The World’s Oldest Telescope ‘You’re Allowed to Touch’ is in Cincinnati

Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

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.”

The historic 1842 telescope, the oldest public telescope in the world. Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

“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 1904 telescope. Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

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.

Astronomer Dean Rigas moving the telescope in the Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

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.”

Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

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.”

Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

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.”

Inside the Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

“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.”

For more information:

https://www.cincinnatiobservatory.org/

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3 responses to “The World’s Oldest Telescope ‘You’re Allowed to Touch’ is in Cincinnati

  1. This is great. I love especially to read something where are words; biggest, smallest, oldest etc. Thank You for this interesting article. In my country we have:

    World’s oldest surviving diving suit

    Happy new week!

  2. Thanks for your comment and interest. Love the article and photos about the oldest diving suit!

  3. Sartenada, I also loved the dinosaur in the woods!

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