The Cincinnati Observatory was founded by Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, who, as a Professor at Cincinnati College in 1842, generated public enthusiasm for astronomy through a series of public lectures. At that time, there were a few small telescopes in the country, but no organized observatory with a powerful instrument existed anywhere. Mitchel was able to interest a number of people in the possibility of erecting the first such observatory in the US. At the end of one of his lectures, Mitchel presented his plan to the audience of 2000. The plan was to organize the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, who would be shareholders in the observatory. Their shares would go for the purchase of a first-class instrument, and would entitle them to the use of the telescope. In three weeks, 300 subscribers had been obtained, and Mitchel set out to purchase the needed instrument.
In 1842, Mitchel inspected a 12 inch objective lens of the highest quality in Munich, at the optical institute formerly run by Fraunhofer, and ordered it for the observatory. Upon his return to the US, Mitchel undertook the supervision of the construction of the observatory.
The site of the future observatory was a 4 acre lot at the top of Mt. Ida, some 400 feet above the city of Cincinnati, which was given to the Astronomical Society by its owner, Nicholas Longworth. On the 9th of November, 1843, the cornerstone was laid by John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States. Adams had a deep interest in astronomical science, and had tried unsuccessfully in 1825 to persuade Congress to found a National Observatory. Although 77 years old, and not in the best of health, Adams travelled to Cincinnati for the occasion because he felt that the founding of the Cincinnati Observatory was such an important step to be taken if the US were to become internationally recognized for its intellectual and scientific endeavors. It was at the dedication that Adams gave his last public speech. Mt Ida was renamed Mt. Adams following this event.
By the time the observatory building foundation had been laid, the country was in an economic depression, and with nearly all of the money raised having gone to the purchase of the telescope (which cost about $9000, a considerable sum in those days), the project was without any money for its completion. Mitchel raised some additional money (and paid for much of it out of his own funds), while the majority of workmen gave their time and labor in exchange for shares in the Society. The telescope arrived in January 1845, and went into operation on April 14, 1845.
Because there were no funds remaining for an endowment for the new Cincinnati Observatory, Mitchel agreed to serve as its first director, without salary, relying on his income from the Cincinnati College. Soon after the completion of the Observatory, and before the telescope became operational, the college burned down, and he was left without any monetary support.
In spite of this setback, however, Mitchel still served as director of the Observatory, and began serious scientific investigations with the telescope. It was at this time that he discovered the stellar companion tothe bright star Antares. It was also during this period that he founded The Sidereal Messenger, the first astronomical publication in the US (it was discontinued a few years later due to lack of funds).In 1848 he also developed what was probably the first working chronograph for automatically recording the beats of a clock, a necessity for accurate timing observations. This was part of a larger program to automatically transmit time and observational information in "real time" over telegraph wires. It was developed, in part, because of an experiment using telegraphy of time signals to determine the longitude of Cincinnati with respect to Philadelphia. It had been suggested by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal in England, that Cincinnati be the zero-point for land surveys in the US, as Greenwich was in England.
Eventually, however, Mitchel had to temporarily leave Cincinnati to find some source of income. Because his talks in Cincinnati had been so well received, he spent much of his time during the next few years lecturing around the country on the wonders of astronomy to large public audiences.
Mitchel's enthusiasm and clarity impressed his audiences. As one person who heard him has said: "In New York the music Hall is thronged night after night to hear his impassioned eloquence poured in an unbroken flow of 'thoughts that breathe and words that burn' on the excited thousands. A sublimer spectacle in lecturing was never seen. The theme, the orator, the intellectual audiences, the rapt attention, the almost painful intensity of feeling, all crown him the prince of lecturers." The great expansion of interest in astronomy, and the proliferation of observatories during the next few years owes a great deal to the efforts of Mitchel, who has sometimes been called "The Father of American Astronomy."
In 1852, Mitchel provided the plans for another observatory, the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York. And in 1859, he accepted the directorship of Dudley, which paid him a regular salary.
After the Civil War broke out, the observatory ceased operation, and remained dormant until 1868, with the appointment of Cleveland Abbe as its new director. Abbe strongly urged that the Observatory be moved, since the Mt. Adams site had been rendered unsuitable due to the heated air, smoke, and dust of the rapidly-growing city. At this time he also established a system of daily weather reports and storm predictions, earning him the nickname "Old Probabilities". His work impressed the US government so much that he was summoned to Washington to establish the United States Weather Bureau, and the Observatory was once again shut down.
In 1871 the University of Cincinnati took over control of the Observatory, and began its move to a new location at Mt. Lookout, a few miles away. The move was complete in 1873, and the original cornerstone of the old observatory became part of the new building. The old telescope lens was refigured in 1876 and the original tube shortened. The telescope was then moved once more in 1904 into a newer building, and its place in the older building was taken by a larger instrument, a 16 inch refractor built by Alvan Clark & Sons.
In this century, astronomy moved in the direction of much larger instruments at superior observing sites. During this period, however, the Cincinnati Observatory remained active due to the efforts of one of its directors, Paul Herget. Herget became one of the pioneers of the use of electronic computing machines for astronomical calculations.
At the end of World War II, the personnel of the Rechen Institut in Berlin, which was the major center in the world for the study of the minor planets (asteroids), was split between Russian and Western occupation zones. Herget was asked by officers of the International Astronomical Union to run a new minor planet center, and from 1947 until his retirement in 1978, Herget was the director of the Minor Planet Center of the I.A.U., at the Cincinnati Observatory.
In 1979 the Observatory formally became part of the Physics Department of the University of Cincinnati. The Observatory continued to be used for public education as well as for research by graduate students and others at the University of Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Observatory Center was first formed in 1997 as a volunteer committee dedicated to revitalizing and preserving the Cincinnati Observatory and its historic setting. In late 1997 the committee applied for and received the prestigious Department of the Interior’s National Historic Landmark designation for the Cincinnati Observatory’s buildings and grounds. In 1998 the committee was formally incorporated as The Cincinnati Observatory Center and began operating the Observatory’s programs. In March of 1999 the University of Cincinnati, which owns the Observatory, granted The Cincinnati Observatory Center a long-term lease to the Observatory buildings and grounds. Finally, in the Fall of 1999 the Cincinnati Observatory Center became a private not-for-profit organization.
The result of our evolution is a strong broad-based community and public/private partnership of many entities. They include the University of Cincinnati, neighbors of the Observatory, neighborhood organizations, amateur and professional astronomers (including the Friends of the Observatory-FOTO-and theCincinnati Astronomical Society-CAS), preservationists, and other interested parties who came together to plan for the future use of these wonderful nineteenth-century buildings. The result has been a committed, passionate, and diverse group which has launched an expanded educational program and has begun the revitalization of the Observatory.
With a generous 10-year, $1.5 million commitment of support from the University of Cincinnati we have been able to implement the first phases of the expanded educational program. The educational program uses the buildings and equipment as a base for public science education programs and for supporting science education in local K-12 schools. In addition, a committed core of volunteers this past year donated over 4,000 hours of support. The result has been a quadrupling of the number of participants in our educational programs to approximately 6,000 per year and a renewed breath of life for the oldest observatory in the Western Hemisphere.
We think our story is an exciting one, and an excellent example of successful collaboration between a University and a neighborhood, between public and private, between amateurs and professionals, and between volunteers and staff. This collaboration has yielded dedicated and diverse individuals passionate about making The Cincinnati Observatory Center a thriving and revitalized educational center.
In addition to the volunteer effort and University partnership, we have begun to be funded by a variety of sources separate from the University. Private individuals, foundations, and the State of Ohio have all become significant partners. With this funding we have been able to launch additional and exciting educational programs and to begin revitalization efforts of the buildings. These gifts have formed the foundation for the RENOVATION programs to begin in the late Fall 2000 and continue to Fall 2001. With the help of volunteers the Observatory will carry out a series of exterior restorationsvalued in excess of $1,000,000. The scheduled projects will create ADA accessibility to both buildings, restoration of all exterior components of the Observatory’s buildings including roof, dome, windows, facades, brick and mortar, landscape, drive, and entrances, decorative elements, new offices for staff, electrical and HVAC renovations, and a renovation of the Mitchel building’s bathrooms. By 2001 the Observatory’s facilities will be greatly enhanced.
President John Quincy Adams observed in his 1843 dedication speech that while the Observatory’s FUTURE was bright it was also an equally significant tribute to the vision of the citizens of Cincinnati and an example to the rest of the nation. Mirroring President Adams’ observation, we too think that the results of our operations and activities demonstrate the same level of vision and dedication to the Observatory. This has been a truly special partnership of hundreds of diverse individuals and entities creating an extraordinary institution.
We are sure that with the vision, dedication, and hard work of everyone involved next year will bring continued success in developing programs, funds, and renovations to carry out our mission.