UVa’s McCormick Observatory Celebrates Quasquicentennial!

Okay, that word makes me giggle. Quasquicentennial. It means 125 years, and that’s how old the McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia is on April 13 (tomorrow)! Many people know it on Grounds as that dome on O-Hill if they’ve hiked or run the trails back there. Other students have been there for a lab, willingly or not. And maybe just a few of you have been there for our public nights.

As the story goes, good old TJ (that is, Thomas Jefferson) wanted astronomy to be an important part of the sciences at his dear university, but as he famously ran out of money at the end of his life, an adequate observatory was never built. In 1870, Leander McCormick, owner of a farm machine company, decided to donate a telescope to his home state of Virginia. He set UVa and Washington & Lee University against each other in a bit of a bidding war to see who could raise the funds to house the telescope and properly staff the observatory. Meanwhile, he had the finest glass-makers in the world, Alvan Clark & Sons in Massachusetts, construct the optics, where the objective lens was to be 26 1/4 inches. (They later went on to make the 40 inch refractor at Yerkes Observatory, still the largest of its kind.) However, the project was delayed as McCormick had financial troubles, partly due to the great Chicago fire which wiped out his house and most of his factory. The delay meant that the US Naval Observatory got the first 26 inch refractor, but it was discovered that it had a major flaw, which was to be corrected in the UVa version. So really, the delay was a bit of a boon (for us.) Finally, in 1877, McCormick made the official offer to the University of Virginia, which was able to provide matching funds, and the telescope was finally dedicated on April 13, 1885, which also happens to be TJ’s birthday.

And so, 125 years later, with a rich catalog of star proper motions, parallaxes, and brightnesses created from it, generations of astronomers trained at its eyepiece (or photographic plate or CCD camera), and countless people inspired by the wonders it allows us to explore, we raise a toast to the 26-inch at McCormick Observatory! We’re open to the public twice a month, so stop by and see it for yourself!

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