McCormick Museum

Charles P. Olivier

Charles P. Olivier "The University of Virginia at the time the Observatory was founded had only 200 or 300 students in all departments, and no complete graduate school as it is now understood. The faculty was very small and rather homogeneous, and the student body was even more so. Charlottesville was a town of about 5000 people with some 30 or 40 percent of these negroes. Neither the town nor the state had recovered from the ravages of the War Between the States, and the poverty of most people, white and negro alike, was extreme. There was no appreciable industry in the town. The only things that were cheap and abundant were food and labor. It was in such an environment that the Observatory, and my own personal involvement with it began."

These are the words the Charles P. Olivier used to begin his historical narrative of the time he spent working at the Leander McCormick Observatory. Olivier grew up in a large brick house at 1021 West Main Street in Charlottesville, just a five minute walk from the eastern entrance to the University Grounds. His parents knew members of the faculty and their wives. Ormond Stone, the observatory's first director, served on the vestry with Olivier's father at Christ Episcopal Church. Stone set Olivier up on his first assignment with the observatory assisting a cameraman for the Leonids meteor shower of 1899, which turned out to be a tragic disappointment.

As a family friend, Stone took on Olivier in 1901 as a part-time assistant and live-in at the Stone's home on Mount Jefferson beside the observatory. In 1905, Olivier began his official work at the observatory as a Vanderbilt fellow. At that point he moved into the observatory's small living quarters and lived there until 1909, as well as for six months in 1911. In 1911 He received his Ph.D. in Astronomy. Upon receiving his Ph.D., he was given an appointment as professor of physics & astronomy as Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, where he served from 1912-1914.

Olivier was serving as a volunteer summer staff member at the Yerkes Observatory in 1913 when he encountered Samuel Mitchell. They had met previously in 1905 at the United States Naval Observatory Eclipse Expedition camp in Daroca, Spain. Mitchell had just accepted the position as the new director of the McCormick Observatory and questioned Olivier about conditions at UVa. Upon arriving in Charlottesville, Mitchell realized that the observatory was in desperate need of funds and staff. He contacted Olivier and convinced him to return to UVa as an assistant professor, beginning in June 1914. Mitchell received the Ernest Kempton Adams research fellowship from Columbia University of $1250 in July, which allowed him to hire Olivier and Harold Alden to the observatory staff to begin work on a parallax program.

On his return to Charlottesville, Olivier spent a year living with the Mitchells in the director's house (now known as Alden House). Mitchell was able to get a renewal of the fellowship to keep Olivier and Alden on staff for another year while he sought alternative means of funding their positions. Olivier and Mitchell each worked four nights a week while other assistants worked three nights a week, keeping the telescope busy seven nights a week. Parallax measurements could not be taken around midnight, so Olivier began a micrometer measurement of double stars program.

Alden and Olivier were running the telescope in June 1918 when a star in Aquila went nova. They immediately took parallax measurements of it and informed the press, admitting that people in Europe had probably seen it before them. Though they were correct about not being the first to notice the nova, the press credited them with its discovery and the first measurements of it, which they published in 1920 and 1921.

Shortly after the Aquilae nova, all the men at the observatory, except Mitchell, left to serve in the war effort.

After his service concluded, Olivier returned to his double star observations, assisting with the parallax program and began observing meteors. Having been promoted to associate professor, he spent nine months on leave with health difficulties in 1923 and 1924, but spent part of his time off doing research on meteors at the U. S. Naval Observatory. Olivier went on to become an expert on meteors, founder and president of the American Meteor Society, president of the Meteor Commission of the International Astronomical Union and in 1925 he published the authoritative work of the day on meteors, entitled (appropriately) Meteors. University of Virginia President Edwin A. Alderman congratulated Olivier on the success of his book and suggested to Olivier that he "ought to take pains to have your colleagues know, through the papers, of this handsome piece of work."

Olivier continued to be instrumental in the parallax program, having taken almost one-third of the parallax measurements in the first fourteen years of the program's existence at the University of Virginia. His work on meteors and double star measurements also lent scientific prestige to the University. After fourteen years as a professor, Olivier resigned his position on September 15, 1928 to become the director of the Flower Observatory (now the Flower and Cook Observatory) at the University of Pennsylvania.