In Victorian steam-era Ann Arbor of the mid-to-late 19th century, the most extraordinary stargazing took some work.
To see stunning detail of the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and other celestial bodies, one had to reach up, grab thick ropes, and pull.
The ropes engaged wall-mounted gears. Once engaged, they rotated and positioned the track-mounted dome of the new Detroit Observatory. This allowed the new 12-inch Fitz refracting telescope — then the third-largest in the world at nearly 17 feet — to point through the “shutter” opening and into the night sky.
It was an awe-inspiring adventure then, and today as well.
“The last viewing night, you could see Jupiter with its four Galilean moons lined up all in a row, like little pin pricks arranged around Jupiter. It was really cool,” says Justin Paupore. A graduate student in computer science, he has been volunteering for two years at the observatory’s viewing nights.
“Saturn is always incredible to see,” adds Marina Kounkel. She is a graduate research assistant studying star formation, and a regular volunteer who shows up for viewing nights in near period dress. “When it’s really a clear night you can see the atmosphere bands around Jupiter, and the nebulas and galaxies.”
Kounkel and Paupore join other volunteers pulling ropes that turn the roof dome, to reposition the shutter opening over the telescope. Shannon Murphy, a Department of Astronomy staff member who helps oversee viewing nights, says volunteers are essential. “This is not a one-person telescope, and there are days it is not a three-person telescope,” she says.
The brainchild of U-M’s first president, Henry Tappan, the observatory was built in 1854, on a vacant hill on the edge of town. It now overlooks the sprawling steel-and-glass facade of the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
To enter from Ann Street, one must climb steep stone steps to the front porch of the Italianate-style observatory. There are no steps to climb from Observatory Street, leading to the rear of the building. Once inside, it’s up one-and-a-half flights of stairs to the circular dome room.
Inside, voices nearly echo off the hardwood floor and plaster walls. The room holds only the telescope, mounted on a limestone pier atop a concrete pillar and aimed to the sky.
Besides manipulating the dome, volunteers also help with tasks that include winding the spinning brass clock drive. It is a system of weight-driven gears that moves the telescope to match Earth’s rotation. “That’s so when you look at a star it doesn’t move,” says regular volunteer Stan Shackman. He’s a retired electrical and radar engineer who helps operate the device.
“It really adds to the experience, when they pull the ropes to get the dome to the right spot,” says Nicole Downing of Ann Arbor, on hand with her husband, John Downing, a research assistant in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences.
Preparing for adventure
Through open windows, a sunset glow colors the dome room’s floorboards faint red. Soon, failing light turns the room to dark shades of gray. Close to two dozen people fascinated with history, adventure, and the cosmos have mounted the stairs to enter the dome room. Several chat as a line forms to look through the Fitz refractor.
“You can see the moon’s craters so clearly. Did you ever see anything as defined as that?” asks Melissa Kantor, a junior majoring in psychology. Standing, she has been gazing through the telescope’s eyepiece, after climbing a gray stepladder on wheels.
“This is a great thing to do on a clear summer night,” says Kantor, joined by Nell Weber, a junior majoring in biophysics. Both are attending for their astronomy class.
The room is nearly dark now. Light isn’t allowed, as it would spoil the experience. Murphy and Bentley Historical Library Administrative Coordinator Karen Wight take turns speaking briefly to the group. As project coordinator, Wight speaks to the facility’s history; Murphy to astronomical phenomena.
Regular volunteer Joseph Velez, an MCIT systems analyst/programmer and Murphy’s husband, helps position the stepladder below the telescope eyepiece for viewers. He also speaks to the group.
“This was the fifth building to be built on the University of Michigan campus,” he says. It was named the Detroit Observatory as a nod to Detroit businessmen who contributed to its construction. Tappan hired Franz Brünnow, who brought mathematical techniques into astronomy instruction, as the first observatory director.
I can see clearly now
Significant astronomical research was conducted at the observatory. Between 1863-77, James Craig Watson, a former student of Brunnow and second observatory director, discovered 21 asteroids using its telescope. Two comets also were discovered, and significant research was conducted.
On viewing nights, people line up in the dusk to take turns looking through the Fitz refractor.
“You can actually see the texture of the craters. Through the telescope, the moon’s surface had body to it,” says Hans Fruechtenicht, a U-M development research analyst. This is his first viewing. “Driving by it always was interesting to see this building surrounded by the medical facilities.”
Murphy says she tries to schedule viewing nights of the first quarter moon. “It’s big, easy to find, bright enough to see even through thin clouds, and very interesting to almost everyone who looks at it. What else we can look at varies by season, and by which planets are out,” she says. This summer, viewing nights will also feature Saturn and Mars and the maize-and-blue double star Albireo.
On this recent evening, the group shares a 19th-century moment not available to modern, computer-linked telescope viewers. That’s because a pin has fallen from the Fitz telescope mount, making it unable to turn.
“This is not a zippy, 21st-century, computer-controlled telescope,” Murphy says. “The light pollution is terrible. But if you have a little patience and don’t expect a Hubble-quality view of a distant galaxy, it’s a fascinating place where you’re likely to have a great conversation.”
She adds that even if the image isn’t all bright color and fine detail, there’s nothing like looking through the historic telescope.
“The photons entering your eye came straight from the moon, to you, with nothing but a couple pieces of glass in between,” Murphy says.
Next, the telescope is repositioned to view Mars. On this night, the red planet appears as a dull white grape. But Eric Scheie, an Ann Arbor lawyer, can spot Mars’ polar ice cap, positioned at about one o’clock on the planet’s surface.
“I’ve loved seeing this place when I go by,” he says. “I love its history and the architecture. The fact that they got the observatory operating after all these years is incredible. It’s high tech from the past.”
“It’s the history of measuring things,” adds Edie Ostapik, an economics graduate student. “It’s one of those little treasures around campus, it just piques your interest.”
The return to glory
After its glory days of the late 1800s, when significant research had been performed, by the 1920s and ’30s the University had established more modern observatories. Growing light pollution from burgeoning adjacent development affected the telescope, and the facility was used less and less. Some suggested closing the building, which fell into near disuse, or tearing it down. But by the mid-1990s, then U-M President James Duderstadt and his wife, Anne, initiated efforts to preserve it.
The observatory building and instruments were restored in 1996-99. During the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, the first public viewings were scheduled, and they became a regular feature the following year.
“I’ve seen a clear and wonderful view of Orion’s nebula. You can see this tremendous gathering of stars all clustered together, and shifting veils. It’s just fabulous,” Wight says. “It’s a physical experience that’s very different than looking at a computer screen. It’s a bodily experience. You’re gaining knowledge in a way the first observers had to.”
Ask Murphy to recall a standout viewing session, and she doesn’t have to search her memory. As a volunteer for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador program, she reports session logs to NASA. A favorite was April 30, 2013.
“We had a really great crowd who hung around, and we ended up staying nearly an hour late,” she says. “We saw Saturn and Jupiter. My favorite quote for the evening was ‘Whoa, that’s awesome! Are you sure that’s real?’”
The Detroit Observatory is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Top image: A view from the dome room at the Detroit Observatory. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)