Cloudy skies lead to Crane history lesson

AJ Dome

Looking up at the vast expanse of night sky certainly puts the world of Washburn into perspective for the dozen children visiting the observatory open house on Feb. 7. 

The open house yielded mixed results, with low-hanging gray clouds creeping over the starry scenery. Those who arrived early got to see the Orion nebula and the planet Jupiter. The rest were met by a fogged-over Topeka sky.

Mark Smith, Washburn astronomy professor and one of the caretakers of the 100-year old telescope, did not want to tell the children that there would be nothing to see tonight.

“That’s the way it goes,” said Smith. “We had a super clear sky the last time we had an open house, but the trade-off was that it was bitter cold.”

With a low of 33 degrees Thursday night, those who showed up for the open house dressed warmly, but were not expecting cloud cover. 

“There’s nothing you can really do about it,” said Brian Thomas, associate physics and astronomy professor. “I think most people are understanding though. Obviously you can’t see much if it’s cloudy.”

Compared to other schools in the area, Washburn has something special.

“We have a very unique program,” said Thomas. “KU used to have a similar facility, but now we’re really the only one in the area.”

On the wall on the fourth floor of the Stoffer Science Hall there is a picture display, detailing the history of the observatory and its telescope. One of the pictures was taken in 1902, and it shows just how rural Washburn’s campus used to be. 

“I can’t imagine the views they had in 1902,” said Smith. 

In the corner of the photograph, the Crane Observatory can be seen under construction. Just a year before, a man named Zenus Crane donated $50,000 for the construction of the observatory. This amount of money was unheard of in the early 1900s, and thus the building was named after him. 

“There’s a step ladder seen in a picture from the 1930s,” said Smith. “That’s the same step ladder we still use today.”

The Crane Observatory faired well until 1966, when the infamous Topeka tornado swept through the middle of campus, destroying most of the buildings—including the observatory. The lens to the telescope was found lying in a grass field a few hundred yards away. It retains the same pits and tiny scratches from the tornado.

“I’m told that it was hand-flown to Los Angeles by the lead professor at the time, to get fixed,” said Smith. “This lens is priceless, irreplaceable.”

The telescope, manufactured in the 1890s by Warner and Swasey Company, was used for research purposes. The entire assembly was completely refurbished in 1997, and became the main attraction of the cloudy evening.

“It’s actually a specialty telescope, built with a small field of view,” said Smith. “It’s perfectly weighted and balanced. That’s mechanical engineering for you.”

Smith has been operating the observatory for four years, while Thomas has been taking care of the historic telescope since his arrival to Washburn in 2005. 

“I’m really proud that we’ve kept it up,” said Thomas. “Everyone’s put lots of value into keeping it going.”

AJ Dome, [email protected], is a junior mass media major.