Early Astronomy at the University of Virginia
Jefferson began by trying to secure high quality professors for
instructing young students. He hoped to have Nathaniel
Bowditch be the first professor of mathematics, whose duties would
have included teaching astronomy. Jefferson wrote to Bowditch in October
of 1818 to describe the new school, then called Central College, and to
offer the position to Bowditch. Sadly, Bowditch was forced to decline
due to commitments tying him to Salem, Mass. Jefferson tried to acquire
Bowditch again with a formal offer of a salary and apartment from the
Board of Visitors in October 1820, but again the efforts were in
Jefferson knew that obtaining the kind of professors he required would
be a challenge, particularly in America given that most of the higher
education in the world was done in Europe. As Rector, Jefferson
instructed the Board of Visitors in March 1819 that should any potential
professor express interest, then they were "not to lose the opportunity
of securing them to the University by any provisional arrangement they
can make within the limits of the salary and tuition fees before
Jefferson was at work on his plans for an observatory as early as 1820
when he estimated that it would require ten to twelve thousand dollars
to erect an observatory. In 1823, Jefferson converted the unoccupied
Proctor's House on Monroe
Hill into a building for astronomical observations. This was
possibly the first observatory in the United States. Jefferson used a
late 18th century Parkinson & Frodsham clock which he purchased in
London with the intention of establishing an astronomical
observatory.1 The clock was considered
first rate and was the most valuable piece of equipment used for
astronomy at the University of Virginia.
By October 1824, Jefferson and the Board of Visitors had determined
eight professorships to be filled, including one in natural philosophy,
which included the instruction of "laws and properties of bodies
generally, including mechanics, statics, hydrostatics, hydraulics,
pneumatics, acoustics, optics and astronomy." To augment the study of
astronomy, Jefferson proposed a kind of rudimentary planetarium for the
interior of the University's Rotunda
dome. The dome was to "be painted sky blue and spangled with from gilt
stars in their position and magnitude copied exactly from any selected
hemisphere of our latitude." Jefferson also designed a saddle seat for
the instructor, using a pulley system that would allow him to move to
any point in the concave and point to stars during
instruction. Jefferson's plans for the Rotunda, like many of his early
ambitions for astronomical study, never came to fruition.
"Machinery for moving the Operator
a.b.c.d.e.f.g. is the inner surface of 90o of the dome.
o.p. is a boom, a white oak sapling of proper strength, it's heel working in the center of the sphere by a compound joint admitting motion in any dimension like a ball and socket.
p.q.r. is a rope suspending the small end of the boom, passing over a pulley in the zenith at q and hanging down to the floor, by which it may be raised or lowered to any altitude.
At p. a common saddle with stirrups is fixed for the seat of the operator and seated on that, he may by the rope be presented to any point on the concave."
In the report of the Board of Visitors in October 1825, they made
mention of a tract of land purchased for the University from John
M. Perry that included "a small mountain, peculiarly adapted, and
important to be secured, for the purpose of an observatory, whenever
future advance of circumstances may render such an establishment
desirable." Jefferson made two separate studies for an observatory and
drew up plans (one shown below), probably in 1825.
"1. that it be so solid in it's construction with a foundation and
wall so massive as not to be liable to tremble with the wind, walking,
etc. 2. that it have ample apertures in every direction. 3. that it
have some one position perfectly solid which man command the whole
horizon of the heavens; with a Cupola cover, moveable and high enough to
protect long telescopes from the weather.
As to the height of the building, the less the solider... This building
is proposed for the ordinary purposes of the astronomical professor and
his school and should be placed on the nearest site proper for it and
convenient to the University. The hill on which the old buildings stand
seems to be the best.
The mountain belonging to the University was purchased with a view to
permanent establishment of an Observatory, with an Astronomer resident
at it, employed solely in the business of Observation, but I believe a
site on the nearest mountain in the S. W. ridge, Montalto for example,
would be better, because of its command of the fine horizon to the
The mountain Jefferson refers to became known as Old Observatory
Mountain after the rudimentary beginnings of Jefferson's observatory
were built on its summit in 1828. The Board of Visitors passed several
resolutions throughout 1828 and 1829 authorizing funds and requesting
the Professor of Natural Philosophy to organize an effort to finish the
observatory. The building was described in 1830 as an "octagon,
about 12 feet in diameter, surmounted by a tin lantern or dome about 6
feet in diameter, and moveable around its base. Here was to be placed
the transit instrument, on a pillar of stone, so long as to be easily
shaken by the hand. A gallery extended halfway round this pillar, and to
this you ascended by a step-ladder."
Unfortunately, the building constructed was never used for astronomical
observations and it fell into ruin. It became, as described by Society
of Alumni president Charles Blackford in 1885, an "ivy-clad ruin in the
solitude of which the student of that day, in lieu of the pebbly shore
of the Classic age, was wont to air his infant oratory and where, in the
moonbeam's misty light, student love was pledged by those to whom
Practical Astronomy was unknown and who wanted no telescope with distant
focus to lend enchantment to the orbs into which they gazed." In 1859,
the University carted away the ruins to use them for building materials
elsewhere on Grounds.
R. M. Patterson arrived at the University of Virginia in 1830 as the
Professor of Natural Philosophy. He deemed the make-shift observatory
unsatisfactory for astronomical work. Under Patterson's instructions, a
small brick house was erected on a hill just south of Monroe Hill and
equipped with a small telescope. He modeled it after the National
Observatory in Washington from a description in the Philosophical
Transactions. It contained "a single room 20 feet by 15 high and
with an arched ceiling, brick walls, shingled roof, floor supported on
separate walls; door and window to the north, two windows to the south,
one to east, one to west; window shutters and sashes fold
outwards." The building was completed at the beginning of the
summer in 1830. The instruments used consisted of the Parkinson &
Frodsham clock, an eight day chronometer, a portable transit with a
three foot telescope, a circle of reflection, a sextant and an
old-fashioned equatorial refractor in poor condition. The Board of
Visitors authorized the selling of the chronometer to purchase a better
telescope, but there is no evidence that one was purchased.
Astronomy at the University of Virginia remained practically
non-existent with no efforts to revive it until the mid-1860's when
Rector Benjamin Johnson Barbour led the Board of Visitors to consider a
new school in the University. By September 1866, the Board made
provisions to offer Matthew
Fontaine Maury a professorship as the head of the new school of
Practical Astronomy, Physics, Geology & Climatology. The post-war
years proved financially difficult for most Southern institutions, and
the University of Virginia was no exception. Insufficient funds for the
professorship forced Maury to decline the offer.
Shortly afterward, Rector Barbour made inquiries about the costs and
feasibility of acquiring an observatory for the University. Mathematics
professor Francis H. Smith wrote to Barbour in April 1869 with
suggestions and approximated costs for erecting an observatory, complete
with all the necessary first-rate equipment of the day. As stated
before, the financial situation of the University in the late 1860's
probably made Smith's suggestions seem impossible, so the Board tabled
discussion of astronomy indefinitely.
Attempts to bring a chair of practical astronomy to the University of
Virginia all proved unsuccessful until Leander J. McCormick of Chicago
entered the picture in the early 1870's.
1 The Parkinson & Frodsham clock was in use at the observatory until the mid-1990's, but its origin as described here is under some debate. The firm of Parkinson & Frodsham was not founded until the early 19th century, after Jefferson's time in Europe as ambassador to France. While the age and quality of the clock is not debated, it seems that the long-held story of Jefferson purchasing the clock while in London is likely to be wrong. He may have instead had it shipped to Virginia from London rather than transporting it himself.