UVa Astronomy News Picture Archive

April 2010

Picture of the Month

On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13, 1885, University leaders, Charlottesville residents and distinguished guests gathered at the Public Hall (located in the Annex of the Rotunda) to officially inaugurate the Leander McCormick Observatory. At the time, the newly opened observatory housed the largest telescope in the United States (and second largest in the world), a 26-inch refractor built by the unrivaled telescope makers Alvan Clark and Sons, of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts.

The telescope and observatory were a gift of Leander James McCormick. Leander was the brother of Cyrus McCormick and had made his fortune with the production of the family's mechanical reaper. The McCormick family farm of Walnut Grove is located near Lexington Virginia, and in 1870 Leander had decided to make a gift of the world’s largest telescope to his home state. He had originally intended to make the gift to Washington College (later Washington and Lee) in Lexington, and entered into discussions with the then president Robert E. Lee.

After Lee’s death, McCormick turned his attention to the nearby University of Virginia, where the effort to attract this gift was lead by mathematics professor Charles Scott Venable. Venable, who had served as an aide to Lee during the Civil War, and had worked as an astronomer before the war, was able to solicit funds from the alumni of the University to fulfill the matching requirements of the gift (an amount that the Commonwealth and University of Virginia were unable to raise themselves, because of the devastation to Virginia’s economy as a result of the war). William H. Vanderbilt also made a significant donation towards the observatory, which was viewed by many as an attempt to help raise the fortunes and reputation of the South after the war.

The telescope was completed in the early 1870’s, but remained at the Clark workshop in Massachusetts until 1884. While still in Cambridgeport, it was used to confirm the existence of the newly discovered moons of Mars in 1877, and for other observations by Alvan Clark. The construction of the Observatory building and the adjacent Director’s House (now known as Alden House) took place 1883-1884. First light for the newly installed telescope occurred in December 1884, with the official inauguration 125 years ago this month, on April 13th, 1885.

Press release with audio podcast from the University of Virginia, and a story with video from Richmond NPR station WCVE

For more on the history of the donation of the observatory, including the subsequent contributions to science, please see our history pages.

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