by Michael Wright
On a recent trip to National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, I was pleasantly surprised to find this interesting telescope as the landmark object for museum’s science and technology wing. The description merely stated that the telescope was used by Maria Mitchell, America’s first female professional astronomer, at Vassar College. The wood and brass refractor aroused my curiosity so I decided to find out why it has such prominent position in the museum.
The Vassar Telescope was donated to the Smithsonian in 1963 by Vassar College, the prestigious NY women’s college. The instrument was previously installed in the “old” observatory, which was the first building completed on campus. (They had their priorities straight back then!) The historic observatory is now named after its first director, Maria Mitchell.
When Matthew Vassar recruited Maria Mitchell to teach astronomy at Vassar, she already had a reputation as a skilled astronomer. Born on Nantucket in 1818 and raised in the Quaker tradition, she learned astronomical calculations from her father. At age 12, she helped her father observe a solar eclipse and calculate the position of their home. By age 14, sailors trusted her with celestial navigation calculations for their whaling voyages. In 1847 at the age of 29, she gained international fame for discovering Comet Mitchell 1847VI (C/1847 T1). For this discovery made with a telescope from the roof of the Pacific National Bank in Nantucket, she received a gold medal from the new King of Denmark, Frederick VII. Prior to Maria’s discovery, Caroline Herschel was the only woman to have discovered a comet.
Maria became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. For a short period, she calculated tables of Venus’ position at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office. Despite resistance from Vassar College board members who objected to a female instructor, Maria was the first person appointed to the faculty of Vassar College in 1865, where she taught until shortly before her death in 1888. In addition to her scientific achievements, she was an advocate for women’s rights and founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She encouraged her female charges by saying “When [women] come to truth through their investigations… the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.”
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” –Maria Mitchell
The association with this remarkable astronomer and activist partly explains the telescope’s historical significance. Next month I’ll tell more about the scope and it maker, Henry Fitz.