History of the McCormick Observatory

Early Astronomy at the University of Virginia




Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819 in hopes of establishing a first rate American institution for higher education. Jefferson's earliest plans for instruction included astronomy and other sciences. Jefferson saw the study of astronomy as almost as important as architecture, which he held in the highest of regards . The University did not open to students until 1826 and those first years helped to define the courses of study that would prosper at the institution.

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 vain.

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 stated."

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.

Rotunda diagram
"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.

Observatory plans
Jefferson's instructions for the observatory included the material instructions:

"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 East."

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.