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85 years fail to dim Steward’s vision

Monday lecture scans its ‘Past, Present, Future’

University of Arizona student Steven Strauss uses the 21-inch reflecting telescope at Steward Observatory on campus.

University of Arizona student Steven Strauss uses the 21-inch reflecting telescope at Steward Observatory on campus.

In Roger Carpenter’s 1940s childhood home, the telephone frequently rang in the middle of the night.

Callers interrupting the peaceful sleep inside the cozy two-bedroom near the corner of Cherry Avenue and Helen Street wanted to know one thing: What’s that up in the sky?

Carpenter’s father, Edwin, was director of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory from 1938 until 1963 – a time when university professors were local celebrities and there were no unlisted phone numbers.

“Back then, professors with a high profile on campus were well known in town,” said Carpenter, 72. “My father was one of those people, so whenever anyone saw something peculiar, they’d phone him up. ‘I see a bright star in the east’ or something like that. He wouldn’t even have to go outside because, as an astronomer, he knew what was in the sky that night.”

Peter A. Strittmatter rarely gets midnight phone calls, but the current director of Steward Observatory, along with scores of UA astronomers, is still focused on answering the questions of the celestially curious.

The observatory has been host to thousands of undergraduate students in the 85 years since its formal dedication April 23, 1923.

It has also helped hundreds of Tucsonans learn about astronomy through bimonthly lectures and, combined with the planetary and space sciences programs, has generated millions of dollars of revenue.

In keeping with tradition, UA will mark Steward’s 85th dedication anniversary Monday with a lecture: “Steward Observatory, Past, Present and Future.”

“The anniversary reminds us of how the enterprise began at UA and inspires us to think of the continued improvement and continued progress we want to have,” Strittmatter said. “The astronomy activity here in southeast Arizona has in many ways been triggered by those events in the early years.”

Stargazer put it in motion
If Lavinia Steward had spent her spare time knitting in the early 1900s instead of staring up into the black sky over Oracle, UA might not have become one of the world’s go-to places for astronomy.

The amateur astronomer gave UA $60,000 in 1916, to found Steward Observatory in memory of her husband. A king’s ransom in those days, Steward’s gift provided funding to build the white-domed observatory, the telescope housing and the 36-inch reflecting telescope that first occupied the observatory dome.

It wasn’t the first telescope at UA, but it was the first of research quality. In 1891, UA purchased a 4-inch telescope from Oakland’s Chabot Observatory, mounting it on a cement pier near the Berger Memorial Fountain. That telescope was used until 1908, when the Harvard College Observatory loaned UA an 8-inch instrument.

Andrew Ellicott Douglass joined UA in 1906, coming from Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory, where he’d worked since 1894. He spent his first decade at UA trying to raise funds for a school observatory.

Then-UA President Rufus von Kleinsmid agreed with Douglass that UA’s scientific future was tied to the stars, but could not persuade the state Legislature to appropriate funds for astronomical research.

Enter Lavinia Steward. She had a “personal inclination” toward supporting astronomy at UA, according to documents from the university’s Special Collections.

WWI interrupted its start
With Steward’s donation, Douglass and von Kleinsmid were able to go out for bids on the observatory. Contracts were issued in 1917, but everything stalled during WWI. Production resumed in 1919.

After three mirrors cracked in production, the final telescope mirror was completed in July 1921 in Buffalo, N.Y., and shipped to a lens-finishing company in Pittsburgh. The mirror was silvered and shipped to Tucson in July 1922, and Douglass used it later that month – nearly a year before Steward was formally dedicated.

According to an April 24, 1923, Tucson Citizen article, John Henry Campbell, a university regent, spoke at the dedication in thanks to Steward, who had died the year after donating the money.

“It is the natural desire in man to do something worthwhile and, while we cannot all do things in the same line, there is no better thing than to make such a gift to this institution,” he said.

Edwin F. Carpenter joined UA as an assistant astronomer in 1925 and became director of Steward when Douglass started the Tree Ring Laboratory in 1938.

Roger Carpenter remembers that astronomy outreach to the public was a constant at Steward.

“In the early years, there were never more than two or three astronomers at the university,” he said. “I would help set up the equipment for the public nights. They had small telescopes set out on the lawn in front of the building and my job was to keep the telescope trained on the object – say, Saturn – because the automatic response of people was to grab the telescope when they walked up to it. That moves it off the object.”

Enterprise has wide reach
When most people think of Steward Observatory, they think of the white-domed building set back a few hundred feet from Second Street. In the midst of the red-bricked campus, it stands out like the Big Dipper on a cloudless night.

But Steward Observatory is actually an enterprise that includes telescopes on Mounts Graham, Hopkins and Lemmon along with Kitt Peak and has produced educational and research spinoffs, including the Tree Ring Laboratory, the College of Optical Sciences and the internationally known Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.

“Astronomy has been an opportunity to excel and that activity has blossomed into other areas: astrochemistry, astrobiology, the optical sciences center,” said Strittmatter. “But that is because astronomy is a very interdisciplinary subject; therefore it interacts with other disciplines. And that’s the goal, to keep doing new things and expanding the frontiers of our knowledge.”

In 1958, the federal government established Kitt Peak National Observatory and UA moved Steward’s telescope to the mountain because of light pollution impeding a telescope.

Since then, the observatory building – which was put on the National Registry of Historic Places on June 13, 1986 – has been used solely for undergraduate instruction and public outreach through the bimonthly lectures and public star nights.

While astronomy doesn’t have many undergraduates majoring in it – 88 currently – Thomas A. Fleming, an associate astronomer and senior lecturer at Steward, said 1 out of every 3 undergraduate students universitywide takes the university’s natural science general education requirement in astronomy or planetary sciences.

In addition, UA has the largest graduate astronomy program in the nation and draws graduate students from across the globe.

Astronomical challenges
Ivelina Momcheva, a graduate student from Bulgaria who’s specialty is extra-galactic astronomy, said she chose UA because of its quality.

“It’s right up there with Cal-Tec, MIT and Harvard,” she said.

At the 1923 observatory dedication, Douglass said he was often asked if the observatory was finished.

“I answer, ‘No, it is only just begun,’ ” he said. “It is only complete in the sense that it is finally workable . . . but a dedication is dual, in being part material and part spiritual. The material part is the building of brick and steel and glass which you see; the spiritual part is the living human force which enters this observatory and makes it live.”

Momcheva, who works in the bottom of the observatory building in the wood-framed office that was used first by Douglass, agreed.

“Steward is such a living and breathing place,” she explained. “There’s just so many things happening at any given time – people from across the world giving talks, researchers discussing their work. We give homage to our history, but we also look forward.

“Astronomy is one of the sciences that is still pushing the frontiers of understanding. ”

SOURCE: Thomas A. Fleming, UA associate astronomer/senior lecturer

Steward Observatory's dome is a landmark on the UA campus.

Steward Observatory's dome is a landmark on the UA campus.

It was Lavinia  Steward's $60,000 gift to UA in 1916 that got the observatory started.

It was Lavinia Steward's $60,000 gift to UA in 1916 that got the observatory started.

ABOVE: The Steward Observatory (circled) was on the outskirts of the UA campus, as seen in this 1929 aerial view. BELOW LEFT: A UA astronomy student looks through the eyepiece of the original 36-inch reflecting telescope in the 1950s. BELOW RIGHT: The same 36-inch telescope is moved from the top of Steward Observatory to Kitt Peak in 1963.

ABOVE: The Steward Observatory (circled) was on the outskirts of the UA campus, as seen in this 1929 aerial view. BELOW LEFT: A UA astronomy student looks through the eyepiece of the original 36-inch reflecting telescope in the 1950s. BELOW RIGHT: The same 36-inch telescope is moved from the top of Steward Observatory to Kitt Peak in 1963.



• 1918-38: Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who founded the Tree Ring Laboratory in 1937

• 1938-63: Edwin F. Carpenter

• 1963-66: Aden B. Meinel, who founded the College of Optical Sciences in 1966

• 1966-70: Bart J. Bok

• 1970-75: Ray J. Weymann

• 1975-current: Peter A. Strittmatter


• What: 85th anniversary celebration of the dedication of Steward Observatory

• When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

• Where: Steward Observatory, 933 N. Cherry Ave., Room N210

• Details: A free evening lecture titled, “Steward Observatory, Past, Present and Future” and anniversary cake

• Cost: Free

• Info: 621-5049, uanews.org/node/19332



University of Arizona-Steward Observatory Telescopes, not including radio telescopes or specialty telescopes

• 1891: 4-inch refractor/campus observatory

• 1908-22: 8-inch refractor loaned from Harvard College Observatory/campus observatory

• 1923-63: 36-inch reflector/campus observatory

• 1963: 36-inch reflector telescope moved to Kitt Peak

• 1964: 21-inch reflector/campus observatory

• 1969: 90-inch reflector (Bok Telescope)/Kitt Peak observatory

• 1979-99: Multiple Mirror Telescope (4.5-m reflectors)/Mount Hopkins

• 2000: Multiple Mirror Telescope upgrade (6.5-m reflector)

• 2005: Large Binocular Telescope (2 x 8.5-m reflectors) /Mount Graham



• 1906: Andrew Ellicott Douglass joins UA and begins campaigning for an observatory.

• 1916: Lavinia Steward gives UA $60,000 to build an observatory. It is named in honor of her late husband.

• 1917: Contracts issued for construction of the observatory and telescope materials.

• 1918: Construction halted because of WWI.

• 1919: Construction resumes.

• 1922: 36-inch reflector telescope shipped to Tucson in July and used for the first time.

• April 23, 1923: Formal dedication of the Steward Observatory.

• 1958: Kitt Peak National Observatory established by the federal government.

• 1963: Light pollution forces UA to move Steward’s telescope to Kitt Peak.

• 1964: 21-inch reflector telescope installed in Steward Observatory.

• June 13, 1986: Steward Observatory placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

• 1999: Installation of Multiple Mirror Telescope on Mount Hopkins, which began in 1979, is concluded.

• 2005: Large Binocular Telescope installed on Mount Graham.

• April 28, 2008: Celebration of the 85th anniversary of Steward Observatory dedication.


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