History of Perkins Observatory

How did this: And this: Lead to this: And this?

Hiram Mills Perkins

 In 1861 the Civil War began. A professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Ohio Wesleyan University Hiram Mills Perkins, left his teaching position to join the Union Army. The 6' 4" professor (who weighed only 97 pounds) was rejected by the Army as unfit for service. Undaunted by this, Hiram did the next best thing... he returned to his family's pig farm in southern Ohio and raised hogs to help feed the Union Troops.


A Pork Barrel Projecta pork barrel project

As anyone who has ever worked for a Defense Contractor can tell you, there is a LOT of money to be made selling things to the Army during a war. Hiram was no exception to this. However, as a devout Methodist and a man of deep convictions, Hiram felt it would be immoral to materially benefit from the pain and suffering of others (even in such an indirect way as providing food for Army troops). He therefore put his war profits into investments and returned to Ohio Wesleyan University after the war and lived out the rest of his life as a simple teacher.

Upon retirement in 1907, Hiram devoted himself to a new project. Over the next 15 years he drew up the plans for an observatory to be located in Central Ohio. Initially intended to be of modest size, Hiram soon realized that his considerable wealth allowed construction of a world-class facility. Finally, in 1923, Hiram Perkins (now 90 years old) officiated at the ground breaking ceremony that began the construction of the observatory that was to bear his name. Unfortunately, Hiram died soon thereafter and was never to see his project completed. To this day some people believe that Hiram's ghost haunts the grounds of the observatory, out of frustration and angst that he could never use the telescope his money paid for.


Telescope Pier Under Construction

The first task in constructing the observatory was to build the support pier to hold the telescope in place. Construction was contracted to the Warner and Swasey Company of Ohio, which built many large observatories around this time, including Yerkes Observatory near Chicago. Note the high-tech heavy construction "truck."

dorm_half_donePerkins Observatory Nearly Complete

As the observatory building neared completion, in became apparent that the telescope itself would require several more years before it would see first light. World War I had come and gone in Europe, destroying all of the major glass works which could produce large mirrors for telescopes.

The Perkins Observatory

(Just after Completion)



The 69-Inch Mirror

Ohio Wesleyan University was able to persuade the National Bureau of Standards to undertake the task of casting the mirror for Perkins Observatory. After four failed attempts, a mirror was finally successfully completed. However, instead of the 60-inch mirror originally intended, the bureau had produced a 69-inch mirror. Although it required some changes to the telescope mount, they decided to use the larger mirror. (The making of the 69-inch mirror is detail here)


69inchscopeThe 69-inch Perkins Telescope

When it was completed in 1931, the Perkins Telescope was the third largest in the world. Perkins had one of the best Astronomical Libraries of the day, as well as facilities to accommodate visiting astronomers from all over the world. However, its location in Central Ohio left much to be desired. For one, all the people who live in Columbus and Delaware very rudely turn on their lights at night. The resulting light pollution severely limits the number of deep sky objects that can be observed. Also, the low elevation combined with typical Midwestern weather combined to make the big telescope quite limited in usefulness. Because of this, in 1961 the Perkins Telescope was moved to Arizona, where it is now a part of the Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff. Don't worry. We have another, smaller telescope (32-inch... not too small) to replace it.

The 69-inch mirror didn't stay at Lowell for very long. It has since done a bit of traveling. It finally found its way home in 1999. Click here to learn about it


"The Telescope" Magazine

the_telescopeOver the years, many famous Astronomers have visited Perkins. In 1932 the Director of the Observatory began publication of a small magazine about Astronomy. At first "The Telescope" mostly dealt with research conducted at Perkins, but over the following years it expanded its coverage of topics. Eventually, in 1941, it merged with another astronomy magazine called "The Sky" to become the familiar Sky & Telescope Magazine we all know and love today.

Ohio Wesleyan University is now and has always been a small liberal arts college. It was realized very early on that they had neither the resources nor the staff to operate and manage a world-class research telescope. Therefore, in 1935, an agreement was entered into with The Ohio State University. OSU would use the telescope as their primary research instrument. In return they would provide funding and staff to keep Perkins going. This agreement was in effect for 63 years.


OSU Withdrew Their Funding in 1998.

As of August 1st, 1998, The Ohio State University stopped providing funding to Perkins Observatory. This was due to OSU entering into new agreements with other universities to purchase time on larger, more modern telescopes. For this reason, Perkins is attempting to establish an endowment fund to enable us to keep our doors open to the public.


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