Visiting Smaller Observatories

Morrison Obsevatory, Fayette, Missouri:

No matter where you travel, near home, or great distances away, it seems you can always find something of astronomical significance. Take this small town in the central U.S. as one example. The site was named after patroness Bernice Morrison, who in 1874 pledged U.S. $100,000 to build an observatory for the region. The facility is now part of Central Methodist University (CMU), but was then a modest midwestern college. In the modern era, the science department faculty, students, and the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, have gone to considerably lengths to preserve an historic observatory in this small farming community. Near the 39th parallel, in a less-travelled corner of north central Missouri, is the home of a surprisingly significant pair of instruments. The site is notable enough to have appeared in Sky & Telescope magazine in 1975, during Morrison's centeniary year.


Morrison Observatory sits on the edge of a city park, near the University Chancellor's home, amid a grove of trees. The simple white structure and dome make it easy to transport your mind back 130 years. The whole facility was originally located in Glasgow, Missouri, as part of the Pritchett Institute. CMU acquired it in 1927, several years after the institute closed. After a lengthy legal battle to save the neglected instruments and facility, the observatory was rebuilt in Fayette in 1935-36. In the intervening years, scores of visitors from across the country, and the world, have signed the guest register. Dr Larry Peery, Science Department Chair and the current director, was a gracious host during my October 2005 visit.


Setting the Clock

The first notable instrument is an incredibly-crafted British-built transit. The device is a large, calibrated, single axis telescope, and was used to accurately mark the position of a star as it crosssed the zenith at the observatory's 39 Degrees North Latitude location. Note the slotted roof opening. This instrument allowed the observer, lying on his thinly padded lounge chair, to make an accurate time hack and set a large mechanical chronograph (image left: far right of frame). The observer could then send a telegraph signal to the railway signalling devices, "dropping the ball" to mark local time. Since the observatory has moved south from its original location, and thus no longer on the same parallel, the transit can no longer provide such accurate time services. Good thing we have cesium-based atomic clocks and GPS satellites to fill this void!


A Lengendary Refractor

Here is a truly beautiful piece of late 1800s engineering. The 12 inch classic refracting telescope, built by the legendary Alvan Clark Company, sits carefully preserved in the late 19th century dome. This instrument has cousins in many famous observatories around the U.S., including Harvard, Lowell, and Yerkes. After being rescued and restored, this black and brass beauty has been in continuous use for public viewings for decades. The dome has the well worn white-painted features and scent of seasoned wood and old machinery throughout. A large reduction gearset and hand crank operates the dome rotation (image left). The machined controls show the passage of many thousands of professional and amateur observer's fingertips (image right).

This instrument made it's greatest mark in studying Jupiter's Great Red Spot ! No one claims reknowned astronomer and educator Dr Henry Pritchett was the first to see the large cyclonic storm (larger than two Earths) in 1878, but he was the first to carefully document the phenomenon.

Other nicely-displayed relics include a pair of medium-sized brass field scopes (image left), used when our 1880s starwatchers decided to take a trip outside to the local hilltops. Who knows, maybe they had to escape the light pollution of the town's one gas streetlamp !

Besides the classic feel of a Jules Verne novel, older working observatories always have a few little quirks or oddities which add to their character. Take a look at the old electric 24 hour chronometer in one corner of the dome (image right): seems some winged visitors, likely wasps, built a small mud nest atop the polished metal case!

Take the time to find the small observatories. They are living history of a grand era of discovery. Special thanks to my good friends Michael and Brandon Pepper of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, for this splendid tour.