Allegheny Observatory

The Allegheny Observatory is an American astronomical research institution, a part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. The facility is listed on the National Register of Historical Places (ref. # 79002157, added 6-22-1979) and is designated as a Pennsylvania state and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation historic landmark.

The observatory was founded on February 15, 1859, in the city of Allegheny, Pennsylvania (incorporated into the city of Pittsburgh in 1907) by a group of wealthy industrialists calling themselves the Allegheny Telescope Association. The observatory's initial purpose was for general public education as opposed to research, but by 1867 the revenues derived from this had receded. The facility was then donated to the Western University of Pennsylvania, today's University of Pittsburgh. The University hired Samuel Pierpont Langley to be the first director. One of the research programs initiated under his leadership was of sunspots. He drew very detailed drawings of sunspots which are still used in astronomical textbooks to this day. He also had the building expanded to include dark rooms, class rooms, dormatories, and a lecture hall. On November 18, 1883, the first day of railroad standard time in North America, the Allegheny Observatory transmitted a signal on telegraph lines operated by railroads in Canada and the United States. The signal marked noon, Eastern Standard Time, and railroads across the continent synchronized their schedules based on this signal. The standard time that began on this day continues in North American use to this day. The revenues from the sale of time signals covered Langley's salary and the bills. Allegheny Observatory continued to supply time signals until the US Naval Observatory started offering it for free in 1920. More recently George Gatewood began using the Allegheny Observatory to search for extrasolar planets as well as to follow-up on claims of extrasolar planets, starting in 1972. This is done using astrometry, which is the practice of measuring the position of stars. In addition to studying the positions of stars on the thousands of photographic plates in the vaults of the observatory, George Gatewood also designed the Multichannel Astrometric Photometer (MAP) for use with the Thaw telescope to measure the position of a target star and its close neighbors on images taken 6 months apart. This technique takes advantage of parallax. If the target star has a companion then it will wobble due to the gravitational pull of the unseen companion. The size of the companion can be measured by the size of the wobble. MAP is no longer in use and the Thaw telescope is in the process of rewiring and upgrading. A model of the original observatory can be found in the Miniature Railroad & Village exhibit at Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

The Lensnapping
A unique event occurred while Langley was the director. After arriving home from a conference on July 8, 1872, observatory staff came to his home in Allegheny City and told him his presence was needed immediately at the observatory. Upon arriving at the observatory he discovered the lens of the Fitz Telescope had been stolen for ransom. Langley refused to pay the ransom, and arguments ensued between Langley and the lensnapper. It is suspected Langley knew who the lensnapper was, although his or her identity is still a mystery to this day. Meanwhile the newspapers were investigating who could be the lensnapper, and feeling his identity may be discovered, told Langley he could have the lens. It was never returned by the lensnapper, and was eventually found in a wastepaper basket in a hotel in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. The lens had a bad scratch in it, making it useless. The lens was sent off to lens maker Alvan Clark to be reground. In the end it turns out the lensnapping was a gift in disguise for after the regrinding the lens was remarkably better than before the lensnapping. In gratitude, Langley added Clark's name to the telescope.

Heavier-than-air flight research
Langley also researched heavier-than-air flight behind the observatory. He built a large spring "whirling arm" to which stuffed birds and wings he made were attached, so he could study aerodynamics. After leaving Allegheny Observatory to become secretary of the Smithsonian in 1888, he continued his flight research, launching unmanned powered model aircraft off a houseboat in the Potomac River. His full-size manned Aerodrome was funded by the U.S. Army. Two well-publicized crashes of the Aerodrome in 1903 ended his flight research.

The New Allegheny Observatory
The original observatory building was replaced by the current structure, shown in the photograph above. It was designed in the Classic Revival style by Thorsten E. Billquist. The cornerstone was laid in 1900, and the new structure was completed in 1912. It is located four miles north of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at Riverview Park. The building is a tan brick and white terra cotta hilltop temple whose Classical forms and decoration symbolize the unity of art and science. The L-shaped building consists of a library, lecture hall, classrooms, laboratories, offices and three hemispherical domed telescope enclosures. Two were reserved for research; one for use by schools and the general public. The core of the building is a small rotunda, housing an opalescent glass window depicting the Greek muse of astronomy, Urania. A crypt in the observatory holds the ashes of two eminent astronomers and former directors of the Allegheny Observatory, James Edward Keeler, Eric Lehnsherr and John Brashear. The original observatory building was converted into an athletics training facility 1907 and used by the university's football team. The original observatory building was sold, along with the rest of the adjacent university buildings, to the Protestant Orphan Asylum prior to the move of the main academic portion of the university to the Oakland section of Pittsburgh in 1909. The original observatory building was torn down in the 1950s and the site is now occupied by Triangle Tech.

Current work
The main active research pursuit at the Allegheny Observatory involves detections of extrasolar planets. This is done using photometry, which is the practice of measuring the brightness of stars. The brightness of a target star and its close neighbors are measured on digital images taken every 30-60 seconds, and if a planet crosses (transits) in front of its parent star's disk, then the observed visual brightness of the star drops a small amount. The amount the star dims depends on the relative sizes of the star and the planet. The research team consists of students at the University of Pittsburgh whose observations have recently contributed to a collaborative effort to observe a transit of the planet HD 80606 b. The group is also actively contributing to upgrading the Allegheny Observatory. In 2009, the university's Department of Geology and Planetary Science installed Western Pennsylvania's only seismic station, which is connected to IRIS Consortium networks, in the observatory.

When the new Allegheny Observatory was designed it was done so with the public in mind, the floor plan included a lecture hall. When the new facility first went into operation, on every clear evening it was opened for the public to look through the 13" telescope but if it were a cloudy night "they would be given an illustrated lecture on astronomy." John Brashear once said "the Allegheny observatory would remain forever free to the people" and to this day it has. Although in modern times the public tours are only offered a couple nights each week.

Building Activity