Crowd gathers to wish ‘happy birthday’ to Fuertes telescope

The Fuertes Observatory and its Friday night open houses, where visitors can marvel at the starry sky through “Irv,” the Irving Porter Church Telescope, were bright spots in a dark pandemic freshman year for Gillis Lowry ’24.

“When everything else was bleak, I knew I could count on the observatory and ‘Irv’ every Friday night,” said Lowry, an astronomy major and member of the Cornell Astronomical Society, a student organization. “After so many years of loving space, I was finally peering into that vastness I’d only ever seen through screens.”

Lowry and more than 115 other people celebrated the telescope’s 100th birthday during a special event Oct. 14 at the observatory.

Partygoers enjoyed space-themed cupcakes, peered through the telescope and pored over a display of old observatory instruments and photos. Philip Nicholson, professor of astronomy, spoke about the development of observatories at Cornell – Fuertes is the fourth – and the people who have championed astronomical research at Cornell.

Polina Shchetirina, who moved to Ithaca this fall with her husband, a Cornell postdoctoral fellow, saw the observatory and was intrigued when she heard about the event.

“The universe is so inspiring, to see something that is bigger than us,” she said. “Also I’ve never seen anything through a telescope, so I was excited to be able to observe tonight.”

The telescope is one of only a handful in the world that are still operated much like they were in the early years of the 20th century, using a weight-driven clockwork mechanism to track the sky as the Earth rotates on its axis.

The observatory’s namesake, Estevan Antonio Fuertes, professor of civil engineering, prodded the university to build and equip an early observatory for his students. That first building was a small wooden structure located on the Arts Quad, built around 1880.

person pointing at screen
Jason Koski/Cornell Philip Nicholson, professor of astronomy, gives a presentation on the history of the observatory and the telescope.

“For the first half of the history of our observatories, most of the work being done in them was by civil engineers, who were being trained to do surveying in the field,” Nicholson said. “One of Professor Fuertes’ main goals, shared with founder Ezra Cornell, was to introduce more practical things into the curriculum.”

The construction of new buildings caused the observatory to be torn down and relocated multiple times before it was moved to its current location, overlooking North Campus. “They thought that nobody would ever want to build anything on the other side of Beebe Lake,” Nicholson said with a laugh.

The building was finished in 1917, but it would be five more years until money was raised for a suitably large telescope – an effort led by Professor Irving Porter Church, Class of 1873, a mechanical engineering major who became a professor of applied mechanics and hydraulics.

A man of varied interests, Church owned his own 4-inch telescope. “He thought it was a shame the university didn’t have funds for a bigger telescope to look at stars and galaxies, make what would now be considered astronomical observations, and used not just for engineering training,” Nicholson said. When Church discovered a pair of 12-inch glass blanks that Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago wasn’t using, he donated $1,000 himself and organized an alumni fundraising effort to have them figured into a compound lens and then to provide a suitable telescope mounting.

The telescope was always intended for students to use for viewing, not as a serious research instrument, Nicholson said. Professor Samuel Boothroyd, Cornell’s first professor of astronomy, started the practice of hosting public open houses at the telescope in 1923, a tradition that was continued into the 1960s by his successor, Professor William Shaw, and now by the students of the astronomical society.

person on ladder looking through telescope
Jason Koski/Cornell Members of the Cornell Astronomical Society gave tours of Fuertes Observatory to the public, who were allowed to peer through the telescope during an October 14 celebration of its 100th birthday.

“The observatory means a lot to us, and it’s really nice to be able to be here to celebrate this milestone,” said Justine Singleton ’24, an astronomy major who’s also part of the astronomical society. She said students also use the Hartung-Boothroyd Observatory, located about 10 miles from campus and built in 1975, for research and the senior laboratory class in astronomy.

Today, about 4,000 people visit Fuertes and its museum every year. The observatory is open every Friday from 8 p.m. to midnight for visitors to gaze through “Irv” and several rooftop telescopes to view planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies. Along with the Friday events, Fuertes is sometimes open to the public for astronomical events like lunar eclipses, Singleton said.

The Astronomical Society sponsors many special events each year. The next one celebrates the birthday of Carl Sagan. 

7:30 p.m., Nov. 11
Appel Commons Multipurpose Room 303
Carl Sagan’s Birthday Lecture: "Alien Earths" with Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute and associate professor of astronomy

This story also appeared in The Cornell Chronicle.

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