On May 5, 1932, an amateur astronomical society was founded by Brown University Professor Charles Hugh Smiley, and the name chosen for this group was “The Skyscrapers.” During the first two meetings the society laid the groundwork on how it would conduct its affairs, including a Constitution and a set of Bylaws. Also, a 72-year old Frank Evans Seagrave, well-known Providence amateur astronomer, was elected to honorary membership. No one could have imagined that this bestowment began a connection that would provide the foundation for the society’s success decades into the future.
Early on Skyscrapers was an integral part of the eclipse expeditions led by Professor Smiley. Some members accompanied Smiley on these treks, while others made monetary donations or contributed in other ways to ensure the expeditions’ success. The first of many of these adventures occurred on August 31, 1932, in nearby Sweden, Maine.
During the first few years Skyscrapers continued to hold monthly meetings on the campus of Brown University or at the University’s Ladd Observatory. Whether it was a lecture by one of the region’s top astronomers, or great views of the universe through Ladd’s 12-inch Brashear refractor, Skyscrapers members and guests were always treated to fine programs. Here’s a list of just a few of the distinguished guests during those first five years: Leon Campbell, Leah Allen, Prof. John Duncan, Dr. Clyde Fisher, John Pierce (ATM’s of Springfield, VT), Cecilia Payne, Dr. Fred Whipple, Harlow Shapley and R. Newton Mayall.
On November 17, 1936, Skyscrapers received their incorporation charter, which allowed the organization to purchase the estate of Frank Seagrave (a little more than one-half acre, observatory building, 8¼-inch 1878 Alvan Clark refractor telescope, and other miscellaneous equipment) in North Scituate, Rhode Island for $1000 on the 23rd. A source of pride for the society is its distinctive logo designed by Russell W. Porter shortly after the organization acquired the Seagrave property.
Public outreach has always been an essential part of the Skyscrapers organization. Soon after the acquisition of Seagrave Observatory, Skyscrapers held their first “open night” on January 15, 1937. Though the frequency of public open nights has varied throughout the years, today the observatory is open every clear Saturday night.
Eclipse expeditions continued to be a focus for Skyscrapers. During the total solar eclipse in Peru on June 8, 1937, Professor Smiley successfully photographed the event and also managed to capture the cone-shaped zodiacal light with a 4-inch f/1 Schmidt camera (then the fastest astronomical camera), constructed by Skyscrapers members. And then for the October 1, 1940, total solar eclipse in Curema, Brazil, Smiley designed a 12-inch, F/3.5 Schwarzschild camera, only the second one of its kind in the world, to photograph the Sun’s outer corona in the hope of verifying the zodiacal light captured with the Schmidt camera. Professor Smiley and Arthur Hoag (a Brown University student) were the only representatives of Brown/Skyscrapers to make that trip. Unfortunately clouds obscured the eclipse and no observations were recorded.
During the war years of 1941-1945, Skyscrapers met sporadically. When the war finally ended, the society once again resumed its interest in total solar eclipse expeditions.
One of the most important projects ever started by the membership was the building of the 20’ by 40’ meeting hall. Construction began in September of 1951 and was completed when the building was dedicated on May 26, 1952.
With the new meeting hall finished, Skyscrapers started another new tradition, AstroAssembly, which was first held on August 2 & 3, 1952. There were 74 people in attendance at this convention. Skipping years in 1953 and 1954, AstroAssembly resumed in 1955. It is one of the traditions that Skyscrapers is most proud of, having hosted some of the world’s most well-known astronomers, astrophysicists, scientists and astronauts. Here is but a small sample of AstroAssembly speakers during the last 26 years: Dr. William Sheehan, Story Musgrave, Dr. Janet Mattei, Dr. Dorrit Hoffleit, Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, David H. Levy, Dr. Philip Morrison, Walter Scott Houston, Dr. Sergei Khrushchev and Dr. Chet Raymo.
And the society continues to provide members and guests with some great speakers at our monthly meetings. Here is a short list of some of the more recent presenters: Dr. Barbara Welther, Dr. Robert Wilson, Dr. Richard Binzel, Dr. John Huchra, Prof. Alan Hirshfeld, Dr. Owen Gingerich, Dr. Brian Marsden, Evan Haddingham, Andrew Chaiken and Dr. Fred Whipple .
Celestial events have always provided the organization with an opportunity to strengthen interest in astronomy through public outreach. That effort often has the potential for increasing Skyscrapers membership as well. During late 1973 and early 1974, Comet Kohoutek helped us accomplish the former but not the latter.
However, in early 1975, Skyscrapers built a portable 25-foot inflatable planetarium, borrowed a vintage, home-made planetarium projector from Brown University, and created a multimedia show for one of the local shopping malls. It only took a short time to inflate the planetarium with two large pedestal fans. Talk about an inflationary universe! On April 7, 1975, Skyscrapers began what would be a 10-day run. During that time over 9,000 visitors paid 10 cents each to view the planetarium presentation. Now that’s public outreach! Membership grew, Saturday night open houses were better attended, and the society’s reputation increased .
At the same time the portable planetarium project was underway, the society decided to produce a newsletter. The first issue of The Skyscraper was published in January 1975. Today the newsletter has evolved into a quality publication .
In 1976 the membership decided to completely renovate the dome of the observatory building that housed the 8¼-inch Alvan Clark refractor. With that task completed the society could continue its successful public outreach programs with a revitalized spirit.
The biggest event the organization hosted so far was for Halley’s Comet. On the evening of Saturday, January 4, 1985, an estimated 2,100 people deluged the little village of North Scituate to get a look at Halley through one of the dozen telescopes positioned throughout the property.
In 1987, Skyscrapers built a new 12’ by 24’ double roll-off roof observatory to house the recently refurbished 12-inch, F/3.5 Schwarzschild camera designed by Smiley. Over the next few years several telescopes were jockeyed between the north and south ends of this facility . On September 25, 1992, a 12-inch Newtonian reflector on an equatorial fork mount, the creation of one of our past presidents, Ralph C. Patton, was installed in the newly modified north end of the roll-off roof building.
Between November 1991 and November 1993, Skyscrapers was awarded two generous grants from The Champlin Foundations for major renovation work to the main observatory housing the Clark refractor and the meeting hall. Once all the major renovations were completed in 1994 the society’s facilities looked brand new.
In March of 1995, the organization decided to purchase a Meade 12” LX200 to install in the south end of the roll-off roof observatory where the Schwarzschild had been. And by September 1996, Skyscrapers could boast a rudimentary web page hosted by Brown University. Today the web site, www.theskyscrapers.org, is hosted by Newfangled Web Factory free of charge.
A major achievement for the society occurred in 1999 when the Scituate Town Council voted to grant Skyscrapers property tax relief in lieu of the organization’s service to the community.
In November of 1999, Skyscrapers was awarded a third grant from The Champlin Foundations. A portion of this grant was for a few odds and ends that needed to be addressed in both the meeting hall and the Clark observatory building, while more than half was for the acquisition of a 16-inch Meade LX200 telescope. An additional 12’ by 16’ roll-off roof observatory was built and the scope settled into its new home by the October 13, 2001, Astro Assembly convention.
During the summer of 2003, a complete restoration of the historic Clark telescope was undertaken, including the rebuilding of its clock drive. This task involved reassembling original parts, machining missing ones, and rebuilding drive gears
There have been so many activities in which the Skyscrapers organization has participated, it’s difficult to recap or even remember all of them. Suffice it to say that throughout its 75 year history, this extended family has shared their passion for astronomy not only with each other, but also with the casual stargazer.
Public outreach continues to be an important aspect of the Skyscrapers mission. The group hosts star parties for many local schools and civic groups. Two of these annual events attract 250 to 300 people each. Skyscrapers’ focus has always been to “educate the general public…on matters pertaining to astronomy,” in addition to enlightening the membership on the wonders of the universe.
I dedicate this article to all past and present Skyscrapers members, and I challenge future generations to preserve this great legacy. It only takes the vision of one and the support of many to attain any goal. Our founding members and Frank Seagrave would be very proud of the accomplishments our organization has achieved during these 75 years. I know I am.