McCormick Observatory Celebrates 125th Birthday
The University of Virginia is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its McCormick Observatory
Ancient shutters squeal open as UVA astronomer Ricky Patterson operates a rope pulley 45 feet below, and the marvelous McCormick telescope once again is ready for the stars. An electric motor was installed in recent years to move the dome on the same iron wheels and circular track that date back to 1885 when there was no electricity here and it, too, was moved by hand.
Patterson: I’m moving the entire dome, um, and it’s extremely easy to do, actually. There’s almost no…I can do just a finger and you can see the gears back here, forcing itself along a track there and then there is a whole set of wheels, kind of like railroad wheels that are moving the entire dome.
It is still a mechanical marvel. But the telescope itself is even more miraculous. Thomas Jefferson himself dreamed of this observatory in 1820, one year after he founded the University. But it took 65 years before Leander McCormick of the McCormick Reaper family, a son of Rockbridge County, bought the scope and donated the money to literally get the wheels rolling.
Patterson: It was the largest in the US when it was finished and the second largest in the world. In the South, it was by far the biggest scientific endeavor that had been undertaken, and this was only a decade or two after the end of the Civil War, and so the South was really still in ruins and this was really a big deal to have this piece of technology, as well as just this view into the heavens and it had been open since the very beginning um, to the public, for viewings. They look through there and they ask, “Is that really a picture…is that real?”, and, just to see their eyes light up and to get that interest in nature and looking out again at the world, at the universe, is very nice, it reminds me of when I was a kid and looking through a telescope for the first time.
For over 100 years the McCormick scope was serious science. During the 20th century it measured the distances to 3,000 stars and compiled 145,000 photographic plates, and was a research facility second to none. Research here has faded with the coming of light pollution and electron telescopes. But visitors still come to this beautiful mountaintop just an hour away from Richmond the first and third Fridays of every month. To do what people have always done: gaze at the sky and wonder about their own origins.
Patterson: The magic of putting your eye up there and actually being part of the process of completing the circuit, in a sense, is very special.
Charles Fishburne, WCVE news.