Astronomy club restores antique telescope

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 | 11:34 p.m. CST; updated 12:30 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 23, 2011
An 1847 Merz and Mahler telescope will be available for public viewing on clear Thursday evenings. The observatory is located on Columbia Audubon Society property off of O'Rear Road near Hallsville.

COLUMBIA — The 12-foot telescope first peered at the stars the year Thomas Edison was born in a small village in Ohio, a portable burner was invented by Robert von Bunsen and the first stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

The telescope’s polished brass mount and 7.5-inch lens set the elegant viewer apart when it was built in 1847. Today, only a few of its kind still look at the sky.


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Its original lens rests in a display case in the MU physics building, and the body itself was almost sold for scrap. But in the 1980s, a group of amateur astronomers rescued it, and this year a few members of the club restored the remaining parts to their original use.

Mike Boessen, a member of the Central Missouri Amateur Astronomers, decided to take on the project in April. 

“The first time I saw the telescope I knew I would look through it one day,” Boessen said.

The club would not financially support the project, but Boessen fronted $1,500, and then-club president Val Germann and his brother Farrell decided to help as well.

Val Germann caught his first sight of the telescope in the physics building 35 years ago.

“It was all in pieces. I didn’t really know what it was then,” he said. He recognized the telescope's value and its German origin.

Likewise, the telescope impressed Boessen when he first saw it in disrepair at a club observatory some years later.

“(The place) was run down and full of dirt and mice, and there was this priceless jewel just sitting there,” Boessen said.

To help restore the telescope some members of the club contributed new parts. The club used an 8-inch lens made by Monte Gurwit in the 1970s. He had ordered glass plates from the telescope-making company in Germany and shaped them into two spherical lenses.

The telescope operates with a falling weight clockwork mechanism, meaning that without any electrical power, a mechanism inside the telescope turns at the exact same speed as the rotation of the Earth, keeping the object in the lens in view for up to 45 minutes.

John Reed donated the clockwork, which Germann said is one of only three such working mechanisms in the United States.

The mechanism was worn and broken when Boessen received it, so he hand-filed hundreds of new teeth on the old gears.

Boessen put about 700 hours into the project, while Val and Farrell German each put in about 100 hours. Others from the club and Boone Hospital Center, where Boessen works as a radiology service engineer, volunteered.

Val Germann researched the history of the telescope as well, getting guidance from a 1910 publication of the history of MU.

He said Merz and Mahler manufactured the telescope in Munich, Germany, in 1847. The original design was invented to help astronomers measure the distance from the earth to the stars. 

“The machines they had had to be extraordinary,” Boessen said. “I had no idea such precision was even possible in those days.”

One astronomer, Frederic Struve, used such a telescope in his work for the Russian czar. For 20 years, Struve measured the angles of binary stars relative to other stars nearby, comparing measurements on an annual basis to determine that the star Vega was 27 light-years away.

The method he used is the foundation for modern astronomy, and the measurements he made were similar to measuring a penny from a quarter-mile away.

In 1848, Shelby College in Tennessee paid $5,000 worth in gold for the telescope, Germann said.

In 1882, the president of MU used his own money, much like Boessen, to purchase the telescope from Shelby, which was having financial troubles after the Civil War. 

MU used the telescope for research and education until around 1959, Germann said. 

In the early 1960s the university purchased a new telescope with a 16-inch mirror, which outmoded Merz and Mahler’s. It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that MU decided to sell the brass and cast iron pieces, and the director of the astronomy department, Charles Peterson, tipped off the club.

The telescope now resides in the Wildhaven Observatory on the Columbia Audubon Society's land off O’Rear Road. The club uses it to educate people, especially children, about science and astronomy. 

Val Germann said the higher-powered telescope at the university just doesn’t have the same "pizzazz."

Most people light up when they see the Merz and Mahler, Boessen said. "They walk in the door and they go, 'Oh, wow.'"

Boessen said anyone can look through the 164-year-old telescope on clear Thursday nights when the club meets at Wildhaven to watch the stars.

"If you get the bug, you get the bug," he said.

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Robin Nuttall February 23, 2011 | 9:48 a.m.

So the Wildhaven Thursday nights are still open to the public? I lived at Wildhaven for a couple of years back in the 1990s and I used to walk over on some evenings and look through the various telescopes and talk to the astronomers. They were always very welcoming. It would be nice to revisit sometime.

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett February 23, 2011 | 10:14 a.m.

Quote from article:
"Boessen said anyone can look through the 164-year-old telescope on clear Thursday nights when the club meets at Wildhaven to watch the stars."

My response:
A 19th century telescope restored. Awesome! What a great gift to the community in offering/extending/inviting the opportunity to share this experience. Thank you for the time and effort that went into this restoration. Impressive!

(Report Comment)
Mike Boessen February 23, 2011 | 4:03 p.m.

Reply to Delcia:

Thank you very much for the kind words. It was a very big job and an incredible learning experience. You are most welcome at the observatory! Please check our web site: for the latest schedules. The intent is to start Thursday March 3. Sessions will start about 1/2 hour before dark, weather permitting, and will run at least until the end of the school year. Our main goal is to interest kids in science and especially astronomy. We appreciate the publicity the Missourian is giving us here.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 23, 2011 | 5:04 p.m.

In the late 1970s and at least the early 1980s the astronomy club met at the observatory belonging to the college in Fayette, Missouri. At that time the observatory had a large, permanently mounted telescope that may have been as old or older than the one described in this article. Who was the manufacturer of that telescope? I seem to recall the manufacturer was either American or British. Does anyone know whether that telescope is still in use?

(Report Comment)
Mike Boessen February 24, 2011 | 6:01 a.m.

Hi, Ellis:

The instrument you mention is still in operation at Morrison observatory in Fayette, and is owned by Central Methodist College. While it is not nearly as old as the Wildhaven refractor, it is almost all original, with the notable exception that it's gravity drive was replaced by an electric drive. It was manufactured by the biggest telescope maker in America at the time, the Alvan Clark company. It is larger in aperture at 12" and was originally installed at the Pritchart (sp?) academy for young ladies in Glasgow, MO about 1908. It was used extensively to observe the 1910 apparition of Halley's comet, which I believe was the event that triggered the charitable contribution that established that observatory. A very unique aspect of the Morrison observatory is the stellar transit, a special purpose telescope used to calculate the exact time, which was then telegraphed to the railroads for as much as $3 a day, a decent income at that time. This activity helped to defray the cost of the observatory. The astronomy club operates Morrison Observatory for the benefit of the public at certain times during the year. Check out for pictures and information.

(Report Comment)
Chris Cady February 24, 2011 | 9:53 a.m.

As the saying goes, they don't make em like that anymore. A fine piece of machinery, and to think that it was almost sold for scrap! You folks have saved not only an engineering marvel of times past, but a real piece of University history as well. It takes a special kind of nerd to pull that off, and I mean that in a good way.

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