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A History of Astronomy at Illinois

The Early Years

Astronomy was first taught at the Illinois Industrial University (the original name of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) in 1868, during the school's first year. The class, Descriptive Astronomy, was taught by Professor S. Shattuck of the Mathematics Department. By 1872, the University's first observatory had been built, which the Catalogue and Circular boasted was in constant use during favorable weather conditions.

In 1895, the University of Illinois was awarded $15,000 by the Illinois State Legislature for the construction of a students' astronomical observatory. The site chosen was a grass knoll between Matthews Avenue and Burrill Avenue (now the broadwalk down the west side of the Quad), just north of the 1876 Morrow Plots. Construction begins in April 1896 and is completed by August at a cost of $6,800. The 12-inch Brashear Telescope arrived in November (the telescope, dome, and other astronomical equipment for the Observatory cost $7,250 - more than the building itself!), and observations began immediately. Less than a year later, Director G.W. Myers announces the discovery of the cause of the star Beta Lyrae's variability.

Dr. Joel Stebbins arrived from Lick Observatory in 1903 and took over as the Observatory Director. Arguably his most important work over the next two decades was the development of the photoelectric photometer. Before Stebbins' breakthrough photometer, brightness measurements for stars were made by comparing the relative brightnesses of stars, either visually or via photographic plate images. By using electricity to empirically measure the brightnesses of stars, Dr. Stebbins revolutionized how astronomers gather data.

In 1914, a 30-inch reflecting telescope was built and placed in an annex observatory just southeast of the Observatory (since torn down).

The Astronomy Department is Born

In August 1921, the Board of Trustees authorized that the Division of Astronomy in the Department of Mathematics be organized as a separate Department of Astronomy. The following year, Charles Wylie earned the first University of Illinois PhD in Astronomy (the next Astronomy PhD would not be award until 1962, 40 years later!). 1922 also marked the departure of Joel Stebbins from Illinois, and Dr. Robert H. Baker took over as the new Director of the University of Illinois Observatory.

In 1925, the 30-inch telescope was rebuilt and moved to a new location on Florida Avenue (also since torn down). The "mirror blank" (i.e., slab of glass to which reflective metal would be applied) for the rebuilt telescope now resides in the Observatory.

In 1933, light from star Acturus falling on a photocell in the Observatory's annex activated an electric signal that turned on the lights at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Establishment of the "Modern" Astronomy Department

In 1951, Dr. Baker retired as Director of the Observatory. On the advice of noted Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Henning Larsen, recruited English astronomer George C. McVittie as the new department head. Professor McVittie oversaw the establishment of a radio astronomy research program at Illinois.

On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made earth satellite. The U of I Astronomy Department, then consisting of four professors (McVittie, Wyatt, King and Swenson) was quick off the mark in exploiting that research opportunity. On that first night an improvised radio interferometer was built in the space between the Morrow Plots and the Observatory, with receiving and recording equipment in the basement. Within two days an ephemeris was communicated to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Naval Research Laboratory, and on November 9 a precise ephemeris was published in Nature. This paper was the first observational publication of the U of I Observatory in the "modern" era, and was the basis of NASA's definitive orbit (by Robert Jastrow) for Sputnik I (Read more: At the Dawn of the Space Age).

This activity continued with subsequent Soviet and US satellites, generating a new program in ionosphere research which continues to today (in the ECE Department). It also attracted the first federally funded research program of the "new" Astronomy Department, possibly in the department's entire history, and established the creditability which made possible the funding for the radio astronomy program and the Vermilion River Observatory.

In 1967, 12-inch Brashear telescope in the Campus Observatory is used for the last time for professional photometric observations to observe RZ Cassopeia.

In 1968, Prairie Observatory, near Oakland Illinois, was opened, with a 40-inch reflecting telescope. Prairie Observatory operated until 1981 when its telescope was moved to Mount Laguna Observatory in California.

By the time Prof. McVittie retired in 1971, the previously one-astronomer department had expanded to nine faculty. And, while the department had only produced five advanced degrees prior to 1951, the department awarded 29 Masters and 14 PhDs during the McVittie administration.

Recent History

In 1972, the University named PhD alumnus Icko Iben, Jr. as head of the department. Prof. Iben oversaw the continued growth of the department. In 1979, having expanded to 15 astronomers and outgrown the Observatory (with two additions), the Astronomy Department moved out of the Observatory to a new larger building on Springfield Avenue.

In 1986, Illinois entered into a consortium with University of California-Berkeley and the University of Maryland called BIMA (Berkely Illinois Maryland Association) to operate an array of radio telescopes at Hat Creek Observatory in California. In November of that year, the Observatory was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and over 5000 people visited the Observatory to see Comet Halley.

In 1989, the Observatory was declared a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Robert Stebbins, the son of the Joel Stebbins attended the dedication ceremony which coincided with the opening of the Astronomy Building on Green Street, the current home of the Astronomy Department.

In 2004, BIMA merged its radio telescope array with Caltech's the Owens Valley Radio Observatory Millimeter Array to form the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA). The merger moved both radio telescope arrays to the current Cedar Flat location. The construction and commissioning took roughly three years. The array began routine science operations in January 2007.

Today, research activity in the Department of Astronomy includes observational and theoretical investigations of a wide array of astronomical objects and phenomena.

Many thanks to Mike Svec for compiling the history of the Department of Astronomy and the Campus Observatory.

PASt/present Observatories of the Astronomy Department