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A History of the Westport Astronomical Society

By Charles Scovil
December 1998, revised 2005


The Rolnick Observatory 1975

In the mid 1960s I was living in Westport, and was already well known as an amateur astronomer, having taught adult-education courses locally, etc. Rufus Morton, a science teacher in the Westport school system came to me for advice on building an observatory. He had already gotten involved in the donation of a 12 – inch telescope to the town by a man named Jerry Rolnick. He and I went to Rolnick’s home and inspected the telescope, which looked useable. Morton had access to the Nike radar site on Bayberry Lane., and figured the top of one of the radar towers would make an excellent spot for the observatory. We looked at domes made by Ash Mfg. Co (Plainfield, IL) in New Canaan belonging to Mr. Richard Perkin, and in Danbury at Westconn. They seemed to be of excellent quality, and the town ordered one, complete with cylindrical one-storey building. While waiting for the dome to arrive a wooden staircase was built to the top of the tower, and chain-link fencing was installed around the open base, with a gate to keep out passersby.

The Rolnick Observatory Circa 1975 taken by Phil Harrington from the North tower

The dome arrived and was duly installed. A mounting for the telescope was ordered from Dynascope in West Hartford. It was their “observatory” mounting, supposed to be capable of handling telescopes of 10 or 12 inch diameter. The mounting was installed in the dome and the telescope put on it. The combination proved to be just barely adequate, but was used for school groups and classes. With the completion of the observatory the school system requested that the teacher in charge hold public open house nights weekly at no additional salary. He left.

The observatory then fell on hard times, and several years went by with little use. Passersby became vandals and stole parts of the dome and telescope. Bullets were fired through the dome, luckily missing the mirror of the telescope. The telescope was removed and stored in the high school.

WAS arrives on the scene:

EarlyTower1Enter Fred Bump and Jerry Lasley. Fred was another science teacher, and Jerry was Comptroller of The Perkin-Elmer Corp. They were interested in astronomy and had heard of the defunct observatory. They figured they could get the thing working again, but they came to me to ask advice on how to keep it from falling again into disuse should they move on. I said “form an astronomy club”. They got a group of about a dozen of us together to organize the new club, and WAS was born.

OldWASNewt6We painted and re-assembled the telescope, erected a concrete block wall instead of the fence around the base of the tower, and installed the heavy metal door. We found that reaching the high Newtonian eyepiece was difficult with a high ladder on the original dome floor, so we installed the raised platform floor and stairs. Soon the observatory was operational again and WAS became a going concern. Ever since then we have held public viewing nights once or twice a week.

Bump, Harrington carrying the original Newtonian into the tower

The warm room was just an empty shell at the beginning. We solicited funds to enclose it and make it into a useable space. We had raised a few hundred dollars when Clinton Ford of Wilton (AAVSO and FCAS member) donated $1,000 for the project and we were off and running. One of the highlights of that project was finding that the on-site water was still connected! With that discovery we were able to proceed with the installation of the restroom and construction of a darkroom.

Some time later we felt that the mirror of the 12-inch needed re-aluminizing so we sent it to Perkin – Elmer. The men in the optics lab decided to check out how well this amateur had done in grinding and polishing the mirror. They told us later that they “figured he stumbled a few times working around the barrel” so they refigured to mirror to about 1/20 of a wave, and recoated it. We now have one of the very best mirrors in any amateur telescope anywhere.

Fred Bump

The original telescope tube was an open – truss framework. This construction made it hard to work with the telescope, attach finders, etc. Currents in this tube caused problems so we made a canvas cover to enclose it. This helped somewhat, but the problems continued, so we built a new closed tube.

As mentioned above, the mounting from bought Dynasope was just barely adequate, so we designed the present fork mount. Building it was a bit of a challenge, but was accomplished in due time. The result has been a very stable and useable mount. The addition of computerized setting circles really made the new telescope a joy to use.

The radio tower behind the classroom

The largest of the on-site buildings had originally housed the generators to power the radar units. A small part of the building was in use for some years by the local radio amateur club, with their antennas on the smaller metal tower nearby. Their use of the building was sporadic at best, and at last we got them to agree to leave so we could have exclusive use of the building. It was gutted and refurbished to provide our present class/meeting room. At that point we were able to move our monthly meeting here from the Nature Museum where we had met for many years.

The Second Dome Telescope

Most of the work on the telescope, mounting, buildings, grounds, etc. has been done by WAS members. Many members have come and gone over the years, each making his or her contribution.

The Tower

The Tower

The active vital club we have today is a tribute to all those who have gone before, and to those who continue to maintain the fine tradition of cooperation and hard work. This tradition of hard work by members continued in 2005 when we updated the mounting to “go-to” style by installing a complete package of software and hardware. The telescope is now tied in to a new computer which tells the telescope to point at whatever is selected on the computer screen by the operator. This operation also included installing a new larger Declination gear and bearings for it, as well as a new tube for the telescope itself.

The current 12½ Newtonian Reflector