People Who Shaped The Detroit Observatory

Portrait of Tappan, from the
Henry Philip Tappan papers

Henry Philip Tappan

Henry Philip Tappan was the first President of the University of Michigan, inaugurated in 1852. Tappan's vision for higher education was to complement the classical course with a scientific course, following the Prussian model. Laboratories were central to Tappan's vision, and along with a chemical laboratory and medical facilities, an observatory was a top priority. The Detroit Observatory is an important physical legacy of the University's early scientific preeminence and of Tappan's efforts to create a research university.

Henry Walker

Henry Walker was a prominent Detroit lawyer active in the organization and construction of railroads in Michigan. In 1845, as Michigan's attorney general, he negotiated the sale of the Michigan Central Railroad. Walker was a successful fundraiser and joined Tappan in his goal of building an observatory so he and others could benefit from the applied uses of astronomical science. Walker independently financed the purchase of the meridian circle telescope, which was used to determine accurate time. Detroit Observatory time kept Walker's trains on schedule. President Tappan named the Detroit Observatory in honor of Walker and the other generous citizens from Detroit who joined with Walker to fund the Observatory.

Richard Harrison Bull

The Observatory was probably designed by Richard Harrison Bull, a professor of Civil Engineering at the University of the City of New York, where Henry Tappan taught prior to 1852. Professor Bull was the perfect choice to design the Observatory because he was both an architect and knowledgeable about astronomy. He determined astronomical time for the City of New York for many years.

Painting of the Observatory, by Jasper
Cropsey (bl000073)

Jasper Cropsey

Cropsey was a personal friend of President Henry P. Tappan. He came to Ann Arbor in 1855 at Tappan’s invitation, and painted the Observatory and a landscape of the campus. Both of these original paintings and some Cropsey sketches are at the UM Bentley Historical Library.

Henry Fitz, Jr.

Henry Fitz, Jr. was a self-trained optician who captured the attention and the confidence of American astronomers. Between 1840 and 1855, Fitz made 40% of all telescopes sold in the U.S. and 80% of all telescopes manufactured in the United States. Fitz, who began his career as a printer, later turned his attention to locksmithing and early photography (note the very early self-portrait daguerreotype) before focusing on the optics needed for astronomy. Fitz perfected a process to figure and polish telescope lenses that he never published. His career was in full bloom when his life was cut short by premature death in 1863.

Scientists Trained at the Detroit Observatory

Cleveland Abbe

Cleveland Abbe was trained at the Detroit Observatory by Brünnow and Watson in 1858 and 1859. He joined the U.S. Coast Survey, and then became an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory. He also served for two years at the Observatory at Pulkova, Russia. He was recruited as director of the Cincinnati Observatory in 1868, where he inaugurated a system of telegraphic weather reports. His contributions to meteorological science led him to a career as a distinguished meteorologist for the Weather Service, U.S. Army Signal Corps.

John Martin Schaeberle

John Martin Schaeberle was trained in astronomy by James Watson at the Detroit Observatory, graduating in 1876. He became Watson's assistant, and then a member of the astronomy faculty. In 1889, Schaeberle was recruited to be one of the inaugural astronomers at the new Lick Observatory in California. He discovered two comets at Michigan, and another while on one of several of his astronomical expeditions around the globe.