Department of Astronomy


History of CWRU Astronomy and the Warner and Swasey Observatory

The astronomical history of Case Western Reserve University can be traced back along two paths, reflecting the contributions of the Case Institute of Technology and the Western Reserve College, which became federated in 1967 to form Case Western Reserve University.

The first collegiate observatory west of the Appalachians -- and the second-oldest observatory in the United States -- was built by Western Reserve College in 1837. The observatory was led at that time by the eminent astronomer Elias Loomis, who studied not only astronomy, but also meteorology, mathematics, and natural sciences.

The Warner and Swasey Observatory itself had its beginning before the foundation of the Case School of Applied Science, when its founder, Leonard Case, Jr., met John Stockwell, a self-educated astronomer. The two collaborated in a number of theoretical investigations concerning the motion of the moon. When the college was organized shortly after the death of Leonard Case, John Stockwell became its first Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy. Research and instruction in astronomy began in the year 1881.

About that time, two astronomical enthusiasts, Worcester R. Warner and Ambrose Swasey, moved their machine tool firm to Cleveland and began their distinguished careers in the manufacture of precision instruments and large telescopes.


Worcester R. Warner and Ambrose Swasey

They took a great interest in Case School of Applied Science; and when, after some years, they became trustees of the college, it was natural for them to take an interest in improving the astronomical equipment of the college. They encouraged Charles S. Howe, the second professor of astronomy and later president, in his work on the determination of fundamental star positions with the almuncantar.

So interested were these two men in the study of the stars that they built and housed a 9.5 inch refracting telescope in a small observatory between their adjoining residences in Cleveland.

The backyard observatory

In 1919, they gave this telescope to Case together with an observatory which they built and equipped with two astronomical transits, a zenith telescope, two Riefler clocks, two chronographs, and other auxiliary instruments. The original building also included a small library, a transit room, a darkroom, bedroom and office. The observatory was located on an elevated site 270 feet above Lake Erie, on Taylor Road, in East Cleveland, some four miles east of the campus of Case Institute and the present University.

Thus was founded the Warner and Swasey Observatory to further basic instruction and research in astronomy. It was dedicated on October 12, 1920 in ceremonies at which Dr. W. W. Campbell, then Director of the Lick Observatory, was the principal speaker.

Materials for the library at the new observatory included a portion of the astronomy collection from the library on the Case campus, as well as some private materials of the faculty. A number of journal titles were purchased as sets, including complete back runs of Astronomische Nachrichten, Astrophysical Journal, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Astronomical Almanac. It appears that subscriptions to many of these titles were funded out of the pocket of the early faculty of the observatory, most notably, J. J. Nassau.

With the expansion of the teaching and research activities of the Case Institute, and with increased interest in astronomy in the community at large, the original observatory became inadequate for the demands placed upon it. In 1939, therefore, with the help of many friends of astronomy, the observatory was enlarged. The added facilities made possible by the generosity of these donors included a new 24-36 inch Schmidt-type telescope constructed by the Warner and Swasey Company, and a large dome to house the telescope. The new building also included an auditorium for public lectures and large class meetings, an exhibit hall containing models and transparencies, and more space for library, shop, offices and measuring instruments.

As the research interests of the staff expanded, other auxiliary equipment was added. Four objective prisms, and a coarse objective grating, each of 24-inch aperture, were acquired for use with the Schmidt telescope. Photoelectric photometers for use with the telescopes and an astrophotometer for measuring stellar magnitudes on photographic plates were obtained. A frequency control unit for driving the telescope accurately was installed. For instructional purposes, a three-inch astronomical transit with impersonal micrometer was included; this instrument was a gift from the Bausch and Lomb Optical Company. Last but not least the shop facilities were considerably enlarged.


Library, circa 1945

Here is a picture of the library in the Taylor Road observatory, taken circa 1945. Judging from the piles on the back table, somebody's been busy with the Ap. J.'s. Some things never change.

During the period 1950-1955, it became clear that lights from the city of Cleveland were becoming increasingly detrimental to astronomical photography. With the financial assistance of many friends of Case Institute and of the observatory, a new observing station was constructed 30 miles east of the Warner and Swasey Observatory, and in 1957, the Schmidt telescope was moved to the new site. The new building had a dome to house the telescope, a darkroom, and living quarters for the observers. It was named the Nassau Astronomical Station in honor of the long-time (1924-1959) director of the Observatory, J. J. Nassau. Nassau Astronomical Station is currently being renovated. Enhancements such as robotic control mechnisms are being added, allowing the Cassegrain telescope to be computer controlled.


Nassau Astronomical Station

Concurrently with the removal of the Burrell telescope, a new 36-inch Cassegrain parabolic reflector was designed and installed in the large dome at the Warner and Swasey Observatory. It was designed for both instruction and research, and for occasional visual use on Public Nights at the Observatory. A fast grating spectrograph for observation at the Cassegrain focus, a double-slide plate holder, a photoelectric photometer, and other auxiliary equipment were included for use with this instrument. Many interesting objects detected with the Schmidt-type telescope in Milky Way surveys could be explored astrophysically in greater detail with the Cassegrain reflector and spectrograph.

In 1960 a cooperative program between Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University increased the educational responsibilities of the Department of Astronomy and the Observatory. More graduate students and an enlarged faculty demanded more space. Hence a third addition to the Observatory was completed in 1963. Offices for faculty and students, additional library space, more darkroom and plate storage facilities, and a seminar room made up the new Walter J. Hamilton wing of the Observatory. The library's collection expanded with this new program, acquiring a large number of items from Western Reserve University.


Observatory, Taylor Road, circa 1963

This is the Taylor Road Observatory after the 1963 expansion. The second dome (in the middle) was added in 1939 to house a new 24-36 inch Schmidt-type telescope. The part of the building in the right of the picture was part of the 1963 addition.

The end of the 1970's was in many ways the end of an era for the Observatory as well. A number of substantive changes to the Observatory created a new atmosphere for research.

During the fall of 1978 arrangements were completed between AURA and Case Western Reserve University for the relocation of the Burrell Schmidt-type telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, with funds from an National Science Foundation grant to CWRU. The agreement provided half of the telescope time to CWRU and half to the national astronomical community, with operating expenses to be shared equally by CWRU and KPNO. Construction of the building on Kitt Peak began in Spring 1979 and the telescope was installed in June.


Kitt Peak Station of the W&S Observatory

In May 1980 the 36-inch Cassegrain reflector was moved from the Warner and Swasey Observatory in East Cleveland to the Nassau Astronomical Station, which had been empty since the summer of 1979 when the Burrell Schmidt was moved to Kitt Peak. The primary mirror was realuminized at this time.

In the fall of 1982, the staff, library and other facilities of the astronomy department of Case Western Reserve University which had been housed in the Warner and Swasey Observatory building on Taylor Road in East Cleveland, were moved to the fourth floor of the Smith Building on the CWRU campus. With the relocation of the Burrell Schmidt to Kitt Peak and the move of the 36 inch reflector to the Nassau Astronomical Station, no further observational work was being done on Taylor Road- hence the move. However, the term Warner and Swasey Observatory continues to serve to identify the CWRU Department of Astronomy and to perpetuate the memory of those farsighted individuals who were so instrumental in the development of observational astronomy in the United States.


The Observatory's Burrell Schmidt telescope, Kitt Peak Arizona

This page prepared by William Claspy, wpc@cwru.edu, Warner and Swasey Observatory, Case Western Reserve University