Strawbridge Observatory

The Strawbridge Observatory at Haverford College, January 2013 (Click for full size image).
The Strawbridge Observatory at Haverford College, January 2013 (Click for full size image).

The current Strawbridge Observatory was built in the early 1850s, replacing the original, wood-frame observatory that had been constructed for John Gummere in the 1830s (records seem to indicate different dates for this original building). A pedestal capped by a now broken sundial marks the location of Gummere’s observatory (see this post for more on the sundials around Haverford College).

The column with its broken sundial that marks the site of the original observatory. The plaque reads: “This stone marks the site of the Observatory of John Gummere (1784-1845). Erected about 1834.”
The column with its broken sundial that marks the site of the original observatory. The plaque reads: “This stone marks the site of the Observatory of John Gummere (1784-1845). Erected about 1834.”

A second dome was added to the Strawbridge Observatory in the 1880s, when the college acquired a 10-inch refracting telescope. Then in the 1930s steel doors were installed as part of a major renovation project. During this project the architects preserved the concrete slab that both marked one of the original equatorial mounts and the donors’ names (so I was recently told). Apparently, the college’s original telescope—a refractor built in the 1830s—is still in one of the observatory rooms (this too was recently related to me—stay tuned for an update on these issues). Today students use a 12-inch and 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain to look up at the heavens, at least when cloud cover doesn’t prevent it.

Astronomy has long been the backbone of science at Haverford and and remains one of our celebrated subjects. While the construction of an observatory served to demonstrate the college’s commitment to science, it came during a period when colleges across the country were constructing observatories. Haverford’s observatory is as much an expression of the 1830’s institutional Zeitgeist as it is evidence of a profound commitment to scientific activity.

One comment

  1. Karl Johnson says:

    There is a wonderful story of how Steven Cary (while acting president of the College in 1977-1978) received the support of the Strawbridge family to fund the renovation of Haverford’s Strawbridge Observatory. While I clearly remember Steve’s own recounting, I cannot improve upon Bruce Partridge’s recollection (below). It is a story of goodwill, generosity and warmth that deservedly lives on in the history of the College.

    Steve set out to raise some money to refurbish the Strawbridge Observatory. He went to see an alumnus of the College, and a member of the Strawbridge family, Gordon, of the Class of ’23. Mr. Strawbridge agreed to donate a $10,000 stock certificate, then asked Steve to come down to his bank while he extracted it from his safe deposit box. As Steve looked on, Gordon Strawbridge opened the box, only to reveal a substantial stack of these $10,000 stock certificates. As Steve tells the story, he handed one to Steve, who then said, "Come on, Gordie, give me another." Another was handed over. With a twinkle in his eye I’m sure you can all imagine, Steve jostled Gordon Strawbridge with his elbow and said, "Hey come on, how about another…?" And so it went until Steve walked away with a stack of stock certificates, and much of the cost of the refurbishment of the Observatory was in hand.
    A person without Steve’s love of the College would not have tried such a move. A person without Steve’s good spirit and sure personal touch could not have pulled it off. Steve Cary, more than anyone I know, was able to brighten "the light of God" in others, and to kindle a love of Haverford wherever he went.

    Bruce Partridge
    Bettye and Howard Marshall Professor of Natural Sciences (source: http://www.haverford.edu/publications/summer02/htmlversion/letters.htm).

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