Mr. Pitt's Telescope: A Short History of the 27-Inch Reflector at the University of Kansas


The history of the University of Kansas' 27-inch reflecting telescope is traced from its beginnings in the drained, basement swimming pool of a talented Kansas City amateur astronomer, William Pitt, to its removal to its present location on the top of Lindley Hall in Lawrence under the supervision of Prof. N. W. Storer. Emphasis is placed on the early attempt by Dr. Dinsmore Alter to develop the University of Kansas' Observatory into a self-sustaining, first-class research facility and on those circumstances and events that have ultimately led to its evolution into a public relations showpiece and teaching telescope.

As they enter, visitors to the University of Kansas' Observatory are greeted by a bronze plaque introducing them to the William Pitt 27-inch reflecting telescope. Few such individuals, upon leaving however, do so with an appreciation of the history and "romance," to use the word of former professor of Astronomy, Dinsmore Alter, associated with this telescope. As Visiting Professor of Astronomy during the 1978-79 academic year, the writer had an opportunity to trace the development of the University's principal optical instrument and found it both a fascinating and, from an astronomer's point of view, often frustrating tale. This short article attempts to present the reader with a brief look at both these aspects of the story.

While the study of astronomy at the University of Kansas dates from 1876, the first observatory building on campus was not erected until about 1885. Built on land deeded to the University by the State of Kansas, this structure, which really amounted to no more than a simple wooden shed with a slit roof, housed a 6-inch Alvan Clark refractor and a 2-inch transit telescope. The lifetime of the new observatory was extremely short, for within a year Gov. Robinson rescinded the gift of land upon which the building had been erected, and the structure was razed. From this time until 1919, the University had no permanent structure from which to make astronomical observations, although the teaching of astronomy was continued under the direction of a number of individuals, among them Prof. E. L. Nichols, the founder of the Physical Review.

1 Permanent address: Department of Physics, Benedictine College, Atchison, Kansas 66002.

1918-1935: The alter years

In 1918, after serving two years with the artillery corps, Dr. Dinsmore Alter rejoined the University faculty, having been hired in 1916 just prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Germany. One of Prof. Alter's first official acts was to secure from the state legislature an appropriation of $3500 for the construction of a new observatory building and the purchase of a new 3-inch transit instrument and an equatorial mount for the 6-inch Clark refractor. The building, completed in the fall of 1919, occupied the site upon which the University's large Hoch Auditorium now stands.

Throughout his 17-year association with the University, Alter, whose principal research interest was the computation of asteroid orbits, cherished the hope of creating an active program of asteroidal and cometary research in Lawrence. In a letter to then Chancellor Frank Strong dated May 28, 1919, he described the first step in fulfilling his dream: the construction of a 20-inch reflecting telescope. As outlined in his letter, Alter agreed to purchase, grind and figure the primary mirror for the instrument and then to donate it to the University, contingent upon the latter's purchase of an appropriate mounting and construction of an additional dome in which to house the telescope. A 1.6-inch thick blank was shortly thereafter purchased from the Pittsburg Plate Glass Co., and the grinding was begun in 1920, only to be abandoned soon afterward when it appeared that no mounting would be forthcoming from the University.

In the fall of 1925, undaunted, Alter approached Mr. W. Y. Morgan, a member of the Kansas Board of Regents, with a plan for anew observatory and a proposal for a program of astronomical research for the University. To implement the proposal, which had been endorsed by some of the leading astronomers of the day, including W. S. Adams of Mt. Wilson, E. B. Frost of Yerkes, R. G. Aitken of Lick and Harlow Shapley of Harvard, required an estimated total of $850,000, $210,000 of which Alter hoped to secure by an outright gift to purchase, among other things, a 36-inch reflector; the remainder of the $850,000 was to go into an endowment fund, the interest from which was to be used to provide salaries for two additional astronomers and a staff of computers, whose primary efforts would be directed towards the determination of accurate asteroid orbits. As with his previous efforts, Alter was not successful in securing the necessary financial backing for his program, and no equipment or staff was added at this time. Indeed, in 1926, the Observatory was razed for the second time to make room for anew auditorium (Hoch), and rebuilt west of Marvin Hall.

It was in the same year, 1926, that Alter (probably through the intercession of Thornton Cooke, then President of the Columbia National Bank and a KU alumnus) first met Mr. William Pitt, a retired Kansas City businessman who, as founder of the Irving-Pitt Manufacturing Co., had made his fortune producing spiral notebooks. Mr. Pitt, an amateur astronomer and talented machinist, having learned of Alter's needs, agreed to donate both his time and money toward the construction of two large mirrors to be used for the study of asteroids.

Fig. I. Looking east along Jay hawk Boulevard, the campus of the University of Kansas is shown above as it appeared in May of 1925. The Observatory (lower right foreground) at this time housed a 6-inch Clark refractor and a 3-inch transit instrument, and occupied the site on which Hoch Auditorium now stands. Just east of the Observatory is old Haworth Hall, while across the street stands the newly completed Strong Hall, named after Chancellor Frank Strong. As noted in the text, the Observatory was razed to make room for Hoch and moved to a location just west of Marvin Hall, from which this picture was taken. (Photograph from Tart's "Life on Mount Oread," p. 133, courtesy of the University of Kansas Archives.)

The first mirror to be completed by Pitt was the 20-inch plate glass disk originally purchased by Alter in 1920; in the course of this initial work, Pitt designed and built his own precision grinding machine, and perfected his polishing and figuring techniques. In 1928, encouraged by the favorable results of the 20-inch mirror project, Pitt undertook a more ambitious project on behalf of the University: the grinding and polishing of a 27-inch mirror.

Originally, Alter and Pitt had hoped to acquire a clear quartz disk of the appropriate size to be used as the primary of the new instrument. Failing in this endeavor, it was decided to achieve the high degree of thermal stability required of telescope mirrors by using a disk made of pyrex. The disk, arriving in Kansas City in January 1928, weighed about 250 pounds, and was 27.5 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches thick; it cost $250. The grinding and polishing of the blank was carried out in Mr Pitt's home in Kansas City-specifically in an emptied swimming pool in the amateur astronomer's basement. For over a year, Pitt and an assistant carried out the grinding, polishing and figuring of the mirror. By February 1929, knife-edge tests conducted by Alter and Pitt indicated that the desired paraboloidal figure had been nearly achieved. Shortly thereafter, the 27-inch mirror was transported to Lawrence for installation at the Observatory. At the time of its installation in 1929, the William Pitt-University of Kansas 27-inch telescope was the first telescope to have its main light-gathering element made of Pyrex, although a 16-inch secondary mirror made of Pyrex was in use at Mt. Wilson at the time.

In a very real sense, the University's 27-inch telescope was a home-made instrument. Not only was the mirror fashioned locally, but the fork mounting was designed and largely constructed by University personnel. Manley Hood, a 1929 graduate of the University, and his brother, Henry, designed and machined the vast majority of the telescope parts in the University's Fowler Shops; only two of the large castings required for the instrument had to be made in Kansas City. The original drive for the telescope was contributed by Mr. Pitt himself and then improved in 1935 by an electrical engineering student, William Edson. Even the turning mechanism for the 27-inch dome was a collaborative effort by several University Departments: the Electrical Engineering Department donated the main driving motor, the Buildings and Grounds Department contributed a large gearing mechanism from an old concrete mixer, and the Mechanical Engineering Department provided the facilities which allowed Henry Hood to rebuild these diverse elements into a satisfactory dome rotation device.

Unfortunately, and despite the best cooperative efforts of the University staff, progress on the telescope ground to a halt just short of completion in 1930 due to economic difficulties caused by the Depression. As Prof. Alter wrote in 1934, "a very small amount of money prevents the University

of Kansas from having the prestige of the largest telescope within several hundred miles of Lawrence. When the Depression made it impossible to use more of the University's funds, the William Pitt-University of Kansas 27-inch reflecting telescope lacked only a few minor parts, an observing chair, a complicated plate-holder and a plate measuring machine of being ready to start on its nightly career of research work." Alter estimated that an additional $500-800 was needed to bring the telescope into full operation; once again, the money was not forthcoming. In 1935, Dr. Alter took a leave of absence from the University, and, a year later, resigned to become the Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The telescope still remained incomplete and, after almost 17 years of continuous effort, the research observatory envisioned by Prof. Alter had yet to be established. As it turned out, it never would be.

Fig. 2. Mr. William Pitt (left) and Professor Dinsmore Alter at work on the 27-inch mirror in Mr. Pitt's emptied swimming pool laboratory. The grinding machine pictured was entirely designed and built by Mr. Pitt. (Photograph from The Kansas Engineer (March 1928), p. 14, courtesy of the University of Kansas Archives.)

Fig. 3. This drawing, a plan view of the Pitt telescope by Manley J. Hood, who carried out the majority of the mechanical design and construction of the telescope, shows the instrument in its original prime focus configuration. Subsequent photos of the telescope show it after its conversion to a Newtonian reflector under the supervision of the late Professor N. Wyman Storer. (Photograph from The Kansas Engineer [March 1928], p. 15, courtesy of the University of Kansas Archives.)

Fig. 4. This photograph, taken in the fall of 1958, shows the William Pitt telescope after its removal to the roof of Lindley Hall. Professor Storer, who, for 35 years until his retirement in 1970, served as director of the observatory, is shown at the lower right; at the eyepiece is Robert M. Krisko (BA-Astronomy, 1960). The present Lindley Hall observing facilities (shown in more detail in subsequent photographs) were largely designed by Storer and remain virtually unchanged since their construction. (Photograph courtesy of the University of Kansas Archives.)

1935-present: Completion, relocation, and renovation

The job of completing the telescope fell to Alter's replacement, Dr. N . Wyman Storer, who, like Alter, was a graduate of the University of California. Among the first things Storer did was to have the 27-inch mirror aluminized. The history of the aluminization of the 27-inch mirror, although short, is, like much of the history of the whole instrument, an interesting one. In the spring of 1934, Alter had approached Dr. John Strong, a 1926 graduate of the University of Kansas, and then a faculty member at California Institute of Technology, about the possibility of having the 27-inch mirror aluminized.

Fig. 6. High atop Lindley Hall, the domes of the University of Kansas Observatory can be seen in this photograph taken facing north. At the left is the dome for the 6-inch Clark refractor, while at the right is that housing the 27-inch William Pitt reflector. Beginning in early 1980, the 6-inch dome will be dismantled and replaced with anew 16-foot diameter aluminum dome and cylinder. The observing slit for the 3-in(;h transit instrument is just visible about midway between the two observatory domes.

Strong, who had recently developed a new vacuum aluminization process, agreed to tryout his technique on the primary of the Pitt telescope free of charge, if the University would pay the shipping charges to and from Pasadena. Negotiations over the details of the aluminization were temporarily halted during Alter's leave of absence and were not taken up again until 1936, when Storer reestablished Strong's willingness to finish the mirror. The 27-inch paraboloid was duly shipped to Pasadena and returned to Lawrence on July 17, 1937, with a newly coated aluminum surface.

In the year and a half separating the installation of the aluminized 27-inch mirror and the formal dedication of the Pitt reflector on February 17, 1939, the last obstacles preventing the use of the telescope were gradually overcome. In April of 1938, an observing platform was built which provided convenient access to the prime focus position of the telescope, then the only available observing station. Between September of 1938 and the spring of 1939, an offset guider, a shuttered plate holder, and knife-edge tester/field viewer were all constructed and put into use. Again, from an historical point of view, this last phase of development is also of interest because it was carried out largely by Clyde W. Tombaugh, the man who had discovered Pluto in 1930, as part of his Master's thesis work. Finally, after almost 10 years of work, the 27-inch telescope was ready for regular use. At a meeting of the Society of Sigma Xi on February 17,1939, the instrument was dedicated as the "William Pitt 27-inch Telescope" in recognition of Mr. Pitt's contribution to the project. As Prof. Storer wrote in 1938 urging that the telescope be named after Pitt: "By far the greatest value of the telescope lies in the glass, and since Mr. Pitt was so vitally interested in the completion of that, it is entirely fitting that the whole telescope be named after him."

At the time of the dedication, the bronze plaque that now welcomes visitors to the Observatory was attached to the telescope, and Dr. Harold Hungerford, then president of the Kansas Chapter of Sigma Xi, presented a medal to Mr. Pitt (who was living in New Jersey at the time) in recognition of his interest in science.

Fig. 7. This close-up of the Observatory domes, taken from the roof of Lindley Hall, shows the William Pitt 27-inch telescope in the larger building on the right. Both domes were designed and built under the direction of Dr. Storer, and consist of wooden frames overlaid with aluminum flashing and/or painted canvas. The shutters are rolled aside on a pair of steel rails through use of a pulley system, a part of which (the white nylon cording just inside the slit) can be seen in the photograph.

In the more than 40 years since its dedication, the Pitt telescope has continued to lead an up and down life. Although the location of the observatory in 1939 was by no means ideal, a point Tombaugh made rather strongly in his dissertation ("the writer sees little hope of much more useful research being accomplished until the telescope is moved to a more favorable location which would be free of obnoxious lights and dust."), the telescope was at least able to be used there. But not for long. In 1944, the University of Kansas' Observatory was razed a third time after the completion of Lindley Hall, just to the west. At this time, the 6-inch refractor was removed to the roof of Lindley and the Pitt reflector, as well as the 3-inch transit telescope were placed in storage in the basement of Hoch Auditorium. For over 7 years, the 27-inch remained in "mothballs." Finally, in the spring of 1952, construction of a new observatory building to house the telescope was completed, and, after several months of alignment and adjustment, the newly housed instrument was put back into service.

Since that time, the Pitt telescope has been in nearly continuous use. Over the years, in addition to having been converted for use as a Newtonian reflector, the 27-inch has acquired an assortment of auxiliary equipment, mainly through the efforts of Storer and Prof. Henry Horak; such equipment includes a photoelectric photometer, a grating spectrograph, and an assortment of plateholders for direct photography. And, although much of this instrumentation is now over twenty years old, it is still used on a regular basis by students and members of the local amateur astronomical society.

Summary: The future of the Pitt Telescope

Despite these additions and improvements, the William Pitt 27-inch reflector has never been used extensively as a research tool as originally planned; instead it has functioned largely in the dual roles of an instructional instrument used to teach undergraduate astronomy students proper observing techniques and a University showpiece used to reveal the beauty and mystery of the Universe to "open house" visitors to the Observatory. Given the steady deterioration in the sky conditions in Lawrence due to air and light pollution caused by an ever growing University campus and city population, and the ever present shortage of funds to maintain and update the nearly 30-year old facility, it is unlikely that the nature or the use of the Pitt telescope will change in the foreseeable future.

The history of the William Pitt-University of Kansas 27-inch telescope is a truly remarkable and yet somewhat unsatisfying tale. It is remarkable in terms of the way in which the instrument was designed and constructed, as well as in terms of the personalities involved in the instrument's completion; it is frustrating and unsatisfying (at least from an astronomer's point of view) insofar as it ends with the initial purposes of the builders unfulfilled. In particular, due to changes in University priorities and fluctuations in the levels of funding inside and outside the University for astronomical activities, the self-sustaining, first-class research facility in astronomy envisioned by Alter, Storer, and others, has never been achieved. And, while an excellent teaching program in astronomy has been maintained to the present through the efforts of individuals like Alter, Storer, Horak, Prof. P . Wehinger, and now Prof. S. J. Shawl, it is more than a little saddening to contemplate the losses to midwestern research in astronomy engendered by the failure to capitalize on Mr. Pitt' s telescope.


The author wishes to acknowledge the support and assistance of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas during the time in which this short history was being prepared. In this regard, special thanks are due to Dr. J. P. Davidson, Chairman of the Department, for his continued encouragement and guidance while this work was being carried out. The staff of the University Archives at the Kenneth E. Spencer Re- search Library of the University of Kansas is also recognized for their kind cooperation and assistance in securing for the author the many documents and pieces of correspondence upon which this article is based.

Fig. 8. This view of the 27-inch refractor taken through the shutter openings shows in more detail the pulley system mentioned in Figure 7, as well as the fine motion and clamping controls (the large circular knobs at the middle left) of the telescope. Just above these controls is the main observing port for the instrument. Although an eyepiece is shown attached to the port in this photograph, direct photography and multi-color photometry can also be carried out from this position. Originally left open and unshielded, the telescope tube supporting frame is now sheathed with blue canvas to reduce the amount of scattered light and windblown dust which reach the mirror during operation.

Fig. 9. From inside the dome, some details of the opposite side of the 27-inch telescope can be seen in this picture. In particular, a second observing port (usually used for spectroscopic work but shown here set up for visual work) is evident, as well as the electronic control panel (lower middle right) for the telescope which provides for dome rotation, East-West slewing motion and drive rate variation. The secondary mirror of the telescope is attached to its supporting structure by a pivot and can be rotated 900 between the two observing ports so that instrument changes to accommodate different observing programs can be minimized.


83(4), 1980, pp. 187-199