The Michigan Engineer News Center

Detroit observatory: Michigan’s meteorological legacy

One man, one building and one telescope introduced Michigan minds to much more than just the night sky.| Medium Read

Among the University’s multitude of achievements and innovations, it can fairly be said that nearly all of them – as well as the University’s very reputation as a leading research institution – can be traced to one of its oldest buildings.

Take a peek under the iconic dome of the University’s Detroit Observatory, and you’ll get a glimpse of where it all began.

When Henry Philip Tappan became the University of Michigan’s first president in 1852, he brought with him grand plans to transform the University from a provincial liberal arts school into a research institution. And Tappan knew an observatory would provide an entry point to teaching physics, geometry, chemistry and engineering.

“A great telescope on the western frontier would send a signal of Michigan’s serious intentions,” Tappan said.

Tappan took great pride and care in planning and fundraising for this endeavor, and he traveled to Europe to personally hand-pick the Observatory’s instruments.

EnlargeBlack and white photo of the Detroit observatory
IMAGE:  Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

Completed in 1854, the Observatory enabled the University to take its first of many steps toward becoming a global leader in research and education. And though the Observatory is now the oldest existing U.S. observatory, its 1850s telescopes are still maintained in working condition and in their original mounts.

When the 12-5/8 inch lens was installed in the Observatory’s upper floor in 1857, it was the third largest refracting scope in the world, and the largest American-made scope of its kind. It enabled astronomers to track and study the stars with unprecedented precision, and greatly expanded the University’s – and the country’s – astronomical knowledge.

It also was a savvy public relations move. The Observatory’s highly visible white dome was also a highly conspicuous public symbol that Michigan would invest in state-of-the-art technology for its students and faculty. It became its emblem, etched into letterhead and catalogs. Enrollment skyrocketed.

University of Michigan Professor of Astronomy Mark Harrington was director of the Observatory until 1891, when he became first Chief of the Weather Bureau – the forerunner of today’s National Weather Service. Harrington also established and edited the American Meteorological Journal, and he published daily meteorological reports – a tradition that remains to this day.

This legacy would inspire Climate and Space Sciences Engineering Professor Perry Samson and students Alan Steremberg Jeff Masters, who in 1991 wrote a menu-based interface that displayed real-time weather information – and as “um-weather” it immediately became one of the most popular services on the nascent Internet. It would later become Weather Underground, which ultimately would be purchased by The Weather Channel.

To learn more about the Observatory, see this Michigan Heritage Project story. And for more about the development of Weather Underground, be sure to visit this site again in January 2017.

Black and white photo of the Detroit observatory
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