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Harvard College Observatory History in Images

This is a personal project collecting and documenting early images of Harvard College Observatory, focusing on the site at Observatory Hill (previously Summer House Hill). Buildings, instruments, people, and observations.

Disclaimer: all content here is solely my own views, and in no way represents the views of my employer, or anyone else. Also, I'm documenting things as I learn about them, so expect frequent errors. Corrections will occur without notice and without a changelog at this point.


This page shows a list of all images tagged with "optical".

[link]1848/11/8 Great Refractor Lithograph

Image Credit: B.F. Nutting, A. Sonrel

Earliest source: William Cranch Bond. "Description of the Observatory at Cambridge." Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences vol. 4. Metcalf and Company, 1849.academybond

An impressive lithograph of the Great Refractor (called the Grand Refractor in some early documents, and in this case, "The Cambridge U.S. Equatoreal" [sic]. The image linked here is HUGE and detailed, and suitable for significant cropping or zooming.

One thing that seems to be missing from this image is a finder telescope. The current finder telescope may be a telescope that used to be mounted in a dome on the west wing of the original observatory. According to "Annals" volume 8, the west wing equatorial was mounted onto the east equatorial in 1868, and I assume this is the same telescope mounted there today. It's unclear if there was originally a smaller finder, but if you look closely at this lithograph, there is something that could be a small finder telescope just above the eyepiece shaft of the main telescope.

The image is credited at the bottom to both B. F. Nutting and A. Sonrel. Nutting was a well-known Boston artist, and Sonrel was a well-known artist, lithographer, and photographer. The image is credited this way:

B. F. Nutting del.   Lith of A. Sonrel, Cambridge, Mass.   A. Sonrel on stone.

In practice, I'm not sure what this means. "del." is an abbreviation of delineavit, which is latin for (more or less) "drew this". But lithography was a process of drawing directly on stone (followed by several chemical treatments which caused ink to bind only where the artist had drawn). I'm not aware of any method for transferring an image from paper to stone. Nutting had done some of his own lithographs, but if he had done all the drawing, would Sonrel really be credited just for carrying out the chemical processing or printing reproduction? This seems unlikely. Either Nutting started it directly on the stone and Sonrel completed it, or Nutting drew a paper version, which Sonrel completely reproduced by hand on the stone. To me the crediting suggests the latter.

This image was copied repeatedly by other artists to make engravings and etchings of the telescope for various other publications.

The plaque on the wall is a list of donors that is still in place today, in the same position with respect to the pier. The sky is depicted as daytime and cloudy, so what the heck is the observer looking at?

[link]1851 "Grand" Refractor

Earliest source: Isaac Smith Homans. Sketches of Boston, past and present / and of some few places in its vicinity. Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1851.sketches

An etching (or engraving, I'm no expert) based on the Nutting/Sonrel lithograph above (or both images were based on an additional unkown source).

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[link]1856 Great Refractor

Earliest source: William Cranch Bond. Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College / History and Description of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College vol. 1. Metcalf and Company, 1856.annals1

Another drawing based on the Nutting/Sonrel lithograph.

Inscribed at the bottom with "Kilburn-Mallory SC". SC is short for sculpsit, latin for "carved this" (because this is an engraving).

[link]1879??? Great Refractor

Image Credit: G. W. Pach

Earliest photo found so far of the Great Refractor.

Taken by G. W. Pach, of Pach Brothers photography, a well known photography firm for over a century. Their work includes Presidents and other famous people of their day like Samuel Clemens. They went into business shortly after the Civil War, by 1867. (Although another source says 1872.) Their address is printed on the image, and shows 841 Broadway, N.Y. The Pach brothers moved from this address to 935 Broadway somewhere in the range of 1888 to 1890. After which their building burned down and the lost their collection of negatives. I don't know if they reopened in New York, but the continued on in other cities.

I thought the data was further nailed down by the fact that there is no finder scope visible. In 1868, the observatory took the smaller refractor off of their west equatorial mount, and attached it as a finder telescope, to the side of the Great Refractor. However on further examination, I think that telescope is mounted, almost entirely hidden on the far side of the telescope. So now I'm much less sure of the date. [Possible that they were at 858 Broadway before about 1878 or '79]

The wood surface inside the dome is now painted white, which is too bad, because this looks amazing.


Image Credit: Thomas A. Fine

Construction of the dome to contain the 28-inch reflector donated by Mrs. Draper for the Draper Memorial project.

Eleven photos processed into an animated gif.

Some alternate copies of these images have penciled in dates, and based on this, the construction began before July 12, 1887 (when the platform was completed), and completed after September 1 of the same year (when the building skirt was added but the dome skirt was not in place).

A copy of the sixth image in the sequence has a date written on it, which dates the middle of the construction to July 27, 1887.olvwork432353(missing) The position of the building makes it clear that this is the dome for the 28-inch reflector, which was the second of the three large additional domes that were built.

Use/Copyright: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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