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