestial photographs were widely sought.
By the 1930s, giant reflecting telescopes in the Western mountains had irrevocably superseded the smaller coastal and prairie instruments of the East and Midwest. But even without global name recognition, the astronomy program at Carleton has remained vital. From the earliest days, its central purposes have included, of course, excellent undergraduate instruction. The advanced research of the faculty has been a way to involve upper-level students in the rigors and complexities of astronomical science. Moreover, from the start the astronomers at Goodsell have been keenly interested in educating the broader public-through lectures, viewing nights, and other community service activities.
These goals have not only survived Goodsell’s decline as a prominent research observatory, they have been revitalized. As Carleton College has become a national institution, the astronomy program has not only kept pace, it has kept a unique place.
The roots of this largely forgotten story lie not solely in the founding of Carleton College in 1866, but also in the organization of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society in 1842. The society, founded by Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, was composed of townspeople from all walks of life, who subscribed and solicited money to erect an observatory. It was the first serious attempt to combine leading scientific work with a program of public outreach and education.
In 1846, Mitchel went a step farther and published “the first popular Astronomical periodical ever attempted…in any language,” in order to inform the intelligent and interested layperson “with regard to the primary and fundamental truths of Astronomy.” The publication was named The Sidereal [i.e., Star] Messenger – a literal translation of the title of the first work based on telescopic observations, Galileo’s Nuncius Sidereus. Mitchel’s journal lasted only two years, abandoned so that he could devote more time to his other duties. In 1882, however, a new version of The Sidereal Messenger appeared, at Carleton College, where it was published privately by the director of the Carleton College Observatory.
Like its predecessor, this second Messenger proclaimed that “There are other public interests to serve besides those that are mainly theoretical, or professional; for there are persons, not a few, in every vocation of life, that have a love for the elements of this great science….” It was, as its predecessor had been, the only popular journal of astronomy in the world; for three years it was the only, and for its entire run was the most influential and successful, astronomical journal in the United States. And like its predecessor, the new Messenger was published at an observatory which was committed both to serious scientific research and to the introduction of the elements of astronomy to a broad range of people.
When Carleton began publishing its scientific periodical, the College’s astronomy program was already well-established and well-known for an even more popular and pragmatic venture. The director of the observatory was fast on his way to creating one of the two largest and best-regulated time-services in the United States. One may truly say of astronomy at Carleton that “time” was of the essence.
Accurate timekeeping was, and is, essential for astronomical work, and it was also the one product of an observatory which had immediate practical application. Nineteenth-century railroads vied with each other to keep to their published schedules and needed precise timing to properly switch tracks and avoid collisions. Each railroad used its “own” time, usually derived from an observatory in its headquarters’ city and telegraphed to each station along the line. In the 1870s, there was no major observatory northwest of Cincinnati, and the new Carleton time-service rushed in to fill the gap. In 1878 it sent out the first time-signals west of the Mississippi to several railroads centered in the Twin Cities and in Chicago.
By 1888, the Carleton time-service set time for over 12,000 miles of railroad, from Illinois and Wisconsin to Oregon and Manitoba. Clients included the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, and the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba railroads. In 1883, the observatory also began a time-ball service in St. Paul, whereby a sphere was dropped down a pole atop the Fire and Marine building at noon every day, in order that all in the city could set their watches and clocks. (The famous ceremony in Times Square every New Year is a vestige of a similar service in New York.) Time was provided, too, directly to many of the jewelers and banks in the Cities. Carleton, a small and otherwise as yet undistinguished college on the Minnesota plains, had become the timekeeper for the entire Northwest.
The Messenger and the time-service were founded and run by the man who single-handedly was responsible for bringing astronomy to Carleton, William Wallace Payne. Not coincidentally, Payne had been in his youth an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory for a few summers. He had studied primarily mathematics and law in college, but as math was then the discipline most closely related to astronomy, Payne was about as well-qualified an astronomer as most of his peers in the middle of the 19th century. Later, unfortunately, he would be unfairly belittled by some of the younger and better educated members of the scientific fraternity as a “lively but unprofessional figure.” Notwithstanding his lack of course work in the field, he did have “a driving enthusiasm” for astronomy – an enthusiasm which would transform the struggling little college that had hired him as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1871.
Payne wasted little time before pursuing his special interest. During his first year at Carleton he introduced an astronomy course and began purchasing some simple instruments with his own money. Six years later, he had convinced the President and Board of Trustees to build and equip a small observatory. At the time, Carleton College consisted of an old downtown hotel used as Ladies’ Hall, an old house on campus used as a music hall, and Willis Hall. The combined enrollment of the preparatory academy and the college was only 200.
It might be thought that an observatory was a bit of overweening extravagance for such a small institution. But an observatory offered several advantages to the College. Not only was astronomy perhaps the most popular science of the day, but observatories could provide utilitarian benefits, such as time signals and weather reports, to the people of the region. And there was no other observatory at all in the state of Minnesota.
Construction began on a small wooden observatory in 1877. That same year, Payne purchased the school’s first adequate telescope, a 4 3/10″ Byrne equatorial refractor. His title was changed, fittingly, to Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy.
The observatory, which sat on the site now occupied by Laird Hall of Science, was completed the next year, and when fully equipped (at a total cost of $7,000) was a good one. The building itself was always a problem – leaky roofs, warping floors, cramped spaces – but the equipment was the finest available. The centerpiece was an 8 1/4″ refractor manufactured by Alvan Clark and Sons, who were arguably the foremost refracting telescope makers of that or any other era. Next in cost and importance was a 3″ Fauth transit circle, used for very precisely measuring the positions and motions of stars and planets, and hence essential for calculating sidereal and mean solar (i.e., “pocketwatch”) time. Two Howard & Co. clocks (nos. 195 and 196) accurately kept the sidereal and mean solar time derived from these computations. To turn his instruments into a time-service, Payne himself constructed the first telegraph connection from the observatory to the outside world.
Over the years, this time-service was enlarged and operated amidst a running battle with what Payne called the “selfish” and “monopolistic” Western Union telegraph company. Western Union had earlier contracted with the U.S. Naval Observatory to supply time-signals throughout the country and used its considerable leverage to drive many observatory time-services out of business. Supported by the “Northwestern” railroads, which did not believe Western Union could relay time-signals from Washington as accurate as those received from Carleton, the College hung on. A few years into the 20th century the Naval Observatory and Goodsell were the only two time-services still in existence. Carleton had good reason to be so fiercely protective of the time service. The operation was not very remunerative to the College (in fact, it was not reimbursed by the railroads at all until 1887), but in terms of free publicity it was invaluable. The Trustees happily acknowledged that being recognized as the timekeeper for the Northwest brought “wide renown to the College.”
Even the mechanical operation of the time-service was considered fascinating enough for several regional newspapers to publish detailed accounts of it. Nor was such fame restricted solely to the Upper Midwest. At the 1884 New Orleans Exposition, for example, Payne was asked to set up a complete working time service as part of the Minnesota state exhibit. No wonder the time service was the focus of the College’s self-promotion until after the turn of the century.
In another “one of the best ways possible,” the College was “extensively advertised free of charge” by the U.S. Signal Station placed at the observatory in 1881. The U.S. Signal Corps was that branch of the government initially assigned to monitor weather. and Carleton was soon collecting data on temperature, rainfall, and winds to send to Washington.
The school also sent the information to the local papers within a 200-mile radius, which happily printed them under the College’s name as the only means of presenting their readers with any accurate meteorological facts. When a state weather service was organized as a branch of the renamed U.S. Weather Service in 1883, William Payne was made director, and the headquarters were established at the Carleton Observatory. Though the central office of the weather service was shifted to St. Paul in 1886, Payne remained as director until a lack of state and federal funds forced the service to be discontinued in 1889.
As interesting and useful to the public as were the time service and the weather service, the observatory qua observatory drew much popular attention as well. Astronomy was perhaps the most glamorous and exciting science of the late 19th century – solar eclipses, the discovery of new celestial bodies, controversy over life on Mars, and a persistent comet craze all kept people’s imaginations churning.
Like the Cincinnati Observatory before it, the Carleton Observatory initially threw open its doors to all comers at all times. Minnesotans from all walks of life dropped in at the observatory to look through the telescope and examine the time-service apparatus. (During the Depression a meteorite collection was added to Goodsell’s other attractions; the collection came from H. H. Nininger as payment-in-kind for his daughter’s tuition.)
In 1881 Payne reported that “although something of the novelty of the Observatory has passed away, the number of visitors seems to increase. In order to do anything in the line of regular original work, it has been necessary to appoint ‘visitors nights’ as often as once in two weeks.” These public viewing nights, which came to include brief lectures and demonstrations as well as supervised telescope viewing, have remained a regular feature at the observatory for over 100 years.
Setting aside special nights for visitors did help make time for “regular original work” at the observatory. But during the first ten years there were other obstacles to such work. One was the size and condition of the building. More important, however, was a lack of important pieces of equipment. A larger telescope certainly would have been useful. When the Cincinnati Observatory installed a 12″ refractor in the 1840s it was the second largest instrument in the world. By 1884 there was a 30″ telescope in Russia, and bigger continued to be better for many astronomical applications.
In addition, while one of Payne’s colleagues at Carleton, Professor of Physics, Chemistry, and Biblical Literature Arthur Pearsons, was able to jury-rig a camera to the Clark telescope to photograph a partial solar eclipse in 1885, the important work being done elsewhere in astronomical photography required a made-to-order apparatus. The same was true of the need for a spectroscope – an instrument for viewing the light spectra emitted by atoms – which was coming into use as the means for determining the composition of planets and stars.
But as he himself seemed to realize, Payne, who had been “trained” as an astronomer before either the camera or the spectroscope were in general use in observatories, was probably not the man to best take advantage of such new equipment. He was one of the “Old Astronomers,” though not nearly so fossilized a specimen as a few of his younger peers sometimes liked to claim. Old Astronomy, as it was labeled with some disdain by the New Astronomers, rested largely on mathematical precision for the determination of the positions, orbits, distances, and sizes of celestial bodies. New Astronomy, or Astrophysics, which was just becoming prominent in the 1880s, was and is closely linked to physics, and is concerned with such questions about astronomical objects as their composition, temperature, energy source, luminosity, and evolution.
Payne was not entirely enthusiastic about astrophysics, not so much because he was antediluvian, but because he realized that the new astronomy was so technical as often to be inaccessible to the public-and he was committed to educating and involving amateurs in the field.
On the other hand, he seemed to realize the legitimacy and importance of astrophysics, for he began importuning the Carleton Board of Trustees in the mid-1880s for a camera outfit, a spectroscope, a larger telescope, and an addition to the building. Payne got what he wanted-and more.
It was the time service which really triggered the expansion of the astronomy department. when a St. Paul jeweler offered to give $5,000 to Carleton for the purchase of a German meridian circle to improve the accuracy of its time calculations. The Board of Trustees agreed to the deal with little hesitation. Astronomy was clearly the College’s most vital and important program in the 1880s, and this made the Trustees’ decision to support expansion of the observatory and its activities quite natural. A state-of-the-art 5″ meridian circle was duly ordered from the Repsold company. Before the jeweler could pay on his pledge, he died, and a desperate appeal was made to railroad magnate James J. Hill, whose railroad benefited from the Carleton time-service and who came through with the money.
Whether by accident or design, the Repsold instrument was far too large to fit into the Carleton Observatory, and Payne appealed to the Board of Trustees to authorize the construction of a new building. All things considered, the trustees had little choice, and the cornerstone of the new observatory was laid amidst much pomp and circumstance in October of 1886.
At the ceremony, Payne made a speech that summed up both the philosophy and the proposed program of astronomy at Carleton. As for philosophy, he made it very clear that “This college believes in science that has Christianity and God in it, and is willing to avow that belief…. It believes in the methods of modern science for acquiring that kind of truth, but it denies that it is either the nature or effect of such truth to put the Almighty Creator out of the material universe, but rather to reveal the harmonies of his sovereign divine will.”
His words sound strange, perhaps, to modern ears, but such a synthesis of science and religion would have been commonplace to Protestant educators in the 19th century and were, indeed, an echo of the very ideals of the creators of Carleton. This echo was particularly appropriate because the new building was to be named for the school’s founder, Deacon Charles Moorehouse Goodsell, whose dream it had been to see in Northfield “a new Northwestern Oberlin: unsectarian, but filled with the Spirit….”
It would have been no surprise to Goodsell, had he lived to hear Payne’s address, that the same speech which spoke of God in the heavens also laid out an ambitious and practical program of scientific and educational work for the observatory. “The plan of work is three-fold: Undergraduate instruction, fully illustrated by observation; a school for practical astronomy that will prepare students for professorships in astronomy and mathematics, or positions in astronomical observatories; and original research with special reference to solar studies. This plan is unique and furnishes a line of work not elsewhere found in this country.” The idea of establishing a graduate program in applied astronomy and pure mathematics, organized on the most rigorous model-then the German University system-was one which Payne kept alive for another decade, and almost succeeded in pulling off. The astronomy department did award five Ph.D.s in the 1890s, mostly to Carleton graduates, but the Board of Trustees was never to become enthused by the prospect of establishing a formal graduate school.
However, everyone seemed enthusiastic about the new Romanesque observatory, which was unveiled to wide acclaim-including a two page spread in American Architect and Building News. It took five years for the observatory to be fully equipped and dedicated, although the building was occupied in 1887 and completed in 1888.
The wait, though, proved worthwhile. In 1890 Dr. Edward H. Williams of Philadelphia, who had endowed Carleton’s first science building, donated $15,000 for a 16.2″ refractor to occupy the observatory’s large dome. Manufactured by the famous John Brashear of Pennsylvania, with glass from Paris and Lena, the telescope was 22 feet long, weighed 27,000 pounds (including the pedestal), and had to be hoisted in through the slit in the already completed dome. When it was installed, the scope was the sixth largest in the U.S. and the 12th largest in the world. (It remained the largest in Minnesota until 1969.) Within a couple of years on either side of acquiring the new telescope, Payne was also able to purchase a spectroscope and camera outfit for the Clark refractor.
Just as important as the equipment it acquired, the observatory also acquired the right man to make good use of the new instruments. Herbert Couper Wilson, who was a Carleton alumnus with a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Cincinnati, was hired in 1887 to teach math, physics, and astronomy and to assist in the editorship of the Messenger. Like Payne, Wilson was a beloved teacher. He also was devoted to the popularization of astronomy-he wrote dozens of articles for popular magazines, was well-known for his lantern-slide lecture on a “Trip to the Moon,” and later in his career was responsible for encouraging amateur astronomers to organize themselves (in 1911) into the American Association of Variable Star Observers. The AAVSO is still going strong and has maintained a loose connection to Carleton over the years: first through a regular column in Popular Astronomy and then in the person of Clinton B. Ford ’35, who since 1948 has been the association’s secretary and is the eponym of its permanent headquarters building in Massachusetts.
To a much greater extent than Payne, however, Wilson was also an active and excellent practical and theoretical astronomer. It was Wilson who initiated and organized the Carleton observatory’s first off campus expedition in 1889 to California to view and photograph a total solar eclipse. Such expeditions, several more of which occurred over the next decades, were scientifically important but quite expensive; only 10 other observatories had astronomers and equipment out in the field in ’89. Carleton’s expenses were reduced considerably when the party was invited to ride free on the rail lines that benefited from the time-service.
Even more important in placing Carleton in the forefront of astronomical research was Wilson’s expertise with a camera. While a student at the Lookout Mountain Observatory, he became a practiced photographer. His plates of nebulae (galaxies), planets, and variable stars won him citations in leading monographs and were often requested by other astronomers for study and illustration. One of his photographs of a section of the Milky Way, using the 8 1 /4″ refractor at the College, was presented by E. E. Barnard to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1898 as “embracing all that has been done on this nebula by photography up to the present time.” Wilson’s photos of sunspots, asteroids, and the spectra of the sun’s corona formed the bases of several of the Publications of the Goodsell Observatory, a series which he founded.
Other recognition came to Carleton astronomy in the 1890s as well. The school’s display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was one-quarter astronomy, and it was for excellence in that science especially photography and spectroscopy that the College was awarded a “medal of specific merit.” Colleagues at larger observatories, such as the famed Yerkes in Wisconsin, paid the compliment of asking Wilson and Payne to cooperate with them in special studies.
But the most visible and enduring contribution of the Carleton program to the field of astronomy was its journals. The Sidereal Messenger, while no longer the only U.S. astronomical publication by the early-1890s, was still the most popular and influential. It was America’s best known journal in the field abroad as well. Foreign subscriptions were few compared to domestic, but they provided something especially valuable – exchange subscriptions to the leading astronomical periodicals of Europe. Because of the Messenger, Payne was able to build an impressive astronomical library for Goodsell, without much cost to the College.
When the nation’s leading astrophysicist, the University of Chicago’s George Ellery Hale, decided to establish a journal devoted to the New Astronomy, he was dissuaded by his friends because of the impossibility of successfully competing with the more traditional Messenger. Hale, not to be denied, struck a bargain with William Payne to co-edit an expanded journal which would be half devoted to “General Astronomy” and half to astrophysics.
So, in 1892 the Messenger died and Astronomy and Astrophysics was born. It, too, was a success, but Payne grew quickly disenchanted-as it seems Hale had hoped from the start he would. Despite its General Astronomy section, the new magazine was much more technical than its predecessor, and Payne watched in dismay as subscriptions from amateur astronomers dropped off.
In 1893, therefore, Payne established his third and last journal, Popular Astronomy, aimed once again at educated and interested lay people. After another year, it became apparent that he could not edit Popular Astronomy and co-edit Astronomy and Astrophysics. Unenthusiastically, he decided to allow Hale to buy him out and transfer the latter journal to Chicago. Hale quickly renamed his publication the Astrophysical Journal, by which name it is known as the foremost professional periodical of astronomy in the world today. But Popular Astronomy, after its first year, had a greater circulation than its new rival, continued to attract articles from the leading astronomers of the world, and would continue to be the best-known journal in the field for another 50 years.
While the observatory at Carleton was bringing publicity and respect to the school, while it served the public, housed significant research, and published the work of the discipline, its main Purpose had always been the instruction of undergraduate students.
In his annual report for 1881, Payne had noted what would be true for the next century and more – that, despite research and visitors, “when Astronomy classes were being taught, the observations of prominent celestial objects by them and for their benefit, took precedence of all other work.” Students were not only taught astronomy in the classroom, they were also given the chance to practice what they learned by helping Payne and Wilson perform measurements, taking sidereal time readings with the meridian circle, and the like.
Many students went on to do further astronomical work after graduation (a few took advanced degrees from Carleton), and three became somewhat prominent. There was Wilson, certainly, and one other alumnus who would make a name for himself in the field and come back to his alma mater to teach: Edward A. Fath ’02. But arguably the most famous of the early astronomy students was Anne Sewell Young ’92 – one of the few professional women astronomers of her day and the long-time, well respected director of the Mt. Holyoke observatory. (Carleton produced half a dozen professional women astronomers in the first 50 years of the program; Young was the only one to win a citation in Who’s Who, but two others were honored with entries in Men [sic] of Science.)
The success of such students had much to do with the quality of their teachers. Despite all his other duties, from editing journals to directing weather services to filling in for a time as Dean of the College (1896 – 99), Payne was only excused from “recitation room work” during one year. For the rest, he was in the classroom, where he won both the respect and affection of his math and astronomy students. He led his students in prayer for, and demanded from them, “mental vigor,” but he was known to some as “Uncle Billy,” and inspired a now anonymous student to create perhaps the most famous pun in Carleton history: “He never knew pleasure who never knew Payne.”
It is a tribute not only to the importance of the observatory to the early identity of Carleton College, but also no doubt to Payne’s personal charisma that the student annual (which first appeared in 1889) was named Algol after “a variable star of the second order.” The idea was that future yearbooks could “vary in brightness” as does their namesake.
For his part, Herbert Wilson was known to the class of 1913 as “that dear old man with the twinkling eyes,” despite student recollections that his calculus course was the hardest class at Carleton.
The first decade of the 20th century witnessed profound changes in the astronomy program at Carleton. In 1905, the Old Observatory was razed to make way for Laird Hall of Science. Since the occupation of Goodsell the leaky wooden building had done duty as both a men’s gymnasium and the College library.
It was also the scene of Carleton’s most celebrated practical joke, played in 1903 with unintentional irony on the same Professor Pearsons who had launched local astronomical photography in the building some 20 years before. At the time of the prank Pearsons was the school’s Professor of Biblical Literature. According to the Algol the jest was a “drive” on his oft- (oh, how oft!) repeated illustration of the wonderful changes wrought by time even in the sacred haunts of Palestine, which to his mind were exemplified by the railway operating between Joppa [Jaffa] and Jerusalem. [On Halloween night,] an observer might have seen the Professor’s buggy issue from the barn and go forth for its adventures. Next morning it was seen standing on the top of the old observatory…with a strip of canvas stretched from end to end bearing the eloquent legend ‘Joppa to Jerusalem’,” It was said by others that poor Pearsons never recovered his good humor and good temper after the incident.
Three years after the original building was gone, the man who built it left as well. William Payne was one of the casualties in a volatile and divisive controversy surrounding Carleton’s second president, William H. Sallmon (1903 – 08). He was one of the leaders of the faculty faction who believed Sallmon was too theologically, pedagogically, and socially liberal; Sallmon was forced to resign, but several of his opponents left as well. After nearly 40 years of service, therefore, Payne retired on a Carnegie Endowment pension. It was an active retirement, in that he was immediately called by the Elgin Watch Company in Illinois to build and supervise a small observatory and time-service for them. Fortunately, no grudges were held at the College, and in 1916 Carleton awarded Payne an honorary D. Sc. degree. He died in 1928 at the age of 91, active to the end.
To replace Payne, Carleton hired Curvin Henry Gingrich, a mathematician and astronomer who would soon earn his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Gingrich, like Payne and Wilson, was a popular teacher. Of him, a poetaster on the Algol staff once wrote that “graphs of many angles/ He’s plotted by the yard,/ But the beauties of math’matics- /Why-that’s his drawing card./ He can tell the most interesting stories /Of paths of tangent and sine/ How they travel their beat to infinity,/ And march up and down the line…./ But don’t lay it up against him/ That math’s beauty he’s preserving’,/ You see he really can’t help it,/ for he bears the name of Curvin.” Gingrich carried on a long-term study of the positions of comets and asteroids begun by Wilson, and was assistant editor and editor of Popular Astronomy-which the College had purchased from Payne when he retired-for the next 30 years, managing to bring it through the Depression and World War II.
Yet another new man was brought on board in 1920: Edward Fath ’02. Fath, like his predecessors, was a very interested and engaging instructor, both in the classroom and while supervising student research assistants. He consciously fashioned courses for non- scientists and argued persuasively that astronomy-being the only science which was “not earthbound”-was a necessary means of broadening the undergraduates mind. Before he retired, he presented to the College a small planetarium he had just finished building. He had, he said, “felt the lack of such an instrument most acutely in beginning astronomy courses…. In the Monday night laboratory sessions, I’d have to ask [students] to stand still for an hour before they could perceive a change [in the position of the earth relative to the stars]. That’s impractical during Minnesota winters.” The planetarium projector is still in use in astronomy classes at Carleton.
Fath had earned his doctorate in astronomy at the University of California’s Lick Observatory and had gone on to do notable work at the famous Mt. Wilson Observatory and as director of the observatory at Beloit College. Lick was at the forefront of astronomical research when Fath attended, and he brought renewed vigor and substance to the professional work at Goodsell. In 1922 he won a grant to build a photoelectric photometer (for measuring the intensity of a source of light). For years this was one of only three such advanced instruments in the nation. (The early photo-cells were quite unreliable, which initially discouraged most other scientists from similar projects.) Fath did ground breaking work with the gadget and was invited to spend several summers over the next 15 years using it in conjunction with one of the telescopes back at the Lick Observatory. On these trips he often brought a Carleton student along as an assistant.
These expeditions to California were a faint sign, perhaps, that the age of the small observatory in the U.S. was quickly passing. Lick had been the first observatory in the nation built (1888) in the mountains to obtain better “seeing” (i.e., less atmospheric disturbance). But its largest telescope was still only 36″, and smaller, well-made instruments in the clear air of rural America were not yet completely outclassed. By 1917, however, with the completion of a 100″ reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson near Pasadena, it was becoming clear that the leading work in astronomy would henceforth be done with huge telescopes high atop mountains.
The Carleton astronomy program’s unquestionable contributions to the growth and steady popularity of astronomy as both vocation and avocation were recognized in 1925 when the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society was held at Goodsell. This honor can be said to have fittingly marked the beginning of the end of Goodsell Observatory’s glory days.
Herbert Wilson retired in 1926, and another portent of the end of an era swiftly followed. Fath urged President Donald Cowling to discontinue the time-service that fall.
Time-signals were still being used by three major railroads, but Fath argued that the time and effort it took to send the signals were incommensurate with the now negligible publicity the service generated. In addition, it was now true that signals from the U.S. Naval Observatory were the equal or superior of the Carleton signals in accuracy – a fact which had been recognized as far back as 1914, when a receiver was mounted atop Laird Hall to receive wireless time- signal transmissions from Washington. After much discussion, the telegraphic time-signals from Goodsell were continued until December 1931, when the small company operating the wires into Northfield went out of business. What the commanding general of the U.S. Signal Corps had called, in 1881, probably the largest and best organized time-service in the U.S., succumbed to the modern age.
However, the spirit and activities of the Carleton astronomy program were far from ready for the dustbin of history. For another decade the College continued to provide time-signals to the public in Northfield, by broadcasting them over the radio. In 1926, Fath was elected to membership in the Astronomical Society of France. He was also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and hence the most widely honored astronomer ever to serve at Carleton. That same year he published the first edition of a book which would make both him and the College more prominent: Elements of Astronomy, which went through four editions in the next 20 years and was arguably the most popular astronomy textbook in the U.S. for the next ten years. In addition, Popular Astronomy reached a peak circulation of 1,200 (200 overseas) before the war. And a meteorological station was re-established at the College.
There was, moreover, still useful astronomical work to be done at observatories such as Goodsell. Within the next five years, Fath had the Clark telescope remounted for more effective work, and embarked on an ambitious joint program with Lick Observatory to study the relationship between the brightness and velocity of certain variable stars. In the 1930s, instructor Richard Zug, after building a double-plate camera for the Brashear refractor, would undertake some important work – in the study of galactic star clusters, the absorption of light in space, and the size of the galaxy – and receive a prestigious National Research Grant-in-Aid to develop a thermoelectric photometer, before moving on to a more advanced research facility. Zug’s departure merely emphasized the inescapable fact that despite its celebrated history and continued research activity, the Carleton observatory as a place of really substantive astronomical work was not long for this world.
The vigor and buoyancy of the program in the 1930s was soon to receive an even mightier setback: World War II brought (if the pun may be excused) Carleton astronomy firmly back to earth. While Fath taught Engineering Astronomy and Meteorology to the soldiers of the Army Specialized Training Unit stationed at Carleton, there were no astronomy majors again among the civilian students until 1948. Popular Astronomy, needless to say, suffered a major disruption of its subscriptions, especially overseas. Not even the radio time-signal service survived the war.
The situation went from bad to worse. Fath retired in 1950, and the astronomy curriculum suffered a serious decline when a suitable replacement for him could not be found for four years. Gingrich, in the process of himself retiring a year later, died unexpectedly, leaving the affairs of Popular Astronomy in turmoil. The administration had no one to edit the journal, and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a sale. At the end of 1951, the periodical ceased publication forever. It may have been just as well; some scholars have since claimed that Popular Astronomy could no longer really compete with its glossy, commercial competitors, such as Sky and Telescope (established 1941).
As, perhaps, an appropriate symbol of these setbacks, astronomy lost its independent standing as an academic department in 1950. Although a major in astronomy was still possible, for the first time since 1890 the Carleton course catalog listed only a joint department of Mathematics and Astronomy. Such a merger was an anachronism, since math was no longer the foundation of astronomy. In 1967, Astronomy was merged instead – more aptly – with the Department of Physics; it has been the Department of Physics and Astronomy from that day to this.
With the end of 70 years of publishing and the retirement of its last Who’s Who astronomer – not to mention the advent of numerous gigantic optical telescopes and the blossoming of radio astronomical technology, which made the facilities at Carleton all but useless for cutting-edge research – Goodsell Observatory clearly and inevitably lost its national significance. The era when a good small observatory on the prairie could make a name for itself in astrophysics was gone. Fortunately, the College had, during those years, broadened the base of its reputation far beyond the renown of its observatory.
Although Goodsell Observatory was not to continue as a national to force and symbol in astronomy – and although astronomy had as a result lost a measure of its prestige and importance at Carleton – the science managed to rebound from its troubles and retain a vital place at the College. When Robert T. Mathews was hired in 1954 as the new director of the observatory and professor of mathematics and astronomy, he was charged with reinvigorating the program by (in order of importance) refashioning the courses for non-scientists, attracting new majors, and conducting what research was still possible with the Goodsell equipment. Course enrollments and the number of majors quickly equaled or surpassed pre-war levels: between 1954 and 1984 there were 3,600 students in astronomy courses at Carleton; between 1954 and 1970 sixteen students received a B.A. in astronomy.
Mathews’ insistence on continuing the tradition of having his students do hands-on work with the two telescopes not only made the courses more interesting than simple lectures would have been, but also turned out to be fine preparation for the twelve graduates who went on to do advanced work in astronomy. (Ironically, eight of these alumni worked, at least initially, at Carleton’s one-time rival, the U.S. Naval Observatory – where Mathews had been an assistant astronomer during World War II.)
As one major recalled, her undergraduate training in astronomy compared favorably with those of other assistants at the Naval Observatory, some from major universities. “The background provided by Carleton’s courses, which included practical applications as well as theory, better prepared its graduates to function effectively with a minimum of on-the- job training…. [T]his preparation was due directly to [Mr. Mathews’] teaching and management of the curriculum.” Out of this combination of practice and theory came eight graduates who have made careers in astronomy – including one of the nation’s leading astronomers, the current director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, Sidney Carne Wolff ’62. – Mathews’ research – in which he was assisted by his advanced students – consisted primarily of the measurement of double stars and the study of the differential photometry of variable stars. Work on variable stars was materially assisted by the construction of a new photometer in 1965, funded with part of a National Science Foundation grant. Like Fath’s earlier instrument, the new photometer was manufactured at Carleton by the College’s regular machinists and technicians. Unlike Fath’s version, the new model was highly sophisticated, quite sensitive, and far more reliable.
In addition to teaching and research, Mathews’ re-established an old tradition when, in 1957, he was awarded the first of 14 consecutive National Science Foundation grants for an in-service institute for high school teachers. These summer institutes brought teachers from throughout the region to improve their knowledge and skill in math and astronomy. As early as 1881, William Payne had reported that special “pains have been taken to provide for teachers from neighboring towns and cities – with or without their classes, and such visits have not been infrequent.” Along with the unbroken ritual of public viewing nights at the observatory, these NSF summer programs insured that the Carleton observatory remained a vital and useful part of a broad community.
Despite such success in its more modest modern role, the astronomy program was threatened with extinction in 1970. As the 1960s progressed, Carleton faced two interrelated challenges: one was to initiate and finance new curricular programs (e.g., Asian Studies, Afro American Studies, off-campus studies); the other was to emerge unscathed through a gradually deepening recession. President John Nason proposed to the Board of Trustees a strategy of “cutting back on old programs in order to have funds available to finance new programs.” As part of this proposal, Nason recommended eliminating the Astronomy program entirely-the major, the teaching position, and even the observatory itself. Maps showing suggestions for campus development in the late 1960s show Goodsell replaced by a rectangular student union building. The Carletonian went so far as to predict that “the end of Goodsell is only a matter of time.”
But a faculty task force, assigned to study the matter, strongly recommended that no such drastic measures be taken. The task force did allow that the elimination of an astronomy major made sense now that most astronomy graduate programs were more concerned that applicants have strong physics and math backgrounds. And their report did accept the fact that Goodsell might have to be sacrificed as part of an overall campus development plan. However, they strongly recommended that the Clark telescope, at least, be then remounted in another building, so that instruction in practical astronomy could continue. The task force was adamant that, for a variety of reasons, a professor of astronomy should remain on the faculty and an astronomy program should remain part of the curriculum.
In conclusion, they stated their “strong conviction that at a time when trips to the moon are becoming routine, Carleton’s proud tradition in astronomy should be protected, if at all possible, not out of sentiment, and not simply out of the prestige the College enjoys because it is one of the few liberal arts colleges which offers instruction in this area…. but primarily because of the intrinsic excitement of the subject matter and its importance to the study of the sciences and humanities at Carleton….”
The task force report, the healthy enrollment in beginning astronomy courses, plus an impassioned plea by some alumni and, no doubt, the ineffable sentimental attachment that many at the school felt for such a venerable program, saved the day. The major in astronomy was abolished in 1971, accompanied into history by the Publications of the Goodsell Observatory, which issued its last monograph that same year. But the astronomy program survived. And Goodsell Observatory survived as well.
Fortunately, perhaps, money to build a new student union did not come to hand as expected, nor was the new science building constructed as soon as was projected. By the time that the Seeley G. Mudd Science Hall was completed in 1975 – the signal, it had once been thought, that Goodsell was completely expendable – the observatory had found permanent sanctuary on the National Registry of Historic Places. It was placed on the registry (one of four buildings on the campus to be so honored) because it is “a superbly preserved example of Romanesque Revival architecture…, a complete[ly] intact and basically unchanged 19th century astronomical laboratory,” and the site of major contributions to “the scientific literary field” through its publications. The observatory and a new student union came to peacefully coexist, after all, when the old Sayles-Hill gymnasium was renovated into a student center in 1979.
Ironically — though happily — today as never before it is not necessary for a school to have a first-rate observatory in order to have a first-rate astronomy program. In the way that large mountain-top observatories were out of reach for all but the largest universities in the early part of this century, the resources to build and maintain a state-of- the-art optical, infrared, or radio telescope facility in the latter part of the century are beyond all but the Federal Government or consortia of “multiversities.” At most universities astronomy faculty make regular observing trips to one of the national observatories – e.g., Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona, the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico – and spend months back home, usually with the help of their advanced students, analyzing the data. A good physics program, an active, respected research astronomer, and travel funds are the key prerequisites for a modern astrophysics program in a college or university today. Of course, having a proud tradition and a good 19th century observatory at hand does not hurt….
When Mathews retired in 1984, the College hired astrophysicist Joel Weisberg to replace him. In the tradition of Professors Wilson and Fath, Weisberg is a visible and productive member of the national scientific community. Elected to the International Astronomical Union in 1985, Weisberg has also served on advisory committees for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Arecibo Observatory. Weisberg’s research activities focus on pulsars – rapidly spinning neutron stars containing more matter than the Sun in a region about the size of Northfield – and he publishes regularly in scientific journals (including, of course, Carleton’s creation, the Astrophysical Journal). To pursue his study, he makes several observing trips each year to major radio U.S. Government radio observatories, and spends each summer on research at either Princeton or Cornell.
Building on a century-old tradition, Weisberg has involved Carleton students extensively in his research projects: several have traveled with him to the radio observatories, and typically two or three work with him on analysis of the data back at Carleton. Moreover. Weisberg has succeeded in placing students in summer research positions at such national observatories as Arecibo (in Puerto Rico) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (in Virginia). Fittingly, much of the students’ off-campus study has been funded by endowments provided to Carleton by alumnus Clinton Ford and Edward Fath’s daughter Catherine Sherry.
Meanwhile, radio astronomy itself has come to Carleton, in the form of a small but useful radio telescope built by Weisberg and several students. Dubbed the “Sogn Valley Radio Astronomy Observatory” (because it must be used in the lowlands 15 miles southeast of the campus to avoid terrestrial radio interference), this unusual apparatus has successfully observed an exploding galaxy hundreds of million
s of light years away. In a curious echo of the days when the first Carleton observatory sat alone amidst acres of fields and prairie, this newest Carleton observatory is itself observed by a dairy herd pastured nearby.
Amidst such research, the normal astronomy curriculum is stronger than ever. The lecture and labcourses for non-physics majors are usually entirely filled by juniors and seniors – a mark of popularity, since they are the first to sign up for classes each term; the advanced astrophysics course is taken by over half of all students majoring in physics, many of whom now write their senior comprehensive exercises in the field.
Beyond advanced physics students and the larger group of non- physics students, the Carleton astronomy program continues to serve a wider public. The venerable viewing nights remain a popular event. Weisberg has also been a part of the American Astronomical Society – Harlow Shapley Visiting Lecture program, which took him to colleges and universities across the country to give public talks and advanced lectures in astronomy.
In the involvement of students in advanced research, in faculty contributions to the science and profession, in reaching out to the nonscientist on the campus and in the broader community – innovation has not replaced, only enhanced, tradition.
The observatory itself has become a symbol of the melding of old and new. To this day, the Howard clocks still keep time in the rotunda, though now they are set periodically by reference to a nearby digital display of the National Bureau of Standard’s atomic clock rather than to astronomical calculations. The two telescopes are kept in good repair and are used for instruction and for the ever-popular public viewing nights. (Goodsell is, indeed, one of only six active observatories at a liberal arts college in the United States.) The meridian circle reposes, unused but still imposing, in the center of what is now a library/lounge sporting the latest astrophysical publications.
Though the College is now better known than its observatory (quite a change from the 1890s), the astronomy program itself remains one of the best of its kind in the nation, and an active and important part of the liberal arts at Carleton.
- Clerke, Agnes M. A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century. London, 1902.
- Headley, Leal and Merrill Jarchow. Carleton: The First Century. Northfield, 1966.
- Leonard, Delavan. The History of Carleton College. Chicago, 1904.
- Osterbrock, Donald. James E. Keeler: Pioneer American Astrophysicist. New York, 1984.
- Pendray, G. Edward. Men, Mirrors, and Stars. New York, 1935.
- Pursell, Carroll W., Jr. Astronomy In America. Chicago, 1967.
- Wright, Helen. Explorer of the Universe: A Biography of George Ellery Hale. New York, 1966
- Algol. 1889-1945.
- Astronomy and Astrophysics. Vols. 11-13,1892-94.
- Barnard, E.E. “Development of Photography in Astronomy,” Science. Vol.8 (September 16-23,1898), pp.341-53; 386-95.
- Carleton College Alumni Magazine. 1910-32.
- Carletonian. Vols. 1- 90,18771970.
- Holden, Edward S. “America’s Achievements in Astronomy,” Forum. Vol.15 (August 1893), pp.744-52.
- Popular Astronomy. Vols. 1-59,1893-1951.
- Sidereal Messenger. Vols. 1-10, 1882- 1891.
Unpublished Sources in the Carleton College Archives
- Annual Reports of the Director of the Observatory, 1910-65.
- Clippings File.
- Correspondence and conversations with Prof. Owen Gingerich (HarvardSmithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Prof. John Lankford (Department of History, University of Missouri), Prof. Joel Weisberg (Department of Physics and Astronomy, Carleton College), Prof. Emeritus Robert T. Mathews (Carleton College).
- Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 1867-1900.
- Papers of the Dean of the College, 1965-73.
- President’s Reports to the Board of Trustees, 1874- 1885.