By Richard Varr
Always having a strong interest in astronomy, I was particularly thrilled when I toured the Cincinnati Observatory during my recent visit to the “Queen City” in April. That’s because the observatory has two telescopes from the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, and has thus been called the “Birthplace of American Astronomy.”
“It was the first American Telescope to see Neptune,” says Cincinnati Observatory astronomer Dean Regas of the 11-inch lens and 16-foot-long Merz and Mahler refractor from 1842, the oldest public telescope in the country. “It’s the oldest in the world that you’re allowed to touch,” notes Regas.
“It’s unbelievable that it’s still working after 175 years,” adds Regas, who’s also a contributor to science magazines, the author of three books and co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers. “We can attach cameras onto it and put the images on the Internet to watch at home.”
The observatory’s other telescope is the 16-inch Alvan Clark and Sons refractor from 1904. Both are housed in separate buildings atop Cincinnati’s Mount Lookout, each with a domed roof and opening for views of the heavens. Counterweight mechanisms and motors gently position the telescopes, open and rotate the observatory domes, and synchronize the telescopes’ viewing positions with Earth’s rotation.
Astronomy buffs like me delight in knowing the telescopes can discern Jupiter’s four moons, Saturn’s rings and of course constellations and more. “You can see features on the planets – the red spot and stripes on Jupiter,” notes Regas. “You can actually see them for yourself.”
The telescopes of course can’t compete with modern day instruments, so the observatory is now open to the public for tours and for evening stargazing. “We made the transition from an obsolete aging research institution to an educational center,” notes Regas. “We’re only five miles from downtown so light pollution is terrible. But since we’re in a metropolitan area, why not use it to our advantage? Most of our visitors have never looked through a telescope when they look through these for the first time.”
Although the telescopes are historic, past astronomers never made any major breakthroughs using them except for discovering a mountain on Mars and a double star, says Revas. Nonetheless, the telescopes remain a thrill for Regas and his visitors. “We want you to come over here and put your eye up to the telescope. There’s something special about that, seeing that light yourself.”
“I think the best part is when seeing people look through the telescopes, you can actually see their eyes light up – their faces light up. When showing them the rings of Saturn, you can tell when they see it,” he says. “There’s always something new to discover.”
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