Recently, the Dry Dredgers shared how they started in Cincinnati from a group of science enthusiasts. They were not the first; they were actually inspired by the founding of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS). This #FlashbackFriday, UC alum and CAS President, Bryan Simpson, told how a group of locals who were interested in space came together to start CAS. 

Early Interest

In 1843, an overwhelming number of people, originally known as the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, came together to support the formation of the Cincinnati Observatory. After the institution that would become the University of Cincinnati became involved in the observatory, and the observatory moved in response to increasing light and pollution, the public side of the group dwindled until a new figure with new ideas arrived. 

A New Group of Enthusiasts 

In 1908, DeLisle Stewart joined the Observatory. Previously involved with observatories at Harvard University and in Peru, Stewart was at the forefront of astrophotography. Among other projects, he had used astrophotography to help William Pickering discover one of Saturn’s moons, Pheobe. However, astrophotography at the time was a new method, and viewed by some in the field as a passing fad. Stewart quit his new position at the Cincinnati Observatory shortly after arriving, but he had attracted a large following due to being a gifted lecturer. His presentations brought together and inspired people with common interests who eventually joined to recreate a new Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS) in April of 1911. 

Portrait of DeLisle Stewart, the founder of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society. Photo from CAS President, Bryan Simpson.

Wanting CAS to have its own remarkable observatory, Stewart worked to construct a building with three telescopes from stones remaining from the recently burned Chamber of Commerce. He bought land outside of the city that was upwind of the air pollution that blocked the observatory’s view. He intended to live in it until the building was done; however, moving the stones to the site was expensive and time consuming, and the Great Depression further exhausted his resources. When Stewart passed in 1941, the building and lens for the first telescope were never finished. Nevertheless, though a portion of it was bought by a park that now adjoins it, today it is home to CAS’s meeting place and several observatories, ready to be used by any member who is willing to be trained to observe the skies. Among the observatories available to CAS members is an 1880 8-inch refractor telescope acquired in 1924. It is a favorite both for its nostalgia and history as well as its capabilities. 

A sketch of the original plans for the observatory that Stewart wanted to build for CAS. Sadly, the three-telescope facility was never finished. Photo from CAS President, Bryan Simpson.

Following this, CAS dwindled in size for several years until the Space Race. In the 1950s, the launch of Sputnik spurred the Smithsonian Institution to begin a program called “Operation Moon Watch.” This citizen science program asked people to look for human-made satellites, and to track their movements. The team that grew from CAS led by Tom Van Flandern was so skilled at identifying and tracking satellites that the military took notice; however, when they asked, Van Flandern kept the group’s methods to himself. 

CAS headquarters today, on the same property that was set aside by Stewart. Photo from CAS President, Bryan Simpson.

CAS Today

CAS is approaching the 100-year anniversary of acquiring its oldest telescope in 2024, and it still inspires the public’s fascination with space. In 1993, CAS bought land now recognized as a dark sky site in Adams County, where people can camp out and use a telescope equipped with a photo mirror. They were also gifted a site in Bracken County, Kentucky, which also has an observatory on site. But the original site remains the most impressive, where the oldest telescope as well as three others are available to members to use any time. 

One of the telescopes used by CAS that is available for their members to use. Photo from CAS President, Bryan Simpson.

While visiting CAS, one member was setting up a telescope with a new camera that uses an ionizing filter, allowing it to effectively take pictures through our atmosphere, light, and pollution, with filters that capture images of only ionized oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur, resulting in photographs aesthetically similar in beauty to the iconic images taken by the Hubble telescope. In addition to access to tools to observe space that are otherwise prohibitively expensive to most, CAS has an active CAS-Kids program that they are excited to bring back as the pandemic ends. They also look forward to returning to holding weekly science outreach efforts and joint field trips with the Cincinnati Observatory. Since its founding by DeLisle, CAS has made it their mission to actively engage with other members of the public, sharing their vast knowledge of astronomy and inspiring others to join them. 

The telescope field at CAS headquarters. Photo from CAS President, Bryan Simpson.