CINCINNATI — Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel was as unique as his name. The 19th-century Cincinnatian was a West Point graduate who was a lawyer, math teacher, and railroad surveyor. He even served as a Brigadier General of the Union Army Volunteers during the Civil War.
What do you want to know
- Known as the “Cradle of American Astronomy”, the Cincinnati Observatory is one of the oldest astronomy centers in the Western Hemisphere.
- Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel led fundraising to help build the observatory in the 1840s, then served as its first astronomer
- It moved from its original home in what is now Mount Adams to its present site in Mount Lookout in 1873
- Although the observation no longer functions well as a research facility, it has developed new life as an education center for future astronomy enthusiasts.
But Mitchel’s lasting legacy is more otherworldly. He led the campaign to build the Cincinnati Observatory, even toiling doing some of the construction work himself.
Known as “the birthplace of American astronomy”, the Cincinnati Observatory is home to one of the oldest working telescopes in the world. It was also the first public observatory in the Western Hemisphere.
When Mitchel opened the observatory in 1845, he did so to make astronomy and science accessible to ordinary people.
An eloquent speaker, Mitchel helped popularize astronomy across the United States. Determined to build an observatory in the Queen City, he raised funds by going door to door in 1842.
Dean Regas, the observatory’s current astronomer, said Mitchel asked for $25 per person, the equivalent of $876 today.
Mitchel raised over $9,000 – “an incredible amount of money at the time,” Regas said. It was enough to buy a top-of-the-range telescope in Europe, with a high-quality 11-inch lens.
The designers constructed the tube from brass and mahogany and shipped the finished telescope to New Orleans. The final leg of his journey to Cincinnati was by boat on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
They built the observatory around the telescope in a part of town then known as Mount Ida, overlooking downtown Cincinnati. Today people call it Mount Adams, renamed after President John Quincy Adams after his speech at the facility’s 1843 dedication.
From its inception, the Cincinnati Observatory was unlike any other facility of its kind. At the time, its telescope was the third largest in the world, and the University of Cincinnati used it as a key facility for astronomy research and education.
But Mitchel did not want to limit its use to the scientific community alone. He ensured that the observatory was also open to the public.
The study of stars and planets was not new in the 1840s, but the belief that information should be available to ordinary people was rare. Mitchel sometimes had his searches interrupted by visitors who wanted to browse, Regas said. This earned him the nickname “The People’s Telescope”.
“He was the Carl Sagan or the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his time,” Regas said. “He wanted to bring science and astronomy to everyone and giving access to the telescope was one way to do that.”
To get away from the light pollution of downtown, the telescope moved in 1873 to a new location five miles east of town. The neighborhood later became Mount Lookout, named for the observatory.
Located at the end of a tree-lined street on four acres of hilltop land, the Greek Revival-style building stands out with its distinctive silver dome. The structure was designed by architect Samuel Hannaford, perhaps best known for two of his later designs – Music Hall and Cincinnati City Hall.
In 1904 the observatory purchased a larger telescope in Cambridgeport, Mass. – a 16-inch Alvan Clark and Sons refractor. They built a second building on campus and moved the old telescope there.
For decades, the Cincinnati Observatory has been a premier research institution. Mitchel, the first director, wrote and edited the first astronomical publication in the United States, The Sidereal Messenger.
There have also been other notable directors over the years.
The second director, Cleveland Abbe, published the nation’s first weather forecasts and later helped found the National Weather Service.
After World War II, Dr. Paul Herget, then director of the observatory, became a pioneer in the use of electronic calculating machines for astronomical calculations. The Cincinnati Observatory housed the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center from 1947 until its retirement in 1978.
Over the years, as technology improved and telescopes got bigger and more powerful, Mount Lookout also grew. This caused an increase in light pollution.
As a result, the observatory gave up its research mission and the buildings began to deteriorate. In the 1990s, UC — which owns the buildings — even considered selling the coveted land to developers interested in building condos, Regas said.
It took a coalition of neighbors, historians, preservation advocates and, of course, astronomers to save the observatory. In 1999, the Cincinnati Observatory was reborn as an education center and a $2.5 million restoration soon followed.
“We have this large population here and (we said), ‘Let’s turn this into an attraction and get people excited about astronomy,'” Regas said. “This transition from research to education was just a huge step and it’s a model that other historical observatories in the country are sort of following.”
Lauren Worley, a member of the observatory’s board of trustees since 2018, said the institution’s mission transition reflects its founding principle of expanding access to science.
“The concept that you don’t have to be a scientist or an academic or even a high-profile patron to gain access to heaven reflects this historic commitment to public education and democracy,” she said. declared.
Worley has a unique perspective on the Cincinnati Observatory: She served as NASA’s press secretary from 2011 to 2016, before moving closer to her home in Ohio.
The realigned mission suits Regas perfectly, Worley added. Regas started at the observatory in 2000 as an educator. Although he went to college to become a high school history teacher, Regas came across a side job at the observatory.
“I quickly discovered that I loved astronomy far more than anything I had ever encountered in all my training, so I took the plunge,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where the stars captured me.”
Regas is always looking for new ways to share and express its passion for the cosmos.
He’s hosted a podcast, written books, and even had a recent residency at the Grand Canyon, which has become a frequent topic of his social media posts. From 2011 to 2019, he co-hosted a long-running syndicated show on PBS called “Star Gazers,” reaching viewers in 100 markets each night for a few minutes to tell them what to look for in the night sky.
“His outreach and the work of the entire team would make Mr. Mitchel proud,” Worley said.
Today, various organizations, ranging from school groups to scout troops, visit the facility on a permanent basis. The observatory’s telescopes and equipment are also used to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs at local K-12 schools.
The observatory also hosts community events, including telescope training and “star parties.” People can hire it for weddings, art shows, fundraisers, and business meetings.
The Cincinnati Observatory is open to the public every Friday night and some Saturday nights. It also offers day programs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Since COVID-19, it has reduced some of the telescope’s availability and uses an appointment system to book times.
It hosts an assortment of events throughout the year to coincide with specific astronomical events – planetary alignments, eclipses or lunar events, things of that nature.
Many nighttime events at the observatory cater to adults, such as Late Night Date Nights which offers couples a romantic night under the stars. But there are also some for children.
As part of its “Future Galileos” project, the Cincinnati Observatory has distributed 20 Orion XT8 telescopes to organizations in the area. They also provided safe solar viewing accessories and training so students could observe eclipses.
One such organization to receive a telescope is a local nonprofit called Happen, Inc., which provides creative programming for children in the community.
Happen used the telescope to host a “S’more and Stars” event at its Northside headquarters. They also took the children in the program to visit the observatory in person.
Echo Lyons, 15, described it as an “incredible experience”.
“The telescope is such a marvel to look at and through, and the whole tour was fantastic,” Lyons said. “It pushed me to learn more about space research and reinvigorated my love for space exploration.”
The Lyon experience is common among visitors once they look through the telescope and see the stars above, Regas said.
“It’s just one of those things you don’t forget,” he said. “They came once and they got hooked. I have never heard the word ‘wow’ so much in my life.