Hamilton L. Smith and the College Observatory

Unfortunately, when Hamilton L. Smith arrived on campus, he found that "the scientific apparatus consisted of a pile of dust-covered rusty instruments stowed away in a room in Geneva Hall." He immediately set about raising funds to improve the situation. Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe took an active interest, which helped encourage donors and shepherd the project along.

Large donations were made by Samuel G. Cornell of Buffalo and Mrs. Dean Richmond of Batavia, and in the fall of 1868, the Board of Trustees authorized $5000 to be spent on purchasing new equipment. Soon after additional funds were authorized for an observatory.

Observatory, Palmer Scrapbook, SC20 Box 13.tif

Hobart College Observatory, circa 1870-1900.

The College Observatory

Construction of the college observatory began in 1869 and was completed in 1870 at a cost of $3600. The 8.75" equatorial telescope, built by Henry Fitz, was purchased from William S. Van Duzee of Buffalo.

A detailed description of the observatory from the 1870-71 college catalog can be found below.


Hobart College Catalog, 1870-71.


The Observatory as seen from St. Clair Street, circa 1870-1879.

The observatory was located on the west side of campus near Pulteney Street, behind a small grove of spruce trees. In the photograph above, taken from St. Clair Street, the observatory can be seen in the midground.

The photograph below, taken from Pulteney Street, provides a closer look at the observatory and the land which would become the quad.


The observatory as seen from Pulteney Street, circa 1870-1879.

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Student's sketch of Jupiter, May 4, 1871.

With so many improvements being made, student interest in astronomy increased, and in 1869 a student group, "The Solar System", appeared in the Echo.

The 1875-77 college catalog stated that the observatory, "is at all times open to those students manifesting particular aptitude in this direction, and is designed to be a working model for the student, by which he may acquire a practical knowledge of Astronomy."

The sketch of Jupiter at the left was taken from the scrapbook of Howard Jones, class of 1875.

Geneva residents also benefitted. Prof. Smith often opened the observatory to the public and published accounts of his observations in the local papers.


Meridian Stone on William Smith Green, 2019.

The Meridian Stone

The sandstone pillar to the right can be found in front of Smith Hall. It was originally placed at the corner of Pulteney and Jay Streets in 1872 by members of the Hobart class of 1873. The stone was used to align the transit instrument in the observatory to a meridian. A transit instrument is a small telescope used to accurately record star positions and tell time.

Over the years many people have believed that the stone marked the 77th meridian, which was the prime meridian of the United States from 1850 to 1912. This is incorrect, as that meridian runs west of Geneva, near the Colleges' solar farm on Gates Road.

In 1948, workers building the Garden Apartments found the stone on its side, half-buried. After several years in storage, Provost Walter Durfee had the stone placed on the William Smith Green in 1952.

Post House with Observatory, Palmer Scrapbook, SC20 Box 13 (720).tif

Harris House with smaller observatory visible in the rear, circa 1883-1900.

A Second Observatory

In 1883, Prof. Smith built a second smaller observatory on the back of his house, which is now Harris House. It contained a 4.25" telescope. The Hobart Herald wrote that, "This little observatory will be a very convenient thing indeed. Its nearness to the college buildings combined with the size of the instrument gives every one a chance to see the wonders of the heavens.”

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Hobart College Quad, circa 1887-1900.


Prof. H. L. Smith, undated.

As the 19th century drew to a close, campus began to encroach on the larger observatory. Alumni Hall, seen in the photo above, was built in 1887. 

In the 1890s Hamilton L. Smith's health began to decline, as he was now in his 70s. He primarily used the smaller observatory attached to his house and the larger observatory was overseen by a senior student, "who has the keys and also has the priviledge of admitting any seniors who may wish to search for comets or do other work under the revolving dome."

In 1896, the transit instrument was moved from the college observatory to the south gable of Merritt Hall to allow Prof. Smith easier access.


Hobart College Observatory, circa 1885-1900.

Hamilton L. Smith retired in 1900 at the age of 81 and donated his smaller observatory to the Colleges. He passed away in 1903.

In 1900, Coxe Hall was built, the quad was graded, and the larger observatory was demolished.

In 1903, the Board of Trustees authorized the Treasurer "to dispose of the lens of the old telescope for the best price attainable.”

The telescope tube was lost in storage until 1975, when researcher Norman Sperling discovered it while researching its maker, Henry Fitz. The telescope was displayed at Astrocon, a convention of amateur astronomers at Kutztown State College in 1976, before making its way to the factory store of Edmund Scientific, a New Jersey company which sold surplus scientific equipment. According to Sperling, it is still in their possession.

Luckily, as Smith's health declined, another astronomer was available to take his place. William R. Brooks was on Castle Street discovering comets.

Hamilton L. Smith and the College Observatory