Skip to main content

Founded 1660: Our Oldest Space Program

Fall 1985 | Volume 1 |  Issue 2

Years before 1682, when the English astronomer Edmund Halley first saw the comet that now bears his name, Americans were searching the night skies. The first telescope in the New World arrived from England in 1660. With it, John Winthrop, Jr., lifted his eyes from the Connecticut wilds to a blurry image of Saturn. Winthrop was just one of many gentlemen amateurs who dominated American stargazing until well past 1800; for them astronomy was part of a polished education —a gentlemanly pursuit that allowed men at the outposts of civilization to participate in the European Enlightenment.

After the American Revolution the scientific prestige of astronomy became linked with the cultural prestige of the new nation. It now became a matter of national honor to erect an astronomical observatory—and a matter of national shame that nothing of the sort was occurring. In 1825 President John Quincy Adams proposed that the federal government undertake such an enterprise. “It is with no feeling of pride as an American,” noted the dour President, that “on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe there are existing upward of 130 of these light-houses of the skies, while throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one.” Three years later, with Adams’s proposal foundered on partisan hostility, the American Quarterly Review predicted that “the time will come, when some English critic .. . will exhibit to the world the mortifying fact, that for years after every petty German principality had its astronomic institution, supported at public expense … the people of the United States were so devoid of scientific intelligence, as to have made no provision for such a purpose.”

If America lagged behind Europe in the matter of observatories, it was not for lack of interest in astronomical observation. After all, individuals and colleges had been purchasing telescopes for over one hundred and fifty years, and there was no shortage of advocates for an observatory project. According to the historian of science Nathan Reingold, the many attempts to garner government and private money for an observatory all failed for essentially the same basic reason: “The sums required for a proper astronomical institution were simply too large for the America of the years 1790-1830.”

But when in the 1830s observatories were finally built in America, they came thick and fast. One of the first—the oldest still standing—was at Williams College in 1836. Then followed in rapid succession observatories at Western Reserve College in Ohio, the Philadelphia High School, West Point, and others. In 1842 a national observatory was finally established in Washington, under the auspices of the Navy. By 1856 one American astronomer was able to list 25 observatories in the United States, and by 1882 there were no fewer than 144, some of them with international reputations.

Although America finally had its own observatories, at least until after the Civil War the telescopes they housed were almost without exception of foreign manufacture. The 9.6-inch refractor in the national observatory was the work of Merz and Mahler of Munich. So were the 6-inch telescope at the Philadelphia High School and the “giant” 15-incher at Harvard. What didn’t come out of Munich came from London or Paris. That began to change with Henry Fitz’s 6-inch refractor of 1849, hailed by one contemporary astronomer as the “first Yankee telescope of considerable size,” Fitz ground the lenses himself right in New York City—but even it required French glass for its manufacture.

It was the latter half of the nineteenth century that saw the first great era of American telescope building. In 1862 the United States boasted the world’s single largest telescope for the first time when Alvan Clark of Massachusetts built an 18.5-inch instrument. In the next thirty-five years, Clark, and his sons George Bassett and Alvan Graham Clark, turned out one world-famous telescope after another, each bigger than the last.

Size is crucial from a scientific viewpoint; the larger the telescope, the more light it can gather and the farther into space it can see. But size also has meant prestige, a temptation to which donors in America have consistently succumbed—and especially in the Gilded Age. James Lick, a San Francisco millionaire, left $700,000 to build an observatory with a telescope “superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made.” When the Lick Observatory, located on Mount Hamilton near San Jose, opened for business in 1888, its 36-inch Clark telescope was the largest in the world—and the pier that supported the telescope contained Lick’s remains. Just four years later George Ellery Hale began planning the first of his ever larger observatories that would culminate in Palomar.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.