William R. Brooks and the Smith Observatory


William R. Brooks, undated.

William R. Brooks

William R. Brooks was born in Maidstone, England. A trip to Australia as a young boy sparked a life-long interest in astoronomy. He built his first telescope at 14, a year after his family had moved to America. At the age of 17, he presented his first lecture on astronomy in his father's church, using his own diagrams and paintings.

As an adult, he worked as a draughtsman in Buffalo and Syracuse before settling in Phelps in 1870 and becoming a photographer.

His made his home in a red farmhouse surrounded by an apple orchard just outside of Phelps. He set up a twelve-foot-square wooden platform two feet off of the ground, which he dubbed the Red House Observatory. He built a 2" telescope and then a 5" one.

He discovered his first comet on October 4, 1881.



Clock from the Red House Observatory in Eaton Hall, 2019.

In 1882, he built a 9.25” telescope. The lenses for his telescopes were all made by hand on a homemade grinding and polishing machine.

Between 1881 and 1887, William Brooks discovered 11 comets from his Red House Observatory. In 1886, he set a record by discovering three in a one month period. The clock from he entryway of his home can be found hanging in Eaton Hall.

In Geneva, nurseryman and philanthropist William Smith had taken an interest in astronomy, and in 1882 he built a small, tin-roof observatory behind his house on Castle Street. In it he placed a small telescope which he had obtained from Hamilton Smith. 


Sanborn map of area around Smith and Brooks houses, 1915.

After hearing of Brooks and his discoveries, Smith visited him in Phelps. Impressed and wishing to be his patron, he convinced Brooks to move to Geneva by offering to build him a new house and observatory next to his own.

According to an article in the 1909 Geneva Daily Times, "His idea at this time was to gratify his own interest in astronomy and at the same time provide a means whereby the people of Geneva could secure a better knowledge of the universe."

In the map above, William Smith's residence can be  seen at 600 Castle Street with Brooks' house at 620, both on the right side of the street. Their respective observatories can be seen behind and to the right of each house.

The original observatory behind Smith's house was neglected in favor of the new larger one, and eventually became a playhouse.


Smith Observatory, undated.


Prof. Brooks in the Smith Observatory, undated.

The Smith Observatory

The Smith Observatory was competed in 1888 under the supervision of Brooks. The tower was 17’ in diameter and 34’ tall. It had an equatorial refractor telescope with 10” aperture, and a transit meridian telescope attached to an astronomical clock. The telescope was was built by John Casey, and the dome and mount were built by Warner and Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio.

Brooks continued to discover comets, but he also opened the observatory up to public. He would present lectures and anyone could stop by on clear nights to take a look. He also published small pamphlets explaining the solar system to local residents.

In 1895, Brooks made the Smith Observatory available to Hobart students. For the next five years, the students would have three observatories at their disposal.

When Hamilton Smith retired in 1900, Hobart hired Brooks and classes were brought to Smith Observatory. The Hobart Herald announced, “Part of the work originally in Professor Hamilton Smith’s department is now in charge of Professor W. R. Brooks, Sc. D., Director of the Smith Observatory, Geneva. Professor Brooks will now instruct in Astronomy, giving what is sure to be a very popular course, consisting of lectures illustrated by the stereopticon.” Known as "Sky" Brooks among the students, he taught astronomy for the next 20 years.

In 1906, when William Smith made his gift to establish William Smith College, the observatory became college property.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 17 January 1914 p10.jpg

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 17, 1914.

In addition to teaching, Brooks travelled the country lecturing on astronomy, and continued to discover comets. He discovered his 27th and final comet on October 20, 1912. He named it Lasell-Brooks after Lasell College, where he had lectured every two years.

William R. Brooks has the second-most discoveries in history behind Jean-Louis Pons, who had discovered 37, fifty years earlier.


Brook's headstone in Glenwood Cemetery, 2019.

In February 1921, Professor Brooks collapsed after working at the Colleges all day and trying to photograph an approaching comet all night. He was 77 years old. He spent the next several months confined to his home before passing away on May 3.

On May 12, the Hobart Herald wrote:

“In the death of William Robert Brooks, Hobart College has suffered a distinct loss… It will be a long time before Hobart in every respect will be able to reconcile itself to the loss of our late professor, who for more than twenty years gave to her the fruit of his many years of study and research.”

William R. Brooks and the Smith Observatory