Emerson McMillin and his Astronomical Observatory
by Dr. Carl J. Wenning
Prepared for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Emerson McMillin Astronomical Observatory (1896-1996). (Last updated January 12, 2012)
For a new updated version with more research use the following PDF.
[Osirus] Emerson McMillin was born April 16, 1844, in Ewington, Gallia County, Ohio. He was the son of William Reid and Nancy (Butler) McMillin. Emerson (he never seemed to like his given name Osirus) was the great-grandson of James McMillin who emigrated from Scotland and settled in Virginia sometime prior to 1765. He was the 12th of 14 children that would eventually fill the McMillin household. (See Emerson family details provided by Elaine Winkler.)
Like many children of his time, Emerson went to school three months a year. He did so until he reached the age of 10. One month after his 10th birthday McMillin left the one-room schoolhouse in which he was to receive his only formal education. While there, however, he was captivated by what he had learned and, henceforth, books were something ever at his side. He was introduced to and intrigued by chemistry and geology, both of which would play a significant role throughout his life, and which would lead to an amazing career.
Departing school for work, McMillin was employed first as a manual laborer at an iron foundry where his father was manager. He received 25 cents per day for back-breaking labor to stoke and bank the furnaces. During the winter months, he participated in gathering wood for the making of charcoal that was used to stoke the furnaces. Each shift in the factory and field was twelve hours long. The strenuous work made him muscular, and it was claimed that he could "lift 600 pounds at a test." It was said that Emerson was the best wrestler of all of Gallia and the adjoining counties. He was well-liked because of his youthful energy, good humor, and adult mannerisms.
Even though McMillin had picked up his shovel, he hadn't lain down his books. He always found time for independent study. Of primary interest were the chemical processes that surrounded combustion and the smelting of iron. It was in the foundry that McMillin acquired an interest in glowing bodies, an interest that in no small way would pave a path to the construction of the observatory named in is honor. His knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm (and father's position no doubt) provided him opportunities not afforded to others. Within two years, at the age of twelve, Emerson was put in charge of boilers and steam engines at the foundry where he worked.
By the time Emerson reached 14 years of age his duties included oversight of the production of charcoal from wood. At this time charcoal was used in the smelting of iron ore, and charcoal production was of prime importance. McMillin was now shouldering more responsibility, earning more as a result, and becoming increasingly interested in the chemistry of combustion. At 16 years of age McMillin devised a way of successfully producing more and better charcoal at no additional cost. He designed, built, and operated all the equipment needed for the new process, a process that increased the yield of charcoal by 25 percent. As a result of this successful new technique, McMillin was awarded a prize by the company. Within a few years, McMillin had moved from laborer to charcoal burner to engineer - rapidly mastering the fundamentals of iron manufacturing, and learning the worth of a good education and hard work in the process.
In 1861, when McMillin was 17, he heard Lincoln's call to arms. Six of McMillin's older brothers responded to that call, and Emerson chose not to remain behind even though he was already making significant progress climbing the ladder of success. He attempted to enlist but was denied entry into the military because of his age. Like so many other youths of that period, he aged a year overnight and was accepted into the 18th Ohio Infantry Regiment.
Only a few weeks after enlisting, he was nearly killed while on guard duty at a railroad bridge when he was almost run over by a passing locomotive. After three months in the military McMillin's unit was reorganized as the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry. As part of this unit, McMillin saw action in the battle of Sinking Creek Valley where he was wounded.
Emerson and five of his six brothers were known to his hometown acquaintances as "The Fighting McMillins." (Lt. Emerson McMillin is located at the top center of the accompanying picture.) His brother Marion was killed outright in battle and two others later died of their wounds. Emerson himself was wounded several times and participated in 38 battles. Twice he was offered a commission in the officer corps that he turned down. At the end of the war, he was mustered out as a Lieutenant.
His time in the West Virginia mountains was in some ways fateful. Emerson met Keziah Electa Slack when stationed in Kanawha Co., WV. They later married. They were just married 2 months before a daughter, Mary, was born to them. This marriage would later end, but it is not certain whether through death or divorce. Also during his time in West Virginia, he made astronomical observations while standing guard duty at night. The stars, he reasoned, were glowing bodies just like embers of charcoal. He noted that stars came in a variety of colors that evidently had something to do with their temperatures. He was intrigued by the prospect of understanding these bodies, and spent his spare time learning more about astronomy, in addition to chemistry and geology. In his soldier's knapsack, he always carried with him three books, one on each of the subjects in question.
At the age of 21, having left behind a successful military career, McMillin returned not to the furnaces that employed him prior to his departure, but to business. McMillin had with him some money from pay and bounties. He invested some of his money in "country store keeping" which ultimately failed. After storekeeping, he became a traveling shoe salesman that again proved unsuccessful. Next, he tried the coal business, again with similar results.
After the coal business, he took a job as a manual laborer, participating in the construction of a small gas works at Ironton, Ohio. It was here, at this little outpost on the Ohio River, that McMillin would meet his wife to be, Isabel, and laid the groundwork that would catapult him to the top of a financial empire a few years hence. Isabel was the daughter of Mordecia Morgan of Wales. From this union, McMillin would eventually have four children: Estelle, Maud, Emerson, and Marion. His work constructing the gas works would be no less fruitful.
After completion of the Ironton gas works in 1869, McMillin was appointed superintendent of the facility because he had demonstrated so much knowledge of the chemistry of gas. Yet he wished to know more. He shortly thereafter installed a laboratory in which he pursued the study of gas chemistry. Every spare minute of the day and often late into the night he worked on the science of gas purification and enhanced production methods. He often began work at 7:00 a.m. and concluded his work at 2:00 a.m. His studies resulted in the invention of a method for purification of natural gas in large quantities. The method called for passing the gas through filters of sand and metal filings. What McMillin accomplished through this process had "probably done more to place that business on a scientific and profitable basis than any other individual."
McMillin read many hours each day, especially to improve his knowledge of geology. With this knowledge he eventually pointed out stone formations wherein the Finley Gas Fields were found. McMillin demonstrated that through study, hard work, and application of what he had learned, he was able to obtain managerial positions of responsibility not common to men of his age and background. His reputation as an intelligent, inventive, and determined young man spread by word and writings which ultimately opened new windows of opportunity in a rapidly industrializing world.
By 1875 McMillin once again had turned his attention to iron production. Between 1875 and 1883 he became manager and president of several iron and steelworks situated in the Ohio River Valley. (Lawrence Iron Works, Crescent Iron Company, and the New York and Ohio Steel Co. to name but a few.) He did this without ever leaving his position as manager at the Ironton Gas Works.
During this time McMillin was called in to preside over the fiscal chaos of the Columbus Gas Works. As manager, he introduced cost-cutting measures and scientific methods for producing a cheaper, cleaner-burning gas. These economies benefited the consumer directly, which ultimately brought the company higher profits. He turned what was a floundering company into one that was highly successful using creative management techniques that included the introduction of workplace rules, the awarding of bonuses, profit sharing, and turning-over stock to employees as part of their pay.
McMillin even turned potentially damaging business failures into successes. He once personally underwrote a $200,000 loan for a business that he had been called in to manage. The steel plant eventually folded. By personally paying off the bad loan, and not simply writing it off, McMillin received credit far in excess of any of his assets.
The experience, reputation, and backing obtained by McMillin in the course of his work permitted him to extend his financial reach considerably. In 1888 he became President of the Columbus Gas Works when, with financial backing, he became principal owner. He subsequently obtained possession of several other gas works throughout Ohio. He bought up the Sioux City gas works, improved upon it, and sold it at a considerable profit. Also during this year, he had two chapters published in "Economic Geography" prepared by the Ohio Geological Survey. In 1889 he bought up four competing gas companies in the St. Louis area and consolidated them into the Laclede Gas Company after considerable political turmoil. These successes earned additional financial backing for McMillin for projects of a similar nature.
Whenever McMillin could find the time, he studied banking and began to invest his capital not only in real estate, but in stocks, bonds, and securities. In 1891 he started the New York banking firm of E. McMillin and Company. It was located on Wall Street and was established for general banking purposes. The success of the firm was "immediate and far-reaching. By 1901 McMillin found himself atop a vast financial empire. He was in firm control of 40 public utility companies, was president of over 60, and head of a banking firm with assets in excess of $40 million. From New York McMillin's financial power and influence extended across the nation.
The Emerson McMillin Observatory
A well-to-do native Ohioan, Emerson McMillin was an early benefactor to the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Ohio (later renamed The Ohio State University). One night early in 1895, while on one of his numerous trips from New York to oversee his investments and perform other duties, McMillin happened to find himself seated at the Columbus Club next to Julius Stone. Stone was an avid amateur astronomer and a friend of the College.
McMillin's intellectual interests ranged widely as did the conversation. In the course of the discussion, their mutual interest in astronomy came up. The subject of the sun's nature and its composition and structure were discussed. During the course of the discussion, the subject of observatories also came up. Stone mentioned that just that year the College had, in fact, attempted to establish an observatory, but that the project was put off due to the cost. McMillin inquired as to the cost of a moderate-sized telescope. The question went without an answer.
The need of erecting an astronomical observatory suitable for instruction in practical astronomy for civil engineers was deemed necessary by the School of Engineering in 1891. Through the initiative of Henry Curwen Lord , assistant professor of mathematics, a motion was brought before the College's Board of Trustees to construct a small observatory on campus and to outfit it with modest, but modern, equipment. Lord had studied astronomy at the University of Wisconsin, having worked at Washburn Observatory, and also had received practical experience in astronomical observations while working as an aide for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey sometime earlier.
The Trustees resolved to satisfy the need and on July 22, 1891, they approved an expenditure of $3000 from funds received under the Morrell Act to establish the observatory. Lord was put in charge of the construction. Only one month later the planning for the observatory and the purchase of instruments was suspended, "the funds being insufficient to justify the expense." For the time being, the hope of establishing an astronomical observatory had died, but they would be resurrected four years later by the chance conversation between McMillin and Stone.
Shortly after his return to New York, McMillin wrote Stone asking him to obtain an estimate of the cost of construction and complete equipping of an astronomical observatory suitable to the needs and conditions at Columbus. Stone approached Lord about the observatory proposal. Goals relating to instruction and research had already been established. A search was immediately undertaken to see what sort of suitable instruments could be obtained to carry out the work, and cost estimates were made for the construction of an observatory to house a 10-inch aperture refracting telescope. It then was discovered that John A. Brashear of Pittsburgh had on hand a 12.5-inch diameter clear aperture objective ready for immediate use. McMillin quickly consented to the increase in aperture and the additional cost that would ultimately make his observatory the largest and finest in Ohio. The 12.5-inch instrument would surpass in size the telescope housed in the Loomis Observatory in Hudson (the oldest and largest observatory west of the Allegheny Mountains when it was built at Case Western Reserve Academy in 1837) and that of the Cincinnati Observatory (whose instrument was the largest in America when it was completed in 1844).
When final agreements were made for the cost of the main telescope and a host of auxiliary equipment, final estimates were sent to McMillin2. Shortly thereafter McMillin addressed a formal offer to the Board of Trustees that came before that body at the meeting of April 10, 1895. The offer was to provide for the equipping of the observatory per the quotes received. A cap on expenditures was set at $10,000 along with the stipulation that the Board "make such rules for the government of the observatory as will permit the public to have an occasional peep at the 'Milky Way'." The Board immediately accepted the offer and resolved that the building and equipment be designated the Emerson McMillin Observatory. (This made the building only one of three which were to be named after living individuals -- Hayes, Orton, and McMillin.) Architectural plans were to be drawn up by Professor J. N. Bradford.
A motion was then passed authorizing President Scott, the Secretary of the Board, and Professor Lord to travel to various observatories to examine their equipment and to select and purchase the needed equipment.
At the next meeting of the Board on May 9, the Secretary presented another communication from McMillin in which he offered another $5,000, this time for the construction of the observatory building. The offer stipulated that the observatory must be located upon a ridge to the northwest of Columbus, above a valley that tradition says clinched the location of the original campus. He included a similar amount for the establishment of botanical gardens in the valley to the north of the facility that would ultimately house spring and pool known as "Mirror Lake." With this second act of generosity, McMillin guaranteed the completion of the entire observatory and provided for a luxuriant setting.
In the meantime, Professor Lord, as a member of the committee to oversee the selection and purchase of the various astronomical instruments, had been visiting a number of other observatories and makers of astronomical instruments. As a result of his visits and investigations, it was reported at the June 10 Board meeting that contracts had been let for the 12.5-inch telescope optics with Brashear of Pittsburgh, with Warner and Swasey of Cleveland for the mount and telescope assembly, and with G. N. Saegmuller of Washington, DC, for a 3.5-inch transit telescope with accessories.
The following day bids for the construction of the observatory were opened. All were rejected as being excessive. The Board Secretary was then ordered to contract with a person or persons who would undertake the construction of the facility as set forth in the guidelines for the construction and at a cost within the constraints of the offer. At this meeting, the Trustees appointed Professor Lord director of the observatory and conferred upon him the university rank of associate professor of astronomy.
Erection of the building by Pachard Construction and installation of the instrumentation was nearly complete by the end of 1895. At this time the optics of the telescope were thoroughly tested by Professor James E. Keeler, director of the Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh, who declared them "satisfactory." The facility was "the finest equipped observatory and largest telescope in the state at the time of its construction. The final cost of the fully outfitted observatory was approximately $16,000.
University catalogs of the period described the observatory as follows: "The first floor is divided by a hall and stairway into two parts: The eastern wing contains an office, library, clock room, and large, well-lighted room for students, furnished with tables, where they reduce their observations and keep the records of their work. The western wing contains the transit house, and in the second story, the dome and photographic darkroom. The transit house is a light, frame structure, so designed as to be kept as free as possible from heat radiated by any heavy walls of masonry. The dome is a wooden frame covered on the outside with canvas. The rest of the building is of a wood frame covered with a gray pressed brick, the foundation and the second story being 'rock-faced."
In one of his publications, Lord described the facility as follows. "It is built of gray pressed brick, rock-faced in the second story, and contains an office, library, classroom, clock room, dome, dark room, transit house, hallway, two closets, and a large basement. The entire carpenter work was made by our college carpenter, Mr. Woodruff, and the patterns for the dome mechanism by the students of the university. Thus far everything has given entire satisfaction."
While working to equip the observatory, Lord kept two considerations constantly in mind. The first was to be able to instruct students in both elementary and advanced astronomy, and the second was to take up at least one line of astronomical research that could be carried out successfully. In light of these considerations, the facility soon housed a combined transit and zenith telescope, a chronograph, chronometers, sextants for instruction, a powerful spectroscope with a range of dispersions (grating 14,438 lines per inch) and two prisms (light 13.1 mm, and dense 21.3 mm or battery 43.1 mm) used separately or in conjunction with the observatory's telescope.
Though the telescope was in place by December 1895, the formal opening of the observatory was deferred until Alumni Day that was to be held on Tuesday, June 16, 1896. Formal opening ceremonies were attended by a large audience. The Columbus Dispatch described the gala event, "The exercise began at 2:00 p.m. and the music was furnished by the OSU Octet. Professor Henry C. Lord, director of the observatory, introduced the speakers. The main address of the day was delivered by Professor E. E. Barnard of the great Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago."
"Hon. E. S. Wilson, the editor of the Ironton Age, followed with a most interesting address, and a short speech by President Canfield closed the program. The observatory was then thrown open for the inspection of the visitors and the various instruments explained by Professor Lord."
McMillin was unable to attend the opening ceremonies, but his spirit of generosity pervaded the air as his longtime friend E. S. Wilson read a short communication prepared for the occasion by McMillin in which he offered to endow a fellowship in the school of astronomy for five years at a rate of $300 per annum. It was to be awarded annually for merit in astronomical work.
Once the observatory became fully operational, it was open to faculty and students, and on the first and third Wednesdays of each month to the general public so that they might have a "peep" at the Milky Way as McMillin had stipulated.
From time to time McMillin continued to support his namesake with generous contributions. In 1897 he provided for a new corrector lens for the spectrograph (see below), and in 1900 assisted financially with the construction of an astronomer's residence next to the observatory. Others also contributed to the development of the observatory and its work. Donations included a position micrometer, a chronograph, a Riefler sidereal clock, two chronometers, a Zeiss comparator, sextants, spectra maps, and books for a library valued at an excess of $1,500. Among the more important contributions were a helioscope by Gaertner, a stereopticon and stand, and a 10-inch Pratt and Whitney tool maker's lathe fully equipped. All were gifts from Mr. Julius F. Stone. A "wireless receiving set" was also given by Campbell Chittenden.
The Observatory and its Work
Once the major equipment was in place, Lord immediately began work at the observatory. In particular, he took full advantage of the spectrograph provided with the refractor. This work, he foresaw, was the line of work most suited to the location and the telescope. The spectrograph, prepared by Brashear, was designed to operate with either a single or combination of prisms or a diffraction grating. At its highest dispersion, the instrument could be used to determine star motion along the line of sight (radial velocity) with a precision of +/- 2 km/sec.
Lord's work with and modifications of the spectroscope gave him a certain preeminence in the field of spectroscopy. He experimented with different ways to stabilize working conditions. He controlled temperature in the spectroscope and added an original compound correcting lens to the spectroscope in 1897. So well was the work proceeding that within four years of the observatory's dedication the Emerson McMillin Observatory would be recognized in a German report as among "the top four astronomical observatories doing work on radial velocities."As a result of his work, Lord was invited to be one of the invited speakers at the opening ceremonies at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, that summer.
In 1898 Lord published "Some Observations of Stellar Motions in the Line of Sight Made at the Emerson McMillin Observatory" thereby helping to establish his preeminence in the field of stellar spectroscopy. The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was held in Columbus from August 21-26, 1899, at which Lord spoke about "Some Points of Spectroscope Design." In this talk, he compared the relative efficiencies of different spectroscopes.
Lord was married on June 22, 1898, but he spent so much time at the observatory that in early 1900 the Board of Trustees was convinced that Lord, as observatory director, would be aided in his efforts if a house for him would be built immediately adjacent to the observatory. The funds for the erection were taken primarily from the accumulated proceeds of the sales of Virginia military lands which had been set apart for the building of residences for professors by an act of Congress dated April 17, 1882. In addition, McMillin contributed money for the construction of a two-story structure (that remained in place until 1925 when it was torn down to make way for a new residence for the University president).
Lord's reputation as a spectroscopist grew as the result of his presentations and publications. As one consequence of this work, Lord was invited by the staff of the U.S. Naval Observatory to join them in their expedition to Barnesville, Georgia, to photographically record the solar flash spectrum during the total solar eclipse of May 28, 1900. The observatory's spectrograph was specially fitted to a 4-inch Alvan Clark refractor that was placed horizontally and fed by a 6-inch heliostat provided by the US Naval Observatory. Eight exposures were obtained through the used of a pneumatic bulb to advance the frames of the film and by a line used to trigger a shutter near the objective of the telescope. 229 spectral lines were observed in the flash spectrum. The expedition as a whole, and Lord's work, in particular, were termed "highly successful." In recognition of his productivity, Lord was promoted to full Professor in 1900.
With the turn of the new century, Lord continued to take stellar spectra. These spectra were obtained with exposures of 45 - 90 minutes each and were made for stars nearly as dim as the fifth magnitude. On a typical evening, Lord would obtain two to four stellar spectra.
The work on stellar radial velocities was interrupted for about a year beginning in the spring of 1902. At that time several additions were made to the back of the observatory, including a lecture room capable of holding 30 to 40 students, two additional observing rooms (one for a 2.5-inch zenith telescope in an attached building, and another in a separate structure to house three theodolites), and a large basement that ultimately would become a very complete workshop. Lord spent this time reducing observations and training a new observing assistant, Mr. B. F. Maag. The reduction work continued unabated until the summer of 1903 when, once again, Lord could return to his observations.
One of the stars observed in the fall of 1901, Eta Piscium, had shown a radial velocity of 21.9 km/sec in recession. By 1904 that speed had been reduced to 12.3 km/sec. After checking and rechecking his calculations to make certain that the speeds reduced to those relative to the sun were correct, Lord announced that he had discovered what was one of the first of many stars to be referred to later as a "spectroscopic binary star system. "According to Lord, the stars were of magnitude 3.5 and 11 and had a period of 58 years. The work was later confirmed by W. W. Campbell and Heber D. Curtis who subsequently discovered nine such stars in a short period of time.
By 1905 Lord's work would be interrupted again, but this time by something that would continue to plague his efforts and all work of the observatory for years to come -- light and air pollution. When the observatory was constructed ten years previously, it was situated at some distance from Columbus. Now it was found within the city limits (population 150,000), and not far from the main campus buildings. The campus was encroaching upon the observatory and the pollution due to the burning of soft coal by the residents of Columbus was making observation difficult. Lord noted the deleterious effects of light and air pollution on his work. In early 1905 he complained of this problem in print. Referring to the deteriorating conditions, Lord concluded that it seemed "advisable to draw the work to a close and turn to some other line of investigation better suited" to the then prevailing conditions. Besides, larger instruments were coming online around the world, and they were better suited to this work.
About this time, Lord was kept busy with public observing sessions as a result of wide interest in Mars. Percival Lowell's claims of life on the red planet captivated the general public. Observing sessions were held periodically throughout the summer opposition of 1907. Lowell's observations that summer were inconclusive, as were those of 1909. The general public began to lose interest in Mars as a possible abode for intelligent life. Other observers besides Lowell were watching Mars with larger telescopes, and by 1909 had resolved Lowell's canals into a series of marks and spots. After these results were made public, the public's love affair with Mars began to subside.
The sky of 1910 provided a genuine spectacular -- Halley's Comet -- and Lord did have an opportunity to observe the comet from a unique vantage point. McMillin prompted an expedition to Hawaii in May of 1910 for the express purpose of discovering the effect, if any, of the transit of Halley's Comet across the disk of the sun upon the lines of the solar spectrum. Lord, along with C. F. Coddington and two volunteer assistants, sailed to Hawaii. McMillin paid the entire costs of the expedition that amounted to $1,500. The mission was unsuccessful, however, because of heavy cloud cover. Nonetheless, McMillin was quoted as later saying, "Well, the mission was a complete failure. But it wasn't the fault of the astronomers; it was the fault of the comet itself. It didn't show up in Hawaii as expected" (Mansfield News, Mansfield, OH, May 21, 1910).
By 1915 Lord's interests had turned to astronomical optics and astrophotography. The basement of the observatory that contained a machine shop was used as an optical shop by Lord. Using imported optical glass and machine tools such as drill press and turning lathe, Lord was able to cut and polish small lenses. Prior to 1915, Lord developed and began teaching a course called Applied Optics at the observatory. In a 1915 publication, he described how he made lenses and assembled them into cameras following the development of roll film.
Lord's duties were split in 1917 when he accepted a position as instructor in the U.S. Army School of Military Aeronautics on campus in May of that year. He continued working in the field of astronomical photography, stellar motions, and double stars in the ensuing years. Lord retired in 1923 as the directorship of the Emerson McMillin Observatory. Professor Lord would die two years later.
Shortly before Lord's retirement McMillin Observatory also would lose its greatest supporter and benefactor. Emerson McMillin would die on Wednesday, May 31, 1922, at his country home, "Darlington," near Mahwah, New Jersey. (A detailed history of Darlington is available.) McMillin expired after two days of extensive illness following on the heels of two years of general ill-health. The official cause of death was pneumonia.
Sometime prior to 1908 Edmund S. Manson, Jr. came to assist Professor Lord. He was interested primarily in the elements of positional astronomy. Manson published numerous articles dealing with the observations of Halley's Comet, the location of asteroids, occultations, double stars, solar motion, and globular clusters. Manson made critical observations of some 90 asteroids. With Lord's retirement in 1923, Manson became director of the McMillin Observatory. During 1925-26 Donald H. Menzel was a staff member.
Due to its small telescope aperture and deteriorating sky conditions, research and instruction at McMillin Observatory began to diminish considerably. By 1931, with the completion of Ohio Wesleyan University's Perkins Observatory just a few miles to the north, the McMillin Observatory was no longer in demand as a research facility. That year, the staff of the observatory was reduced to Professor Manson and a single student assistant.
Since the study of astrophysics had brought astronomy so close to the study of physics, Dean Shepard of the College of Arts and Sciences recommended that the astronomy program be transferred to the Department of Physics. This recommendation was approved by the Board of Trustees and the astronomy program remained a part of the Physics Department from 1931 until 1961.
In the early years of the Great Depression, Ohio Wesleyan officials realized that the University could not properly staff and finance a research and teaching program at Perkins Observatory, which then housed the third-largest telescope in the world. Demands for newer and better equipment and the fact that the observatory was not located on the grounds of the campus of Ohio Wesleyan made its maintenance cost-prohibitive. The 69-inch reflecting telescope located there would not contribute to high-grade research unless an able staff was maintained. For these and related reasons, most of the work of OSU's astronomical research would be conducted at Perkins Observatory with its larger equipment and better observing conditions. The McMillin Observatory had outlived its usefulness.
In 1935 J. Allen Hynek joined the McMillin Observatory staff. Working with N. T. Babrovnikhoff, Hynek observed Nova Herculis in 1934 and Nova Lacerta in 1936. In 1946 the directorship of Emerson McMillin Observatory fell to Hynek upon the retirement of Professor Manson. At the same time, he carried a double role for he was also director of the Perkins Observatory. Because of the constraints on the use of the McMillin Observatory, by 1946-47 the telescope would be characterized as being used for "student instruction only." Still, the observatory was used for astronomical research. In 1951 Hynek assembled a photoelectric photometer for the McMillin refractor. In the following year, he began an investigation of the scintillation of stars in the daytime as part of an "Astronomical Seeing Project" funded by the United States Air Force.
Some of the last astronomical research to take place at McMillin observatory would have to do with the determination of shadow-band structures from stellar scintillation measurements by William M. Protheroe in 1954.
On September 6 and 7, 1956 an open house at McMillin Observatory hosted by the Columbus Astronomical Society drew some 1500 people over two nights to view Mars at its opposition. Subsequent observing nights also drew large crowds who turned up to peer through the telescope and attend presentations in the observatory's planetarium. The 15-foot diameter planetarium was added in 1956(?) with seating for 24. The dome housed a Spitz A-2 planetarium projector.
In 1959 Hynek relinquished his post to take a teaching position at Northwestern University. Dr. Arne Slettebak undertook the job. In 1960, with the aid of the US military, a luminous shock tube lab was set up in the basement of McMillin Observatory and used by Paul Byard. This would be one of the last improvements that McMillin Observatory would see. In 1961 Slettebak became the chairman of the newly independent OSU Astronomy Department. After 30 years of connection with the Physics Department, the astronomy department was made a separate entity.
With the passing of time, the staff and graduate program continued to grow, but McMillin Observatory didn't. McMillin had long since grown too small for the total astronomy program. McMillin Observatory was used for instruction until 1962. The dome jammed in during that year and was declared unsafe to open. With the dome permanently closed, the telescope was now completely useless. At about this time, a woman almost fell through the floor of the observatory. The observatory's days were numbered.
In 1964 the University Trustees decided to relocate the Astronomy Department to its current location atop Smith Laboratory of Physics. By 1968 the move was completed and McMillin Observatory was officially closed. That same year, the dilapidated building was closed forever. Vandalism and breaking and entry prompted a 1974 proposal to the University's Board of Trustees to demolish the structure. The motion was not acted upon.
With the demolition of the McMillin Observatory clearly imminent, the university sought to find someone who would take the observatory's now "too small" telescope. A willing recipient was soon found. In 1975 it was decided to donate the telescope to the Kaubisch Memorial Library of Fostoria, Ohio, which would work with the Fostoria Astronomical Society to make it part of the library's public education program. It was expected also to be available to students from Heidelberg College, Findley College, and Bowling Green State University. According to Dr. William Protheroe, professor of astronomy, the department was unable to move the telescope to Smith Lab because of the size and weight of the instrument. According to Protheroe, "The library will use the telescope in an active way for public instruction closely related to the terms of Mr. McMillin's gift to the university."
At their meeting on May 7, 1976, the OSU Board of Trustees resolved to demolish the observatory. Demolition was to be completed July 1, 1976. It wasn't until July 5, 1976, however, that four individuals from the Fostoria Astronomical Society, with the aid of a local construction firm, removed the telescope from the observatory dome. The telescope was moved to the Union Carbide plant in Fostoria where it was placed in storage temporarily. Piece by piece the equipment had all taken away until nothing remained but the hollow shell of what had once been. The observatory building, sadly marred by weathering, was shortly thereafter reduced to rubble.
The Final Chapter
After seven months of cleaning and refurbishing, the Emerson McMillin telescope was reassembled and put on public display. In March of 1977, some 800 people viewed Saturn at a home show in Fostoria. Plans had been made to house the telescope in a structure to be built on land donated by Norman and Eunice Fruth. A $140,000 structure was planned to house the refurbished instrument.
In spite of efforts and encouragement by three universities, Ohio Senator John Glenn, thirty-seven high school science teachers, the largest public endorsement ever at a revenue-sharing request meeting, and three city council members, the Kaubisch Memorial Library, and the mayor of the city, there was still a question about the propriety of locating a city-owned structure outside the city limits. So, after nine years of rest in Fostoria, the telescope remained unused for lack of a proper home.
The project was finally saved by Doyle Ballreich, a resident of Tiffin, Ohio, and president of the Ballreich Potato Chip Company. Charles Clark, a Union Carbide engineer, had spoken with Ballreich about the possibility of housing the McMillin telescope at Camp Hertzer near Tiffin, not far from Fostoria. Ballreich was intrigued by the possibility and prepared a plan. Ballreich would have the observatory built on land obtained from the Tiffin Rangers where he was a board member. He would ask Tiffin businesses to help with material and labor for construction, ask Heidelberg College to secure permission from Kaubisch Memorial Library to transfer ownership to Heidelberg College, get the Fostoria amateur astronomers to operate the observatory along with Heidelberg physics and astronomy staff, and have it all come together in a timely fashion. The McMillin telescope left Fostoria in March 1984 and by September 28, 1984, the observatory in Tiffin had its new occupant.
Today the 12.5-inch refracting Emerson McMillin telescope is officially housed in "The Ballreich Observatory -- Camp Hertzer." The telescope is owned by Heidelberg College of Tiffin and is operated in large part by the Sandusky Valley Amateur Astronomy Club, an outgrowth of the Fostoria Astronomical Society. The observatory is located some seven miles north of Tiffin and is used both day and night by physics and astronomy students, and scout, church, and school groups hosted by SVAAC members.
Emerson McMillin's lifelong interest in astronomy led him to erect and equip an astronomical observatory in Columbus. The Emerson McMillin Observatory served the community well for many years. Twice-monthly observing sessions provided many with their first and perhaps only chance for a "peep at the Milky Way" as McMillin had requested. The reminders to the University are gone, but what is most important, McMillin's generosity lives on.
The astronomers working at the Emerson McMillin Observatory made significant contributions to the science of astronomy, but one of the most important contributions was in response to McMillin's request that the general public might have an occasional "peep at the Milky Way." During its years of existence, thousands enjoyed and continue to enjoy through the generosity of its founder, their first glimpse of the real glory of the heavens. Sic transit gloria mundi - et caeli.
Endnote: On the 100th anniversary of the founding of the McMillin Observatory, a festive celebration was held at the Ballreich Observatory, at Perkins Observatory, and on the campus of Ohio State University by members of the OSU graduating classes from the 1970s. The above document was read at the Perkins gathering by its author. (This is only part of the entire history assembled by Carl J. Wenning. A longer document is available upon request.) Below are a few photographs from that gathering.
Celebration Participants Visiting the Ballreich Observatory.
A Rogue's Gallery of the 100th Anniversary Celebration on the site of the McMillin Observatory.
The author is at the base of the McMillin refractor is now housed in the Ballreich Observatory.
The author May 2008.
I would like to express a special word of thanks to two individuals who have helped with this project. Roger Wise of Fostoria, OH, who provided information on the current status of the McMillin telescope and allowed the author to see it for the first time, and Elaine Winkler (now of Covington, KY, and formerly of Ironton, OH) who provided a photograph (the Fighting McMillins) and recommended a number of corrections for this publication. Elaine knows more about the personal life and relationships of Emerson McMillin than any person alive. Elaine has developed a complete genealogy for Emerson and has compiled literally hundreds of pages of newspaper articles about his life. Elaine and I will continue to develop this Web site. Stay tuned!
Carl J. Wenning
Please note that these references have yet to be completely organized.
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ApJ 38, 297-300
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McMillin Gave OSU Observatory, Lake, David Shreiner, OSU Lantern, 10 November 1967.
On Campus, Volume 5, No. 2, September 22, 1975
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