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Morrison Observatory offers a look into starry skies, history

Monday, November 7, 2011 | 9:10 a.m. CST; updated 8:08 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Zane Rice, 9, and Steve Bornemeier look into a telescope at the Morrison Observatory in Fayette. The observatory has several telescopes, including one that is more than 130 years old.

FAYETTE — Inside the Morrison Observatory, where the air smells of old wood and cold metal, volunteers Steve Bornemeier and Ralph Dumas trade notes about their charge: A rare telescope that dates to 1875.

They held court on a recent Thursday evening in the observatory's upper level, a painted white-brick room with cherry red floors, where the legendary 17-foot Clark telescope pointed to a clear autumn sky.

If you go

The observatory is located at 700 Park Road in Fayette and opened from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays through Nov. 17. Admission is free. For more information call the observatory director Larry Peery at 660-248-6371 or email him at lpeery@centralmethodist.edu.


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The observatory, which is open to the public on Thursdays, will close until March after its last public nights of the season, on Nov. 10 and Nov 17.

And now, in a dark room lit only by a red glow coming from a stairwell, visitors gathered, letting their eyes adjust to the room's dimness at the threshold.

Bornemeier and Dumas often welcome visitors when they volunteer. "It looks like one star, but it's actually two," Bornemeier said, positioning the instrument on a double star called Albireo, 380 light years from Earth.

Before volunteering at the observatory, Bornemeier purchased his first telescope with money earned from hauling hay as a child. He continues to live in the countryside of Howard County, where he owns farmland and enjoys dark night skies. Looking at the heavens, he said, "shows me my place in the Universe."  

After everyone had a chance to look through the eyepiece, Dumas swiveled the massive telescope to demonstrate its gracefulness. The end of the telescope came within inches of the wall, and Dumas moved the instrument carefully.

Breaking the telescope is one of his greatest fears. 

"The lens is irreplaceable," Dumas said.

To examine the treasured lens, Dumas removed a metal weight at the front of the telescope and pushed up gently. On the far side of the room, Bornemeier caught the fat end, fitted with a 12.25-inch diameter lens, and beamed a flashlight inside.

"There's duct tape in there," Bornemeier said.

"Oh, yeah," Dumas replied. "It's 130-something years old."

The two men have volunteered together for years. Dumas, who manages the service department at a Joe Machens Dealerships in Columbia, said he'd hasn't missed a public night at the observatory since 1999. 

With experienced volunteers like these, Larry Peery, the observatory director, is free to roam the building and give walking tours. Peery is a physics professor at Central Methodist University. He has managed the university's observatory for more than three decades and can recite its history chapter and verse.

The Morrison Observatory was built in 1875 in Glasgow, 12 miles west of Fayette. A donation from a 17-year-old heiress paid for the building and its equipment, wrote Carr W. Pritchett, founder of the Pritchett College, for whom the observatory was built.

According to Pritchett's account, $6,000 in gold paid for the prized 17-foot long equatorial telescope, including the priceless lens crafted by Alvan Clark & Sons, a company renowned for precision optics.

The struggling Pritchett school closed in 1922, and the observatory fell into disuse. Chickens and other birds roosted in the domed roof, Peery said.

With the help of Carl Pritchett, Central Methodist University acquired permission to use the observatory a few years later.

After the building's restoration, Central Methodist students traveled to Glasgow for stargazing. In 1935, the telescope and the building that housed it were moved 12 miles to Fayette.

These days, the 136-year-old observatory is part-classroom, part-museum and part-science fair. On public viewing nights — every Thursday through Nov. 17 — Peery stocks one room with science toys purchased with donations.

A familiar device called a Newton's Cradle demonstrates how kinetic energy passes through a line of suspended ball bearings. Another toy resembling a pink sea anemone demonstrates how light passes through fiber-optic cables.

Emily Bange of Fayette and her 5-year-old son Aven have visited the observatory three times this year. Before going to the experiment room, Aven took his turn looking through a computerized telescope that Perry and a volunteer set up outside in the observatory's yard.

Aven peered at Jupiter through the eyepiece of the $3,500 instrument.

"Oh!" Aven said. "There are three moons. Last week we only saw two."

Emily Bange gently restrained her bouncing son. "It's a great thing to have here in town," Bange said.

The mix of old and new technologies at the observatory includes a computerized, Meade Schmidt-Cassegrian reflector telescope, the signature 17-foot Clark telescope and another 130-year telescope, rarely used.  

The meridian transit telescope, which looks like a coal-black cannon trimmed in polished brass, has its own room in the observatory. In the late 1800s the telescope was used by railroads to calculate sidereal time (time measured by the movement of stars across the meridian).

Not as powerful as the 17-foot Clark telescope, the smaller Meridian has only been used once or twice in the last 20 years, Peery said.

The meridian is a museum piece now; its room appears much as it might have at the turn of the twentieth century. In a corner is a brass chronometer (an industrial watch once loaned to the Smithsonian) placed along with a sidereal clock (made by the Queen of England's clockmaker).

Peery showed an old record book where Carr Pritchett, the observatory's founder, logged his daily observations in ink. The book sits open and uncovered in a corner; its pages give off a musty smell when touched.

History is preserved here: While watching Jupiter or the double star Albireo through an old Clark telescope at the Morrison Observatory, visitors will see the sky in much the same way as astronomers did more than a hundred years ago.


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