From Special Collections/University Archives: Bucknell’s Observatory

Five years after William Bucknell donated $50,000 to the University at Lewisburg in 1881, saving the institution from financial ruin, he continued to play a large role on campus—one of the main reasons why the school was renamed Bucknell University in his honor in 1886. One of the conditions that came with William Bucknell’s donation was that the large, forested area of the campus below Roberts Hall , —the area now known as the Grove—remain untouched and maintained.

William Bucknell’s hand in the shaping of the campus did not stop there. In 1887, Bucknell approached the Board of Trustees with the layout of a fifth campus building: the Observatory. With the help of William Bartol, a professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University for nearly fifty years, William Bucknell donated $10,000 to the school to help facilitate the Observatory’s construction.

The Observatory was quickly built and furnished with a twelve-foot long, ten-inch wide telescope designed by Alois Clark & Sons out of Cambridge, Massachusetts whose telescopes had been purchased by private research groups and universities across the country. The entire room was enclosed in a small, rotating dome that could be opened to varying degrees, blocking out the light from surrounding buildings, such as Old Main, currently Roberts Hall, and the Bucknell University Library in the Carnegie Building located next to the Observatory. Other equipment was added to the facility, including a transit device and a precision clock that were frequently referenced by the Pennsylvania Railroad to set the official time for their rail lines in central Pennsylvania.

Astronomy and a few mathematics classes were held in the building, which was enlarged in 1905 to accommodate the increase in use. The Observatory remained more or less the way it was for the next four decades, the only major improvements being the purchase of a camera to capture images from the viewpoint and a special screen that allowed the viewer to look at the sun and other bright objects.

In 1962, during a renovation of the original Observatory—which had had problems with its foundation since its construction—one of the tower walls collapsed and it was apparent that the entire building needed to be razed. Students and faculty using the telescope in the observatory were consistently irritated by the surrounding “trees and dormitory buildings,” as well as light from the nearby academic buildings. The decision was made to construct a new observatory in a different location and move the existing astronomical equipment to the new building. The location for the new Observatory building, where it stands today, was on the hill overlooking the new stadium and where distractions such as invasive light and overshadowing from trees would no longer be a problem.

Funding for the new observatory came largely from a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation. Much of the original equipment, including the original large telescope, was kept and moved to the new building following its construction, with many pieces still in use to this day. New laboratories and offices were constructed to connect with the new observatory and the result is a substantially larger and more accommodating structure than was originally planned when designs were floated in 1887 when William Bucknell donated the funds for its construction. Today the observatory remains open to students across campus who wish to share in the field that Professor Bartol once said “forms an essential part of a finished education.”

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