Hugh D. Vail: "Volunteer Weatherman"


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The Haverford Observatory

Notebook- page 28

View the entire notebook. Pages 28-33 contain the story of Vail's efforts to obtain new equipment for the observatory.

After Haverford's reopening, Vail noted that the observatory previously used by John Gummere was ill-equipped to deepen the study of astronomy on campus. In the notebook of his autobiographical sketch, he writes about consulting with the Board of Managers to arrange for the expansion of instruments in the observatory. The Board ultimately approved his requests, and in 1852 the observatory was equipped with a new astronomical transit. He writes that the observatory had previously contained only "an astronomical clock, and a small transit instrument," and thus gives a feel for the necessity of improving the extent of materials available.

Notebook- page 29

View the entire notebook. On page 29 Vail describes the somewhat complicated process of mounting the astronomical transit. 

As a passionate teacher and avid amateur astronomer himself, Vail continued his pursuit of acquiring a greater collection of astronomical tools. After obtaining a new transit instrument, Vail arranged for the acquisition of an "equatorially mounted telescope," a project which ran into financial obstacles. A telescope was loaned to the school, but the expense of mounting the instrument was the responsibility of Vail and the administration. The Board was unable to provide the money necessary for more equipment or for mounting the telescope; however, Vail pursued his quest nonetheless, and through various donations was able to mount the telescope. A new observatory was then built at Vail's carefully selected location, but Vail resigned from his position as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy before it was finished. His return, at the request of the Managers, to direct the operations of the new observatory allowed him to use the instruments and space he had invested so much effort in.

Notebook- page 31

View the entire notebook. Page 31 deals with the arrangement of acquiring a specific telescope, as well as the arragnements for the location for the new observatory that would not have a view obstructed by trees. 

Vail's narrative shows his excitement and passion for improving astronomical studies at Haverford and obtaining the proper tools for astronomical research. The observatory was equipped with several intricate instruments for the proper study of astronomy. These instruments include the Equatorial telescope, the Meridian Transit circle, the 18 inch transit instrument, the Sidereal Clock, and the Spring Governor. Several of these instruments are still in the current observatory, and the larger pieces are pictured below.

Vail was instrumental to the funding for new, more advanced technologies, and also was essential to the very location of the new observatory, choosing a specific spot just outside the college grounds. He writes in his notebook that though originally planned to stand where the previous observatory of John Gummere had stood, he "became convinced that it would be too much surround by trees, and that the house and woods would interfere with some observations." He was later successful in changing the location for the foundation, only having to remove one chestnut tree in the process.

"To those accustomed to view the heavens, with unassisted vision, there are many objects of interest and wonder, furnishing to the reflecting mind abundant food for contemplation. The daily marches of the sun, 'who knoweth his moment, when to sink and when to rise;'--the chastened radiance of the moon, in her various changes from 'crescent to full,' and the majestic spectacles of the diurnal movements of the stellar heavens, are all matters of such prominence and beauty, as cannot fail to arrest the attention of even the most careless observer. The glories of the heavens with their multitude of twinkling points, diversified into every grade of hue and brilliancy, have ever been objects of thought and song." 

From the Description of the Haverford College Observatory 1857.

The plates below are taken from the 1857 Description of the Observatory at Haverford College, which details the purpose and inventory of the observatory during the year 1857. This pamphlet was compiled and written by Joseph G. Harlan, Vail's successor as professor of mathematics and natural history and provides a picture of Vail's acheivements at the observatory.


Hugh D. Vail's notebook of autobiographical information, pages 28-33. 

Harlan, Joseph G. Description of the Observatory at Haverford College, 1857. n.p., 1857.

Haverford Years
The Haverford Observatory