Thursday, April 23, 2009

Opening April 26th “Milestones in Astronomy: The Drapers of Hastings”

Chasing the Moon, Part II

Henry Draper in Civil War uniform. He served as an army surgeon in 1862.

In the last post we described how John William Draper took the first photographs of the moon. His son, Henry, was also a physician and an avid amateur photographer. In 1857 he visited Ireland and the world’s largest reflecting telescope built by the Earl of Rosse in the 1840s. When he came back to the United States, he began to build his own observatory on the family property in Hastings.

The observatory, completed in 1860, was very much a home-made affair, constructed with help from his father and his brother, Daniel. They polished the mirrors for the telescope by walking on a treadmill.

Henry Draper's observatory, ca. 1880, showing both the first dome, built in 1860, on the far right, and the later dome in the center.

In 1863 Henry took a series of photographs of the moon through his telescope that showed far more of the moon’s features than any photographs taken previously, or for several decades to come. They were so sharp that the moon could be enlarged up to 50 inches in diameter without loosing any detail. They conveyed the appearance of the moon so vividly that at the time they were referred to as “portraits”. The director of the Smithsonian Institution visited Henry’s observatory and was so impressed that he asked Henry to write a description of his process, which the Smithsonian later published.

One of the 1500 photographs of the moon taken by Henry Draper in 1863.

The most spectacular of Henry’s moon photographs was taken September 3, 1863. It was reproduced in Harper’s Magazine in 1864 next to a long, rambling article about the place of the Moon in human history. The publication of his photographs made Henry Draper famous, and his observatory became a place of pilgrimage for dedicated astronomers until his death in 1882.

In 1869, Henry constructed a second observatory adjoining the first, in order to house a new and larger telescope. With this, he took some of the earliest photographs of comets, lunar eclipses, and nebulae, and the first photograph of the spectrum of a star.

Part of the observatory building was destroyed by fire in 1905. The remainder became a private residence. We are proud to say that now, after a 1996 restoration, the Draper observatory is the home of the Hastings Historical Society, which also houses an important collection Draper family letters, books, and photographs.

Draper Cottage, home of the Hastings Historical Society, at 407 Broadway, in the middle of Draper Park.
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