Rural Missouri Magazine

A view from another time
Morrison Observatory's Clark telescope
provides link to astronomers of old

by Bob McEowen

The evening astronomy class at Central Methodist College is winding down and most of the students wait inside the classroom. Outside, on the lawn of the Morrison Observatory, a few students examine a distant star cluster through a modern reflector telescope while others linger, enjoying the unseasonably cool summer air.

Justine Garoutte peers through the 1875 Clark refractor telescope at the Morrison Observatory. The large gear that turns the observatory dome was once operated by hand. A motor now rotates the dome.

But upstairs, inside an observatory dome first constructed in 1875, Justine Garoutte sits alone, peering at Mars.

A student assistant to physics professor Larry Peery, Garoutte spent the evening demonstrating the school's antique Clark refractor telescope and assisting students in locating the red planet. After the class loses interest in the old instrument, Garoutte remains, enjoying the view.

"I feel privileged to use the old telescope," she says. "Not too many people get a chance to use something that was made in 1875, that was used to see the red spot of Jupiter — to actually use something that was very important back at the turn of the century."

The Morrison Observatory, first located in nearby Glasgow and moved to Fayette in 1935, is home to a treasured artifact from an earlier era of astronomy — a Clark telescope.

In the late 1800s Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridgeport, Mass., were the premier telescope makers in the nation, if not the world. Clark telescopes were installed in the most prestigious observatories, including the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and Chicago's Yerkes Observatory.

Unlike today's reflector telescopes which use mirrors to magnify distant light rays, these refractors used a powerful lens and the long body of the telescope itself to bring deep space objects into view. The popular image of an observatory — a lone scientist looking through a long lens inside a domed structure — dates from the era of the Clark telescope and describes the Morrison Observatory perfectly.

"When people think of observatories they think of this," says Peery, who chairs the science department at Central Methodist College.

The fact that few people view the night sky through the 126-year-old telescope at the Morrison Observatory is not for lack of opportunity. The facility is open for public viewing during the fall and spring. It's more likely the Howard County landmark remains one of the best-kept secrets in mid-Missouri.

Berenice Morrison
Carr Pritchett

How this small college came to house what was once a world-class observatory is a story of generosity, scientific inquiry, the desire to preserve the past and to make use of a valuable resource.

The story begins on a clear night in 1874 at the Pritchett School Institute, a long-defunct private college once located in Glasgow. Legend has it that Berenice Morrison, 17-year-old niece of the school's founder, was staying at the home of Carr Walter Pritchett, director of the institute. The two were observing Coggia's comet pass overhead when Pritchett expressed his desire to have a proper telescope to observe the heavens.

Morrison, the heir of her deceased parents' considerable fortune, obliged Pritchett's wish. The young woman pledged $100,000 for the construction and endowment of an astronomical observatory at the school. The facility — the first permanent observatory west of Chicago — was completed in 1875 and featured a state-of-the-art Clark telescope.

Purchased for $6,000 in gold, Pritchett's new telescope was actually assembled on location in Glasgow. Measuring almost 17 feet long with a 12-inch aperture, the instrument dominates the rotating wooden dome constructed to house it.

More than just impressive to look at, the telescope surpassed anything in use at other Midwestern institutions and rivaled many telescopes back East.

"At the time it was built it was a research quality observatory," says Peery. "In 1875 the Naval Observa-tory didn't have much more of a telescope than this and yet it was charged with all the astronomical measurements for ships at sea."

Central Methodist College professor and Morrison Observatory Director Larry Peery stands in front of a Meridian telescope once used to tell time.

Pritchett, too, was involved in practical work. Besides the large Clark telescope, the institute also housed a smaller "meridian" telescope that operated only along a north-south line. With this instrument Pritchett measured the position of stars in order to determine exact time of day. His readings, sold to railroads, helped support the school.

While the small instrument produced revenue, the large telescope fed the imagination. Aided by his sons Henry and Carr Jr., Pritchett conducted astronomical research. By some accounts, the Glasgow astronomers were the first to discover the red spot of Jupiter.

"The red spot was probably discovered years earlier but Pritchett was one of the first to study it extensively and to document his work," says Peery. "Whether or not he discovered it, my personal feeling is that he did not."

Whatever his involvement, the distinction was insufficient to protect the school from financial difficulties at the turn of the century. In 1922 the Pritchett Institute closed. With the observatory endowment in danger of evaporating in the school's debts, Henry Pritchett and Morrison encouraged the curators of Central Methodist College to sue for control of the astronomical facility.

The college reopened the observatory and operated it in Glasgow until 1935 when the telescope and original dome were moved to Fayette, 12 miles away. There the college installed the old dome atop a new observatory on a hilltop overlooking the city park.

In the years since the observatory moved telescope technology has passed the old Clark telescope by. Today, small, portable and relatively inexpensive reflector telescopes have replaced refractors — without sacrificing quality.

"Optically, this is every bit as good as the telescope upstairs," Peery says as he lifts the lid of a large cardboard box to reveal a bright blue 10-inch Meade reflector telescope — ironically stored under the gaze of Pritchett and Morrison, peering down from old photos in the foyer of the observatory they founded.

"This one is about a year old and cost us about $2,500. It's set up to where you can use it on a tripod. You just take the key pad, punch in what you want to look at and it automatically goes to it."

Placed in the yard outside the observatory the new telescope offers students a clearer view of deep space objects than the Clark, with less knowledge required to locate its target.

That does not mean the old instrument has no purpose. Students still use the Clark in classwork and the old telescope holds a special allure for astronomy buffs.

"I look through a lot of telescopes, a lot of expensive telescopes, a lot of observatory telescopes and this is still a great telescope," says Ralph Dumas, president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, a group of star-gazers originally formed at the Morrison Observatory.

For more than 126 years astronomers have viewed the night sky from the Morrison Observatory, first located in Glasgow and later moved to Central Methodist College in Fayette.

Peery, director of the observatory since 1979, agrees. "I don't know whether it's imagination or reality but there's something about the optics of a large refractor like this, particularly for planets. Jupiter and Saturn are just stunning through this."

Visitors to public viewing nights at the Morrison Observatory do not have to choose. Both telescopes are put to use as Perry, Dumas, Garoutte and other volunteers introduce guests to the worlds beyond.But while volunteers provide tours of the facility and recount its history, the real attraction is what can be seen through the eyepiece.

"Everybody sees these beautiful pictures that the Hubble Space Telescope turns out but it's something else to look at Saturn with your own eyes and see the rings or look at the great red spot on Jupiter," Dumas says.

Still, the old telescope provides something of an attraction in and of itself.

"It connects you with the past. It connects you with all the great old observatories that have Clark telescopes. This is their little brother," Dumas says.

The Morrison Observatory is located at 700 Park Road, next to the Fayette City Park. To reach the observatory take Besgrove St. west from the intersection of Highways 5 and 240 in Fayette. Turn left on Park Road. Public viewings will be offered each Thursday evening from 7:30 until 9:30, Sept. 20 through Nov. 1. In case of rain or cloudy weather, observatory tours and astronomical programs will be presented. For more information call (660) 248-3391, ext. 371.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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