History of the Leander McCormick Observatory

The Donation of the McCormick Observatory

In 1870, Leander J. McCormick decided to contribute the largest refracting telescope in the world to an educational institution from his home state of Virginia. He placed an order for a 26-inch telescope lens from Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, known at the time as the finest glass work and lens crafting firm in the nation. McCormick contacted individuals at both Washington College (later to become Washington & Lee University) and the University of Virginia to say that he might contribute the telescope to their school if they were able to gather funds for the construction of the building to house the telescope and to properly employ a staff to run the observatory. Presenting the offer to both institutions eventually produced quite a controversy. Professor Charles Venable, head of the School of Mathematics at UVA, corresponded with McCormick over the course of the years between the first proposal of the telescope and its actual dedication in 1885. He had been in contact with McCormick by May 17, 1870, when he wrote, "I am still hammering away at McCormick," and again on July 25, 1870 he wrote that "Mr. McCormick favours strongly the University as the most effective site for the Observatory," but the final decision was not for another seven years.

What caused the delay? First of all, the McCormick family had troubles of their own. The Chicago Fire of October 8-9, 1871 wiped out most of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, as well as Leander McCormick's house. Along with the financial panics of 1873, McCormick had a lot to recover from through the 1870s, but was determined to go through with the telescope. An additional benefit came out of the delay. The recently installed 26-inch telescope for the U.S. Naval Observatory, which had also been produced by Alvan Clark and Sons, contained a major flaw in the lens. Consequentially, the McCormick telescope (seen left) was produced with the additional correction.

Leander McCormick visited Charlottesville in October 1877 and viewed the campus at UVA and on December 17, 1877 McCormick made an official offer to the University of Virginia. He offered to contribute the telescope, valued at $50,000 and an additional $18,000 for the building if the University could produce equal funds for the building and staff. After three years of fundraising, Professor Charles Venable announced that with the assistance of $25,000 from William H. Vanderbilt (the son of Commodore Vanderbilt) and numerous alumni donations, the University raised $75,000.

The telescope's formal dedication took place on Thomas Jefferson's birthday, April 13, 1885. The complete detailing of the inauguration ceremony can be found in Jeffersonian Republican, April 15, 1885. The ceremony took place on that Monday evening in the Public Hall at the University, filled with numerous distinguished guests, including men of science, business and government. Charles M. Blackford, President of the Society of the Alumni, acted as master of ceremonies and Professor Asaph Hall from the United States Naval Observatory served as the keynote speaker. Prof. Hall's address gave a brief history of the telescope and modern astronomy, placing the significance of the McCormick telescope in the context of a booming scientific era. Blackford spoke of "the germ of Mr. Jefferson's creation" having reached fruition. Leander McCormick was unable to attend, but sent a letter with Col. Venable, which was presented after Prof. Hall's address. In it, McCormick expressed joy at the completion of the observatory and entrusted the Rector and Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia with its care. Venable concluded with a few words of his own, "And long may this temple to the Queen of all science crown the summit of yonder mountain. May many a silent watcher of the skies under its lofty dome, pluck from the stary ether a crown of lasting fame and his hand in honor sown the centuries the name of the generous founder who has built so well."