From the earliest days of naval history, sailors on the open seas have been guided by the stars. When the U.S. Naval Academy first opened its doors in 1845, celestial navigation was an integral part of its curriculum. By 1854, USNA had built a small observatory to study the stars. While this observatory has changed and moved over the past 168-plus years, it continues to play a vital role in USNA’s current curriculum, which includes core classes in seamanship and navigation.
A Modern Marvel: The Famous Clark Refracting Telescope
The original USNA observatory was built from the period of July 1850 to November 1854. It was completed the year after USNA founded the Department of Astronomy, Navigation, and Surveying. It was originally located in the center of the school, approximately where the Zimmerman Bandstand now sits. The observatory’s total cost of $4,696.75 was a rather significant portion of the entire 1853 USNA budget of $48,044.22, highlighting its importance to the fledgling Academy. Constructed with brick, the building was originally shaped as a cross with an entrance portico, central room containing a drum-shaped dome and two flanking transit wings. Later additions were made between 1862 and 1868 and then again between 1868 and 1897.
The observatory finally became operational in 1857 when the drum room with its shuttered slit was first outfitted with the 7.75” aperture Clark refracting telescope, built by the esteemed Alvan Clark of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had a 112.25”’ focal length and a clock-driven German style equatorial mount perched on a brick and cast iron pier. The drive clock was regulated by a Bond spring governor, and the telescope had seven different eyepieces and a filar micrometer. At the time it was the only known Clark lens of this size. “In the eyes of USNA leaders, the telescope and its auxiliary instrumentation were prized educational accoutrements…,” according to Paul D. Shankland, AIM, University of Western Sydney—and Wayne Orchiston of the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Epping, Australia, in their research “Nineteenth Century Astronomy at the U.S. Naval Academy.” The handicraft was excellent. “From a national perspective,” they wrote, “The USNA Clark telescope therefore was in elite company.” In fact this particular Clark Telescope was so well respected that it was sent to Des Moines, Iowa, as part of a historic U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) program to capture and photograph a total solar eclipse in August 1869.
Then Something Magical Happened
After a time, the Clark Telescope was returned to the Academy. However, things were changing at the Academy. By 1895, many of the main buildings were found to be “condemnable,” and the USNA Observatory was on this list. It was razed in 1908 without a replacement. The telescope and other important instruments like the USNA Repsold transit circle were transferred to the USNO in Washington, DC, for safekeeping.
For almost a century, the Naval Academy did not have an observatory. Then something magical happened. Towards the end of 1986, a group of midshipmen visiting the USNO happened to mention to USNO astronomer Richard Schmidt that the USNA once had its own telescope; Schmidt then relayed that the original 1857 Clark objective was still in storage at USNO. Excited by this development, a midshipman approached his professor, Dr. Elise Albert, in the Physics Department, to see if it could be brought back to the Academy. Dr. Albert then proposed the restoration of the USNA telescope to Captain Victor Delano, USN (ret.), who was heading the USNA Class of 1941 committee to choose a 50th Graduation Anniversary gift to the Academy.
On March 6, 1987, the objective lens returned to USNA as a loan that would change to a gift when the new observatory was built. Baltimore telescope dealer Tom Collins built a replica mount and tube with a more modern shell. The building and telescope were dedicated on June 6, 1991, as the Class of 1941’s 50th Graduation Anniversary gift. Positioned at the corner of Bowyer Road and Phythia Road near the USNA cemetery, the USNA Observatory has a view of College Creek and the Severn River—and of eternity.
The Observatory Now
In 2022, the observatory received an upgrade when a Paramount MEII German equatorial mount replaced the older mount. The old mount massed several hundred pounds and was suspended 9 feet above the observing deck. It took a major engineering effort to remove it, and a large TSD project to modify the telescope pier to accommodate this new drive. The pier has been finished and reinstalled, and there is currently an ongoing effort to level it and get the new drive propped up. It continues to evolve with the times. Professional astronomers teach at the current Physics Department, which offers both undergraduate courses and postgraduate degrees in astronomy. While there is not a USNA major dedicated to these studies, each midshipman takes classes in seamanship and navigation as part of their mandatory core curriculum.
The USNA Observatory is also a teaching tool for a variety of school and scout groups, as well as the USNA Astronomy Club, which performs casual observing and conducts sunspot counts, charge-coupled device (CCD) imaging and variable star photometry.
You can pass by this USNA star while you explore the Yard. When you take a tour, dine at our restaurants or shop at our stores, you’re supporting the midshipmen since all proceeds go to the Brigade. Be a part of USNA’s rich astronomical history today.