The Cryptic Case of Joseph Campbell’s Clark Refractor, Part II

Around 1872, Jacob Campbell moved to New Hamburg, New York, and he sold his house and observatory, intact, to Lawyer and Wall Street Broker Stephen Van Culen White (18311913). White was also an avid amateur astronomer and the first president of the American Astronomical Society. Through business and astronomy, he was certainly acquainted with Campbell and his observatory. And thus White, in buying Campbell’s house, adroitly acquired Campbell’s telescope. White must have learned from Campbell about the original history of the telescope. And Alvan Clark, writing to astronomer Edward S. Holden, wrote “I have reworked [the glass] of 11⅞ inches for Jacob Campbell of Brooklyn, N.Y. also made by Fitz. This glass was mounted for Mr. Campbell but he has sold his house observatory and telescope to a Mr. White”.

Here, Alvan Clark is discussing the telescope that was completed for and installed by Jacob Campbell in 1867 and links its origin to Fitz. Given the size and dates, it is clear that the telescope must be the Twelve-inch refractor that Henry Fitz was working on when he died in 1863.

Lick Observatory, T.R. Burhham Alvan G., Alvan and Geo. Bassett Clark

Campbell had the Clarks, rising stars in the rarified world of top end telescope makers, finish the job. White (Campbell, really) had the instrument “mounted, according to Clark’s plan, on a solid block of granite, which in turn rests upon a base of masonry twelve feet square rising from the level of Furman street to a height of 40 feet. The dome has a sliding aperture and revolves with an endless chain and crank.” The telescope had a micrometer and other accessories; the lens alone cost $4,500, and the entire setup was valued at $10,000.

It is difficult to understand is how such a large and impressive telescope, started by Henry Fitz, and finished by the Clarks, remained completely undocumented in the copious literature of the day. It was never listed in any of the sources that documented observatories and telescopes. Yet it didn’t escape the notice of local reporters, especially given White’s prominence in the Brooklyn community. White was a stock speculator and politico who served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and who over his career made and lost several fortunes. When he died in 1913, he was comparatively poor; by the mid-1890s, he was down on his luck and he put the telescope up for sale.

New home for the Twelve-inch Clark – From the mid-1860s to the mid-1870s, Sarah Frances Whiting (1847-1927) had taught mathematics for a decade at Brooklyn Heights Seminary (a girls’ secondary school), and had taken her students to observe through the 12-inch Clark, possibly when it was first in the possession of Campbell and then of White. In 1876, she began teaching astronomy and physics at Wellesley College, where she remained the rest of her life. In the late 1890s, she heard that the telescope had become available at roughly half price. At a spring festival, Whiting spoke of the telescope and of Wellesley’s urgent need for an observatory to wealthy widow Mrs. John C. Whitin, who had recently been elected a Wellesley trustee. In fall 1898, Mrs. Whitin proposed to purchase the telescope from White and give it to Wellesley, an offer that the trustees voted to accept; Whitin also took great interest in the construction of the observatory—appropriately of white marble in recognition of its White/ Whiting/Whitin heritage. The Whitin Observatory was dedicated October 8, 1900, with Sarah Whiting as its first director.

Source unknown. Sarah Frances Whiting

But what became of the original massive observatory? It lasted for some time, but eventually the entire bluff was removed when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was built.