Denver’s Great Telescopes (19th and 21st Century)

— by Robert Stencel

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Small telescopes have been part of Denver history since our origins. Witness the fine brass refractor on display in the parlor of the Byers-Evans house downtown. With the rejuvenation of the University of Denver in 1880, a smart young professor arrived in town that same year, beginning a sequence of events that would lead to a classic telescope in Observatory Park, and a futuristic one high atop Mount Evans – both associated with astronomy at the University of Denver.

In Observatory Park, at the heart of the University of Denver’s historic Chamberlin Observatory lies the telescope, a 20-inch aperture Clark-Saegmuller refractor. The telescope first saw light in July of 1894, and is still used by scientists, students and visitors today. It is the fifth largest of its kind in the United States. The observatory is named after its patron, Humphrey B. Chamberlin, who pledged $50,000 in 1888 to see it built and equipped. Professor Herbert A. Howe, the astronomer at the University of Denver since 1880, was responsible for overall design and instrument specification. Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridge, Mass., the foremost opticians of the day, crafted the lenses for the telescope. When it was made, the primary lens was priced at $11,000. Today, it is considered priceless. The mechanical mounting for the telescope was built by George N. Saegmuller, who owned and operated Fauth and Company in Washington DC.

Humphrey Chamberlin was active in the Denver real estate business at the time, so Saegmuller and Clark both accepted land holdings as part of their payment. However, when the great Silver Panic of 1893 caused the bottom to drop out of the landowning business, Mr. Chamberlin went bankrupt and the properties offered to Saegmuller and Clark rapidly declined in value. Professor Howe paid Clark with his own cash and compensated Saegmuller by delaying delivery of his finished telescope for a time, personally assisting with its display at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. The telescope components and lenses were finally shipped to Denver by June 1894. Howe was concerned for the safety of the 150-pound lenses, so he personally transported it from Chicago to Denver in a private train car.

Howe performed final assembly of the telescope at Chamberlin Observatory, in addition to his duties as Dean and professor at DU. The University assisted as much as it could in paying Clark and Saegmuller, but Howe had to pay some of the fees out of his own pocket. Trial observations began in July of 1894, with “first light” on the 14th. This initial use of the telescope by Howe included observations of stars in the famed cluster M13 in Hercules and Earth’s moon. The first public use of the telescope occurred on August 1st of the same year, when Howe entertained the Swedish Methodist Christian Endeavor Society with a look at Saturn. The telescope began its professional use in late fall. Observations of Mercury’s passage across the face of the Sun (called a transit) were recorded on November 10th and 11th. These observations were the first published results from the Chamberlin Observatory, printed in the Astronomical Journal in the spring of 1895.

B50 Note: Dr. Robert Stencel is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Denver, where he splits his time between the Chamberlin Observatory in Denver and the Meyer-Womble Observatory, located atop 14,268 ft Mt. Evans. The university still offers astronomy classes and frequent public access. For information call the hotline at 303-871-5172 or visit Professor Stencel’s website. All photos are courtesy of the University of Denver Archives.