Skip Navigation

Page Six

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.

History of Goodsell Images 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.

Home | Index | Previous Page | Next Page