Washburn Observatory under renovation in Spring of 2009
|Architect||Jones, David R.|
|NRHP Reference #||85000575|
|Added to NRHP||3/14/1985|
The Washburn Observatory is located at 1401 Observatory Drive on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. Completed in 1881, it was a major research facility for about 50 years. Today, it is home to the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science Honors Program, while the telescope remains in use by students in introductory astronomy courses and the general public during open houses and viewings.
The observatory is named after the former Wisconsin governor, Cadwallader C. Washburn. In 1876, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed "An Act to permanently provide for deficiencies in the University fund income" to which Washburn added a provision that allocated a sum of $3000 USD per year over three years for the establishment of astronomy instruction and a corresponding observatory. This money was not to come from state funds, but was to be raised with property tax.
On September 18, 1877, John Bascom, the president of the University, announced that Washburn would provide an observatory with a telescope that was to be larger than the 15-inch refractor at Harvard. Washburn, along with the Board of Regents, chose the site of the observatory to be removed from the city of Madison with the university campus acting as the divider. The site was about 100 feet above Lake Mendota on the north side of campus and, at the time, was surrounded by a vineyard and orchard. Construction on the observatory was started in May, 1878, and a contract was given to Alvan Clark to build the telescope. It was decided that the telescope would have a diameter of 15.6 inches, which would make it the third largest in the United States. James C. Watson was appointed the first director of the observatory. He oversaw the completion of the original building, and also provided funding for a students' observatory, as well as a solar observatory. He died suddenly in 1880, never seeing the completed observatory. The instruments in the solar observatory, meant to be used in locating the hypothetical planet Vulcan, were removed in 1882.
The observatory was used quite heavily until the new Pine Bluff Observatory was dedicated in 1958. Today Washburn Observatory is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Letters & Science Honors Program. The telescope, managed by the UW Department of Astronomy, is still used for public viewings and educational events.
Observatory dome with the constellation Orion in the background.
- Official Site
- Panoramic view of Washburn Observatory
- UW Astronomy Home Page
- Washburn Observatory in The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin
- "Wisconsin National Register of Historic Places". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 30 December 2008.
- Bob Bless (1978). "WASHBURN OBSERVATORY: A HISTORY". The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Retrieved 30 December 2008.
- "Disappointment to Astronomers". The New York Times. 23 Jul 1882. p. 7. Retrieved 6 August 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- Prof. R. C. Bless (1978). "The History of Washburn Observatory". The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Archived from the original on May 11, 2009. Retrieved 30 December 2008.