A Visit To Van Vleck Observatory

A Visit To Van Vleck Observatory

Taking a detailed look up at the night sky through a telescope is always a rewarding experience. Getting a closer view of the planets and stars can help us gain a greater appreciation for the scale and wonders of the universe. Our Connecticut adoption agents love bringing our kids to Van Vleck Observatory at Wesleyan University to use their high-powered telescopes and do some exploring of the night skies. Every kid remembers their first time looking through a powerful telescope.

Some interesting things about Van Vleck Observatory include:

History of the Observatory

The Van Vleck Observatory was built in 1914 and is named after a former head of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at Wesleyan University, Prof. John M. Van Vleck. However, the conception of this observatory began much earlier.

Wesleyan University was founded in 1831, and astronomy was listed as a course taught by Prof. Augustus W. Smith, M.A., Professor of Mathematics, who would eventually become the President of the University. Prof. Smith was the head of the new Department of Mathematics and Astronomy in 1843 and was succeeded by Prof. John M. Van Vleck, M.A.

The Prudential Committee (Trustees) began considering building an observatory as early as 1832, but this project was delayed – most likely due to a lack of funds. In 1835, University President Fisk and his wife went to Europe to purchase a telescope and other scientific equipment for the university. In April 1836, Fisk obtained a 6-inch refractor from a French telescope maker and had it shipped to Middletown. This would be the first step towards the observatory.

The 6-inch refractor was one of the first astronomical telescopes in New England. In 1838, it was mounted in a nine-foot octagonal wooden building behind Prof. Smith’s home and was used by students and faculty here until 1866.

In 1903, Mr. Joseph Van Vleck, brother of Professor Van Vleck, started a fund to build a new observatory. He gave a $25,000 donation and the rest of the funding was found through good investments and gifts from other family members. The ground was broken for the observatory in 1914.


The Van Vleck Observatory is home to three onsite telescopes housed in domes, along with several portable telescopes.

24 Inch Perkin Telescope

This telescope was manufactured for Mr. Richard S. Perkin in 1966 by Boller and Chivens. The Perkin family donated the telescope to Wesleyan University in 1971. This reflector telescope has a primary mirror 24 inches in diameter and a focal length of 27 feet.

20 Inch Alvan Clark Great Refractor

This telescope was supposed to be installed during the dedication of the observatory in 1916, but war caused some delays because the glass banks for the lenses were ordered from a German manufacturer. It was finally installed in 1922 and has a focal length of 27′ 6″. Today, the telescope is used in collaboration with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford for public viewing.

2.4 Meter Radio Telescope

Wesleyan students built this telescope in 2013,  basing it on the design for the Small Radio Telescope (SRT) developed at Haystack University. Students use this instrument as a learning tool, mainly for studying the motions of neutral hydrogen gas in the Milky Way and radio-wavelength emission from the sun.

By |2018-11-29T16:19:12+00:00August 3rd, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on A Visit To Van Vleck Observatory

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