Empty wine bottle; vinegar; baking soda; BOOM – cork flies in the air, fizz bubbles onto the pavement; science is fun! Applied science is a great way to integrate understanding and enjoyment to subjects that may otherwise be boring coming from a book. Bill Nye the Science Guy figured out this axiom, for years educating and entertaining his audience simultaneously on his television program for years. But his audience was primarily children – what, adults don't want to learn? At the Cincinnati Observatory, hands-on celestial examination is as boundless to age as the cosmos is limited to space.
On November 9, 1843, former President John Quincy Adams laid the cornerstone of the Cincinnati Observatory. Positioned on a four acre plot atop Mt. Ida, 400 feet above the city of Cincinnati, the 77 year old Adams went on to deliver the last public speech of his life; his comments articulated the importance of the project to the country's intellectual and scientific esteem. Following the event, Mt. Ida was renamed Mt. Adams.
Constantly echoing the President's sentiment was the observatory's founder, Ormsby McKnight Mitchel. A professor at Cincinnati College, Mitchel had been generating public interest in astronomy for years. However, without an organized observatory and telescope, stellar enthusiasm had its limits. He persisted by organizing the Cincinnati Astrological Society – a group that would also be shareholders in the observatory. In three weeks, 300 investors supplied the capital necessary for Mitchel to travel to Munich and purchase a high quality telescope. Meanwhile, an economic depression depleted the group's funds, leaving the building project on hold. In typical fashion, the founder raised enough money to complete the project, much of it his own, and negotiated a share-for-work agreement with the laborers. Without Mitchel, the Cincinnati Observatory surely would not have opened to the public on April 14, 1845.
With the onset of the Civil War, the Cincinnati Observatory ceased operations; its commencement did not occur until 1868. In the wake of the war, as downtown Cincinnati grew into a burgeoning industrial center, dust, light, and smoke rendered the Mt. Adams location ill-suited for clear observation. So in 1873, the original cornerstone and telescope were moved to the current location in Mt. Lookout.
Interwoven amidst a residential cornucopia, the observatory's spacious grounds are alienated from immediate city light. The horizon to the east (downtown) and west (Milford) are dimly illuminated, but not enough to be a disturbance as the eyes extend skyward. The patriarch of the grounds is an impressive silver-domed, southern brick building. It is without a doubt the focal point of the property. Initially home to the 12 inch objective lens telescope from Munich, a larger 16 inch refractor telescope replaced it in 1904. The older instrument moved into the new building to the west. Unencumbered by trees, yet surrounded by them, the circular grounds are precisely manicured and are wonderful for sauntering under the stars. In 1997, the Department of the Interior tipped their cap by designating the buildings and grounds of the observatory as a National Historic Landmark. The two buildings on the property are structurally similar, yet functionally unique.
The principal domicile has a museum on the first floor celebrating the elaborate history of the Cincinnati Observatory and Cincinnati Astronomical Society. From there, a winding staircase leads to the second story observation room. Although smaller, the new building is more utilitarian. The first floor foyer funnels into three separate rooms: a gift shop, library, and classroom. A half flight of stairs leads into this building's observation room. Both buildings were constructed for the absolute benefit of astrology. To ensure no vibrations from voices, cars (then rail, now auto), or any other form of energy could transmit from the floor to the telescope, the interiors were essentially built around the telescopes. The domes in which the instruments are housed must also be subject to the natural atmosphere to eliminate any artificial energy that could alter their projections. During the summer, the observation rooms will be hot; during the winter, bundle up.
Typically, visitors will begin their experience in the classroom to cover background information on that evening's subject. Encouraging repeat visits, subjects are constantly changing – it's unlikely they are going to run out of material, so stop by frequently. The education certainly enhances the applied aspect as the images become intertwined with meaning. Additionally, as the earth rotates, so do the heavenly bodies from the fixed vantage point on Mt. Lookout. This means there is always something to see. Two large telescopes, one ground telescope, and a laser pointer are more than enough to examine the galaxy. The knowledgeable staff helps, too.
Passion drives the Observatory's excellence. At the core of the center's mission is to ensure affordable access so all members of the community can appreciate their tools. Therefore, volunteers are integral. Because of the lack of monetary compensation, those willing to donate their time are doing so out of genuine desire and fascination. This fervor is contagious and makes space exploration that much more enjoyable.
On a clear summer evening, as dusk grabs the sky and the heavens begin to emerge, eyes defy gravity as they can only look up and refuse to go down. Wouldn't it be nice to know what is being inspected? There is a place on Mt. Lookout where you can find the answer.
- Hours and Tours:
- Sunday Historical Tours: 1pm to 4pm every 2nd and 4th Sunday.
- Note: Educational outreach and group presentations, weddings, and other events can be scheduled upon request.
- Astronomy Thursdays: Free, but a $4 donation is suggested
- Location: 3489 Observatory Place Cincinnati, OH
- Phone: 513-321-5186
- Website: www.cincinnatiobservatory.org