Rensselaer Astrophysical Society
The History of Astronomy at RPI
The Proudfit Observatory
The history of astronomy at RPI actually dates back several decades before the formation of RAS in 1938. Astronomy had been taught as a core discipline since the formation of the school in 1824, but there is very little in the historical record about what activities took place. Astronomy began in earnest at RPI in 1875 when Mr. and Mrs. Ebenezer Proudfit of Troy donated $15,000 to build an impressive observatory named the William Proudfit Observatory. The history of this observatory is an interesting study in failed initiative. The observatory was named in honor of the Proudfit's son, an RPI student in the class of 1877 who died in a tragic stagecoach accident at the age of 19. On November 10, 1875, the trustees accepted a proposal by the Proudfits to build an observatory in his honor, noting that the gift was "not only a valuable contribution to science and learning, but also an appropriate memorial to their lamented son". The building was constructed on the precipice of the hill near where Walker Lab now stands. Some of the foundations of the building may still be intact, lying beneath what is now a small garden. The central part of this building was two stories high, and was topped with an impressive dome measuring 29 feet in diameter. The original design intended the eastern wing to be used for "meridian instruments" while the western wing would be used for "computation and a library". The dome was by far the most interesting feature of this building and was innovative in being one of the first paper domes constructed. The Hall process had not been invented, so aluminum was still more expensive than gold, and paper was a practical material. The design and construction was overseen by Prof. Dascom Greene, a professor of mathematics and astronomy, who may be considered the inventor of the paper design. Prof. Greene provided the following rationale for paper construction:
Prof. Greene contracted E. Waters & Sons, a firm in Troy known for boat manufacture, to work on the project. In 1878 they finished the paper observatory dome for the newly erected building. The construction method was almost identical to that used for paper boats: thick linen paper was formed over a mold with a wooden framework, which was removed from the mold along with the paper. Finished sections were bolted together and the joints were weatherproofed with cotton cloth saturated with white lead. The RPI dome was 29 feet in diameter and consisted of 16 sections plus a 4-foot wide shuttered opening for the telescope. The paper material was 1/6 of an inch thick and was described as "hard as wood". It weighed 4000 pounds, of which paper probably accounted for 1000 pounds. The dome was supported by six eight-inch cannon balls, which moved between grooved iron tracks, allowing the dome to "be easily revolved by a moderate pressure applied directly without the aid of machinery." The method of paper dome construction was utilized in several other observatories in the Northeast, including one at West Point. A patent was issued to E. Waters & Sons in 1881.
Sadly, a large telescope was never housed in the observatory due to lack of funding. However, the 1879 Record of Science and Industry lists the Proudfit as an active observatory, with Prof. Dascom Greene as director. They note that it did not yet contain a large instrument on the main pier, but did have the following instruments:
The present status of these instruments in unknown, but they may have been donated to the Smithsonian or another museum, as has occurred with several other relics at RPI.
Because a large telescope was never placed
in the dome, it was never much use to the university. In
1900 the dome was replaced by a roof and a second story was
added to the three wings. As is a common occurrence
throughout Troy and RPI history, the building was partially
destroyed by fire in 1902. As part of the renovation in
1903, a third story was added and the basement deepened. The building became a laboratory
for mechanical and electrical engineering. The building went
through several renovations and other uses and was eventually
razed in 1959. The only physical reminder of this structure
is the archway keystone which is memorialized on
the southern entrance of the Science Center in 1961.
The Rensselaer Astrophysical Society was founded by students in 1938. In 1940 the Board of Trustees approved the Society's proposal to erect an observatory on the campus, which became known as "Rensselaer Observatory". The observatory was designed by Dr. Ralph Winslow, head of the school of architecture, and construction was supervised by Physics Professor G. Howard Carragan. It was built on a small ridge just south of Russell Sage Dining Hall, where the Low Center now stands. The observatory was dedicated in September 1942 in an address by Professor Bart J. Bok, then a member of Harvard College Observatory. The 12" reflector was built on campus was sheltered under a 16' dome. The observatory was featured in the October of 1942 issue of Sky and Telescope Magazine. (see scans above)
The 12" equatorial reflector is shown in use prior to the observatory (left) as well at the 1942 dedication. Today, the instrument sits on display in the lobby of the observatory as a testament to the fine craftsmanship of Otto Rasmussen, the department's instrument maker, who oversaw the construction effort, as well as the RAS members who assisted. Mr. and Mrs. Rasmussen also donated an astronomical clock, the present whereabouts of which is unknown.
During that time, a special radio frequency clock was used,
which received time signals from Washington. The Rensselaer
Observatory also had a variety of smaller instruments. In 1946, two
refracting telescopes were donated to the observatory. The first
was a 6" refractor, given by Mr. Roland B. Bourne ('20), which
was mounted on a B-29 gun turret. The second was a 5 1/4"
refractor given by Mr. Gabriel R. Solomon '02.
It is believed that this telescope is the 1883 John Byrne
refractor which still remains at the observatory. Mr. Solomon
was a distinguished graduate, a professional engineer and
businessman who traveled the world and became rich working as a
civil, mechanical and electrical engineer.
We also know that the observatory had a 3 1/2" refractor,
and a 3" Ross photographic telescope with a Ross-Fecker camera.
There was also a small solar observatory and heliostat outside,
which tracked the sun and reflected a beam of sunlight into the
building. Additionally, when Mr. Rasmussen retired in 1952, his
6" reflector was purchased by the physics department.
The observatory continued to be a popular local attraction.
In 1954, 900 visitors were reported to have visited the
observatory,  and in
1957 there were 2400 visitors.
In January 1956, Dr. Fleischer wrote a lengthily proposal
arguing that the venerable Dudley Observatory should merge with
RPI and construct a new observatory at a site in Grafton Lakes
State Park. This new observatory would house the Dudley's
precious 13" 1860 refractor and 12" 1893 Pruyn Equatorial
Telescope as well as an extensive library of rare books. Furthermore, a new radio telescope would be
constructed at the site, the plans for which had apparently had
already been discussed. Ultimately, the merger did not
happen, but Dudley, along with Union College, teamed with RPI to
help build and operate a radio observatory on an 820 acre tract
of land in Grafton Lakes State Park. The site was chosen
because of its relative isolation from electrical lines and
other sources of radio noise. The station was named "Sampson
Station" in honor of Dr. John A Sampson, who bequeathed the
property to RPI. A dedication ceremony was held on
June 30, 1957 in conjunction with the opening of the
International Geophysical Year. The observatory
complex was powered by a generator until a 1-mile underground
electric line was completed later in 1957. A $50,000 grant was
received from the Research Corporation as well as $30,000 in
annual funding from the NSF. Additionally, the trustees of the
Dudley provided funding, as part of the joint venture. Research
staff included Dr. Alan S. Meltzer, Dr Pearl R. Lichtenstein,
along with research associates Mr. Robert L Watters and Dr.
However, we do know that someone at RPI named J. Spalding had
ambitious plans of his own.. He had ordered quotes for a 24" and
16" f/4 reflectors from Boiler and Chivens in 1963, and had
drawn up detailed blueprints and plans for what he described as
a "optical-radio observatory", which included a "high power
laser". The purpose of this laser is not elucidated, but it was
of such size that the plans specified a special room for the
power supply. (Its likely the laser was for an early type of
adaptive optics system, i.e. monitoring atmospheric turbulence,
or some kind of interferometer, however that would require two
telescopes, and there is only one in the plans). The plans say that it would be located at the
"Crawford road site". (there is a Crawford Road in Schenectady,
NY). Evidently, none of these plans ever came to fruition.
The observatory immediately became known as the "Dolly Parton Observatory" for rather obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, as a prank, a group of students painted the tops of both domes red, added red plastic buckets to the structure, and then covered the entire thing with a "brassiere" made out of bed sheets.
Between 1983 and 1984 the observatory was moved (reduced in size) to the roof of the Science Center to make room for the Low Center for Industrial Innovation. The observatory was renamed the Hirsch Observatory, in honor of Hope and David Hirsch, Class of 1965 and Rensselaer Trustee, who donated money for the renovation. The telescope was mounted on top one of the concrete piers running through the building to provide a stable mount. Between 1980 and 1995 the observatory was used for photographic imaging but was not open to the public regularly. RPI student Nicole Zellner is responsible for starting the present-day public observing program in 1996. She graduated from RPI with a PhD in Multidisciplinary Science in 2001 and went on to become a professor of astrophysics and planetary science at Albion College.
In 2006 there was a $70,000 refurbishment, in which the control system and electronics were re-vamped and the telescope optics collimated. Dr. Peter Mack from Astronomical Consultants and Equipment (ACE) was contracted for the refurbishment. (Mack can be seen with RAS president Anthony Milano in the picture to the left.) The dome and telescope were automated with the same type of control systems found in all the world's major research observatories. The institute considered replacing the telescope with a new one, but decided not to, since the current scope is very robust and is much heavier and stable than many newer scopes.
Today the Hirsch Observatory is used by members of the Astrophysical Society as well as students in their laboratory exercises. The RAS and members of the Physics Department offer frequent public viewing sessions at the observatory every Saturday evening 8-10pm from February to mid-November. The observatory averages around 800-900 visitors per year, and with increased publicity and outreach, this number is expected to rise.
Rensselaer Astrophysical Society
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Last updated: August 12, 2009