The Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory celebrates its 75th birthday

W.G. Colgrove's grandchildren visit with H.R. Kingston

W.G. Colgrove's grandchildren Jeffrey, Laura and Sarah meet Professor H.R. Kingston.

Many people familiar with Western’s campus know of the small observatory near Alumni Hall, maybe from occasionally engaging in stargazing during a public night, from starting a tour of Western’s campus at the observatory, or from seeing the telescope dome painted orange for Halloween. Few people realize that this Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory has been actively bringing astronomy to the London community for 75 years, while being a silent witness of the many changes that Western’s campus underwent in that time frame.

Volunteer ushers dressed in period attire

Volunteers dressed in period attire.

To celebrate 75 years of astronomy outreach, and to highlight the rich history of the Cronyn Observatory, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, in collaboration with the London Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) organized a birthday party -- in style -- on the weekend of October 24 and 25, 2015.

Historic room display.

Re-creation of H.R. Kingston's office.

For this occasion, the various rooms of the Observatory (and several of our volunteers) were dressed up in historical attire, recreating much of the atmosphere that marked the official opening of the Observatory on Friday, October 25, 1940. On that sunny day, a formal ceremony was held “en plein air” in front of the building. This ceremony was then followed by the guests of honour signing the Visitors Register, tours of the facilities, and stargazing.

Mary-Catherine and James Fallona chat with Pat and Bob Sica.

Honored guests chat prior to ceremony.

In contrast, the anniversary events on Saturday, 24 October 2015 started with warm, but cloudy and rainy weather. The Observatory’s doors were first opened at 6:00pm to a select group of invited honored guests, including Western senior administration; staff, faculty & students from Physics and Astronomy and the Faculty of Science, and RASC members. Special guests were alumni James & Mary Catherine Fallona, Paul Mortfield (director of the David Dunlap Observatory) and the Colgrove family, relatives of Rev. W.G. Colgrove, one of the key persons in the early history of the observatory.

Prof. Jan Cami welcomes guests

Jan Cami welcomes guests.

Physics & Astronomy Associate Professor Jan Cami, coordinator of the observatory and MC for the evening, welcomed the assembly at 6:30pm, and introduced the speaking party. Physics & Astronomy Chair Dr. Bob Sica outlined the history of the observatory and Faculty of Science Associate Dean Dr. Pauline Barmby talked about the research, outreach and training at the observatory throughout the years. Western’s President Dr. Amit Chakma gratefully acknowledged using the observatory during convocation, and emphasized the important role of the observatory in promoting community engagement, calling the Cronyn Observatory “a gem in Western’s crown”. The speaking party then unveiled a commemorative plaque for the event. Following this ceremony, all attendees were invited to a reception, while Professor Cami guided the guests of honor in small groups for a tour throughout the Observatory and its rich history.  

Tour of the observatory.

Guided tour of historic displays.

These Observatory tours were a great success. First-time visitors and regular guests alike greatly enjoyed the many displays highlighting diverse facets of the Observatory’s history that left them deeply impressed with what they saw and learned -- a very rewarding experience also for the team of about 25 volunteers that had spent several months planning and preparing for the anniversary. This team was composed of staff and students of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and members of the RASC, and was led by Professor Cami with support from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Faculty of Science. As part of the preparations, they delved into the Western archives and other historical records to learn more about the early history of the Observatory and find unique photographs and articles. They furthermore cleaned and refurbished many artefacts, instruments, models and historical documents related to the observatory that they had recovered from various places in the observatory’s basement, the Elginfield observatory, or the Physics & Astronomy building.

Purple and Proud painters

Purple and Proud painters.

Over the summer, they cleaned out the entire basement of the observatory, and in September, they painted: the flagship 25.4 cm Perkin Elmer refracting telescope in Western purple (with support brackets in matching Western grey); the finder scopes in bright white, and the Schmidt camera in black. The finder scopes’ brass work was cleaned and polished, and a purple decal now proudly and clearly displays the name of the observatory. Finally, the team created a set of 10 informative posters about the history and use of the Observatory as well as 2 commemorative posters (all meant to be permanently displayed at the Observatory), and organized the artefacts into annotated displays.

Tour for the guests of honor.

Honored guests continue tour.

The Observatory tours started in the main entrance foyer of the observatory, where a poster now describes member of parliament Major Hume Blake Cronyn to whom the observatory was dedicated, and his family. The next stop was in the stairwell to look at the construction of the observatory. Downstairs, a video montage on the Department’s outreach TV had various emeriti, staff and students recount some of their memories and experiences of the observatory.

H.R. Kingston's recreated office.

H.R. Kingston's recreated office.

One of the highlights of the event was the phenomenal makeover of the former south machine shop room into a period room that really was a replica of H.R. Kingston’s original 1940s office on the Observatory’s main floor. The room had almost everything that can be seen in an original photograph of Kingston’s office, including his desk & chair and a bakelite phone, but also his Earth globe and Bausch and Lomb wall paintings. Instead of the reflecting telescope in the photograph, the observatory now proudly displayed Kingston’s own 75 mm brass refracting telescope in the office. As a special surprise, and to top off the similarity to the original photograph, H.R. Kingston himself was sitting at his desk, welcoming visitors into his office. Kingston was portrayed by historian, actor, and RASC member Mark Tovey whose 1940s attire included Kingston’s actual top hat. The roles of H.R. Kingston (Head of the Department of Mathematics, and prime mover in realizing the observatory) and Rev. W.G. Colgrove (the unofficial curator of the Observatory in the 1940s) in the early history of the observatory were described on a poster. The office furthermore displayed the original 1940 Visitor’s Register, with a poster highlighting some of the famous guests, and a picture showing Mrs. Hume Cronyn signing that very guestbook. The 2015 guests were invited to sign the new guest book. Finally, this room also housed the famous Dresden meteorite and its plaster cast, displayed side by side at the observatory for the first time.

One of 10 posters.

Historic models.

Next stop in the tour was the central black room that was last used as a meteor laboratory, but that was now transformed into the “artefact room”. Notable artefacts on display were a sundial cannon alarm (that originally belonged to John Davis Barnett), Colgrove’s sotellunium and his 1:40 scale model of the Hale telescope at the Palomar observatory, as well as a poster describing many more of his teaching aids that were built in Cronyn’s machine shop. This room furthermore included research equipment that was first used by Bill Wehlau at the Observatory, and had posters describing the research and staff at the observatory over its entire history. The north wall showcased 3 original backlit glass plates that used to grace the observatory’s foyer, and the south wall showed a slide show with historical images of the observatory.

Honored guests view telescopes

Honored guests view telescopes.

After the basement, the tours led upstairs, past a poster in the stairwell describing the current use of the observatory, and concluded in the dome with the freshly painted telescopes. Here, attention was given to the telescope builders Perkin-Elmer, to the RASC, and to the graduate students that run many of the astronomy outreach programs. The northeast wall also displayed a unique picture of famous actor Hume Cronyn (son of the politician) who posed in front of our telescope when visiting the observatory at the occasion of its 60th anniversary.

Mark Tovey as Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy H.R. Kingston

Mark Tovey as H.R. Kingston.

The end of the private tours was not the end of our anniversary events. At 8:00 p.m. the observatory doors opened to the general public, and all guests were invited to witness a re-enactment of the 1940 opening ceremonies. Mark Tovey, as Professor H.R. Kingston, welcomed visitors and distinguished guests in Kingston's original words, and making use of “lantern slides”. Paul Mortfield, current Director of the David Dunlap Observatory, played the role of Dr. Clarence Chant, founder of the Dunlap Observatory in the re-enactment; Peter Jedicke represented the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), reading messages of best wishes from Edmonton and Hamilton centres of the RASC. The re-enactment was a nice reminder of the purpose of the observatory (in H.R. Kingston’s own words): " not only be a source of instructions and inspiration to the students and faculty of the University, but to bring pleasure and benefit to those citizens of this community, who are interested in Astronomy."

The re-enactors.

The re-enactors.

And indeed, the local Centre of the RASC has worked with faculty and students of the University to provide astronomy outreach to the community up to the present day. After the re-enactment, all guests could leisurely take in the historic displays and view the telescopes. Later in the evening, the clouds parted for long enough to offer several visitors (including the Colgrove family), beautiful views of the waning gibbous moon through the main 25.4 cm refractor. The doors finally closed after a highly enjoyable and successful event at 11:00 p.m. with approximately 130 people having attended over course of the evening.

Observing the sun on Sunday.

Observing the sun.

Anniversary celebrations continued the afternoon of the next day, Sunday October 25 2:00pm--5:00pm, under a clear blue sky. Professor Jan Cami formally welcomed the visitors, who had three more occasions to enjoy the 1940 re-enactment. Mark Tovey once more played H.R. Kingston,  Toronto RASC member Randall Rosenfeld played the part of Dr. C.A.Chant, and Peter Jedicke once again represented the RASC. Visitors had a chance to view all of the historic displays and posters at their own pace or during tours offered by Professor Cami. They could furthermore also safely view the sun through specially equipped telescopes from the patio of the observatory. Organizers counted approximately 70 visitors on Sunday by the time the doors closed at 5pm, marking the end of the anniversary events.

Jan Cami gave observatory tours on Sunday, as well.

Jan Cami leads a Sunday tour.

It was heartwarming and rewarding to see so much interest, enthusiasm and support from all parties present -- administration, guests, public and volunteers -- for the activities organized at the Observatory. The 75th anniversary has thus made clear that The Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory will remain a vital part of the University and the London Community for many years to come.

Written by Henry Leparskas and Jan Cami

Observatory Co-ordinator Jan Cami adds the following acknowledgements:

"I would like to express my gratitude to everybody who made this anniversary possible. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the Cronyn75 organizing committee including P&A staff members Henry Leparskas, Keri Knox and Phin Perquin (with contributions from Doug Hie, Brian Davis, Brian Dalrymple, Frank Van Sas, and Jodie Guthrie); Professor Paul Wiegert, graduate students Dilini Subasinghe, Parshati Patel, Emily McCullough, Shannon Hicks, Laura Lenkic, Kendra Kellogg and Tony Martinez; undergraduate students Ian Mulholland and Will Hyland, and RASC members Mark Tovey, Tricia Colvin, Dale Armstrong, Bob Duff, Peter Jedicke, and Paul Kerans. Let it be known that without  Henry Leparskas, Paul Kerans, Mark Tovey, Tricia Colvin and Peter Jedicke, the Cronyn Observatory would have been an ugly mess. I am also grateful to the support from the Department of Physics and Astronomy (thanks Bob!) and from the Faculty of Science (and especially Marilyn Steinberg)"

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