Perkins Observatory

The OES visited Perkins Observatory on August 10, 2014. The story of Perkins Observatory begins at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Ohio Wesleyan University Mathematics and Astronomy professor Hiram M. Perkins applied to join the Union Army. Standing 6’4″ and weighing only 97 pounds, the professor was turned away by the Army, unfit for service. Still wanting to contribute to the war efforts, Perkins took temporary leave from his teaching job to return to his family’s pig farm and helped raise hogs that went on to feed Union soldiers. During the course of the war, Perkins made a considerable sum of money for his endeavors. At the war’s end, Perkins placed his war profits into investments and returned to his teaching job at OWU.

Perkins retired from his professor job in 1907 and dedicated himself to build a world-class observatory just outside of Delaware. After 15 years of planning and designing, the construction began in 1923. Perkins officiated the groundbreaking ceremony at 90-years-old. Sadly, Professor Perkins passed away soon after the construction of his observatory had began. His personal bible remains in the observatory as per his request at the time of his death. The Warner and Swasey Company was hired to build the telescope pier as they had experience in building observatories. Since all of the major glass works of Europe that usually produced large telescope mirrors were destroyed during World War One, OWU convinced the National Bureau of Standards to cast their telescope’s mirror. The bureau manufactured a 69-inch mirror, the first of its kind made in the United States.

The observatory was constructed in a neo-renaissance style by the architecture firm Talmadge and Watson. Two angels holding celestial objects stand tall on either side of the main entrance. The frieze above the front doors depict the Greek god Helios watering his horses after dragging the sun across the sky in a golden chariot over the course of the day. Names of seventeen great astronomers were engraved in marble with gold inlays around the top of the building. The observatory included one of the best astronomical libraries of the day, a 100-seat lecture hall, a darkroom, kitchen, office space, and a bedroom for sleepy astronomers to catch some shut-eye after their long nights. At some point, a seismograph was installed on the ground floor, supported by a column of concrete that rests on bedrock thirty feet below. The Perkins Observatory was truly an awe-inspiring structure. When it was completed in 1931, it housed the third largest telescope in the world.

Unfortunately, light pollution from nearby Delaware and Columbus has severely limited the telescope’s abilities. This along with the low elevation and typical Ohio weather forced the telescope to be moved from Perkins Observatory to Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona in 1961. The telescope was the largest that has ever been moved, before and since. A smaller 32-inch telescope took the original telescope’s place at Perkins Observatory. In 1964, the original telescope’s mirror returned to Central Ohio and was part of a display at COSI for 35 years. The mirror found its way home in 1999, returning to Perkins Observatory, where it remains on display today.

From 1935 until 1998, OSU partnered with the Ohio State University to run Perkins Observatory. During this partnership, in 1963, the Pioneer Radio Telescope (or BIG EAR) was constructed behind Perkins Observatory. The Ohio Sky Survey, the most complete mapping of cosmic radio signals, took place from 1965 until 1972. The telescope was able to detect quasars and discovered several distant objects. The radio telescope was most famous for detecting the “Wow!” signal of 1977, as it was searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Follow-up scans of the same area have never reproduced the results. Sadly, BIG EAR was demolished in 1998 and the site is now part of a pond for the golf club.

Perkins Observatory remains open to the public every Friday evening. The Columbus Astronomical Society holds several events at the observatory throughout the year and invite the public to come learn about the cosmos. You can learn more by visiting their website at http://www.columbusastronomy.org.

Location Information: Active Research Facility

Perkins Observatory is located at 3199 Columbus Pike south of Delaware; Delaware County.

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