Take a virtual tour of this newly reimagined, one-of-a-kind place, where the spirit of science and discovery link the past and present.
When it was installed in 1857, the Fitz telescope was the third-largest refracting telescope in the world. More than 20 asteroids and 3 comets were discovered by astronomers looking through its lens. Today, visitors can still see the stars through this working instrument.
Built in 1854, this telescope’s purpose was measuring with extreme precision the position of stars and other celestial bodies. It was designed for research and as a time-setting tool for business and railroad stations throughout the state. It was the most cutting-edge technology for its time.
Are You Interested in Helping Detroit Observatory Visitors Explore the Sky and Discover the Past?
Would you like to give history tours of the Detroit Observatory or of the University of Michigan campus? Help educate visitors using Observatory exhibits and facilities? Develop and mount exhibits on astronomy, other sciences, the history of U-M, and more?
A docent is a person who acts as an educator and guide at a museum or, in this case, an historic observatory. Their job is to help visitors have the best experience they can.
There are two kinds of docents at the Detroit Observatory: Astronomy Docents, who help with telescope operation and astronomy presentations, and U-M History docents, who help with history tours, presentations, and exhibits. Our docents will receive extensive training relevant to their responsibilities., Prior experience in operating telescopes, giving tours, or understanding U-M history is not necessary.
We do not have docent positions open at this time, but please check back because we expect to do more hiring in the future.
As a young student at the Detroit Observatory in the 1850s, James Watson learned about not just astronomy but also the fame it could bring. In his notebook, the ambitious Watson imagined a future of a myriad of accolades. While particular honorifics eluded him, he would go on to have a highly successful career in Ann Arbor, winning the LaLande Prize from the French Academy of Sciences and an honorary doctorate from Leipzig – all from using the Detroit Observatory’s refracting telescope.
Discovery of Neptune
On September 23, 1846, Franz Brünnow, who later became the director of the Detroit Observatory, went to the Royal Observatory at Berlin for the discovery of Neptune, a seminal moment in the history of astronomy. As Neptune was the first planet discovered based on prediction rather than chance, this finding marked new territory for astronomical discoveries.
The Observatory sits for a portrait
In September 1855, Jasper Cropsey, of the Hudson School of painters, visited President Tappan in Ann Arbor. During his visit, Cropsey painted the Detroit Observatory, creating the earliest extant image of the building. Viewers often notice the Observatory appears pink in Cropsey’s painting, most likely because the white stucco finish had not yet been applied to the underlying brick wall. The painting now hangs in the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Statue of Nydia
Having studied Beethoven in his youth, Franz Brünnow, the Observatory’s first Director, was a gifted pianist. Brünnow, along with his wife Rebecca Tappan and Professor Andrew Frieze, performed in multiple amateur concerts to fundraise for the University’s 1862 purchase of a statue of Nydia, the visually impaired flower girl of Pompeii from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. The statue was sculpted by Randolph Rogers, who grew up in Ann Arbor, and is now displayed in the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Watson’s first discovery
On September 14, 1863, astronomer James Craig Watson discovered his first asteroid, naming it Eurynome (79 Eurynome). Over the next 15 years, a total of 100 asteroids would be discovered worldwide – an impressive 21 of which were discovered by Watson. He discovered six in 1868 alone, an outstanding accomplishment made possible only by his rigorous mathematics, detailed charts, prodigious memory, and keen observing ability.
Raising Funds for the Detroit Observatory
On December 29, 1852, in an effort to gain funding for an observatory at the University of Michigan, Detroit lawyer and businessman Henry Walker arranged for President Tappan to meet at the Michigan Exchange Hotel with a group of prominent Detroit citizens. The group quickly contributed $7,500 (about $250,000 adjusted for modern times), with more funds soon following. Upon the Observatory completion, Tappan named it in recognition of these Detroiters who had made it possible.
Annette Waite Watson
In the nineteenth century, the vast majority of astronomers were men and little acknowledgement was given to the vital role their wives played in their work. James Craig Watson’s wife, Annette Waite Watson, accompanied him on many of his expeditions. She would mark time during astronomical events for the observers with a chronometer, or even sketch the event herself. These sketches were then published in the official expedition reports. Although seldom recognized, Annette’s work, and that of other historical women, contributed greatly to astronomical science.
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