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A Guide to the Leander McCormick Observatory Papers, McCormick, Leander, Observatory Papers RG-6/8/5.071

A Guide to the Leander McCormick Observatory Papers,

A Collection in
The University of Virginia Archives
Special Collections
The University of Virginia Library
Accession Number RG-6/8/5.071


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Special Collections, University of Virginia Library
Accession Number
Leander McCormick Observatory Papers
Physical Characteristics

Administrative Information

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Use Restrictions

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Preferred Citation

Leander McCormick Observatory Papers, Accession #RG-6/8/5.071, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Acquisition Information

The papers were transferred from Leander McCormick Observatory, University of Virginia, to the University of Virginia Library on May 30, 2007.

Scope and Content

This collection consists of about 37 items, 1870-1928, all concerning the Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia, and includes correspondence, plans and blueprints for the observatory by Wilson Brothers & Co. of Philadelphia, an article from Nature on the Newall telescope, annotated by [Leander J. McCormick?], and inscribed by him to his grandson.

The correspondence concerns expert advice solicited by McCormick from J. H. Safford, Dearborn Observatory, Chicago, Professor Joseph Henry, Smithsonian Institution, and Simon Newcomb, Naval Observatory, about the construction and design of an observatory; the selection of the University of Virginia over Washington and Lee as the site for an observatory; the building of the observatory at Virginia and the establishment of astronomy scholarships and additional funding for the astronomy program.


The collection is organized in three series, all of which are arranged chronologically

Contents List

Series I. Correspondence of Leander J. McCormick with Charles Scott Venable, Chairman of the Faculty, and other representatives of the University of Virginia
  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 March 15

    Answering McCormick's request about the best location for observatory in Virginia, Venable firmly suggests the University of Virginia as an established institution and leader for education throughout the entire South. He also points out reasons why Washington College is not a suitable location for McCormick's great telescope. Also present is an enclosure describing the necessary main instruments and attachments for a great telescope, such as that proposed by McCormick.

  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 July 28

    Sends specifications and estimates from Thomas Cooke & Sons, York and London, for a 25-inch refractor telescope and a forty foot dome diameter, with cover letter from C.S. Venable, which also mentions property at Spooner's Hill and a quarry which furnishes excellent sandstone. He also warns McCormick to make sure his contract for the glass of the telescope includes a requirement that all the tests of a good glass be conducted before he accepts it.

  • Thomas H. Ellis to Leander J. McCormick, 1879 May 2

    Asking status of decision to donate the telescope to the University of Virginia.

  • Thomas H. Ellis to Leander J. McCormick, 1879 May 14

    Shares a letter (not present) from [John W.] Stevenson, former governor of Kentucky, about the intent of the Cincinnati Association of Alumni to appoint a committee with full power to purchase Monticello as a site for the McCormick telescope.

  • John Draper, New York University, to General George D. Johnston, 1879 November 22

    Printed letter offering a testimonial in support of the University of Virginia as the site of the McCormick telescope.

  • George Frederick Holmes to Mrs. Leander J. McCormick, 1879 December 24

    Thanks and appreciation for the gift of the prairie chickens sent to them for Christmas celebration.

  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1880 April 8

    Sends some letters to help McCormick while he is looking into observatory matters, possibly letters of introduction to German astronomers for McCormick's voyage to Germany, where the directors of three observatories were either fellow students of Venable's or studied at Bonn and Berlin at the same time as himself; he also mentions his friend Major Scheibert of the Prussian Engineers [at Stuttgart?] who as his tent-mate was sent to observe the Confederate mode of fighting during the Civil War and was an admirer of General Robert E. Lee.

  • Charles Scott Venable to R. Hall McCormick, [1880] August 20

    Regrets that his father, Leander McCormick, has not yet heard from General Johnston about the exact condition of the subscription list to the telescope fund, but says that they still lack $12,000 to complete the conditions imposed by [William H.] Vanderbilt. General Johnston was sick for much of May and June, thus delaying the work but they hope to complete the subscription amount by November.

  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, [1880] August 21

    Partial letter describing the enthusiasm of the teachers being trained in the Normal School for the Observatory Fund.

  • George D. Johnston, Ocean House, Newport, Rhode Island to Leander J. McCormick, 1880 August 23

    Notifies McCormick that they have raised about sixty-three thousand dollars for the McCormick Telescope Fund.

  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1881 March 31

    Telegram notifying McCormick that fifty thousand dollars had been secured with some subscriptions still to come in.

  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1881 April 4

    Telegram refers to their previous correspondence of January 2, 1880, where McCormick said he needed sixty thousand dollars for the observatory and endowment and then his letter of November 1877, where he again asks for sixty thousand to be raised; Venable has raised $25,000 for the Observatory and $50,000 for the endowment which exceeds his requirement by $15,000 and asks for clarification about the required funds.

  • Charles Scott Venable and Leander J. McCormick, 1881 April 15

    Three telegrams between them trying to arrange a meeting, all dated the same day.

  • Charles Scott Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1881 July 4

    Notifies that the Board of Visitors has authorized that all of his conditions be carried out for the observatory with details about the various appropriations; Mr. Vanderbilt's gift of $25,000 will be kept as a distinct fund separate from the $50,000 endowment of the Directorship; he also discusses the salary of the professor or director, the buying of brick for the building and the search for an architect begun by Mallet, as well as the beginning of the search for the professor of astronomy; Adds that they have tested the mountain site and it is free of vibration from railroad trains.

  • Leander J. McCormick to Charles Scott Venable, 1881 July 6

    While pleased at the progress of the observatory, McCormick further discusses the details of the naming of the observatory, "The resolution does not quite cover the conditions as given in my letter of June 13th I not only asked that the enterprise be known but that it should be 'published for all time' as the Leander McCormick Observatory meaning thereby that the 'name' should become just as familiar to the students & the public as the fact that they had an observatory which can only be accomplished by having the full title given in all printed matter. . . ." This is a draft of the original letter sent to Venable while he was vacationing at Longdale, Alleghany County, Virginia.

  • Alexander H. H. Stuart, Rector of the University of Virginia, to Leander J. McCormick, 1881 July 7

    Conveys a series of resolutions made by the University of Virginia Board of Visitors on June 29 and 30, 1881 concerning the Leander J. McCormick Observatory and expresses the thanks of the University and the people of Virginia for his generosity; copies of the minutes were made from the official records by James D. Jones, Secretary of the Board of Visitors.

  • Charles Venable to Leander J. McCormick, 1881 December 6

    Points out the difficulties and disadvantages in hiring a temporary person for astronomer and director of the observatory as opposed to securing a permanent astronomer determined to make the observatory his life work; also thanks McCormick for the scholarship sponsored by him.

  • Dr. James F. Harrison, Chairman of the Faculty, to Leander J. McCormick, 1882 September 14

    Encloses a copy of a resolution from a meeting of the Board of Visitors dated September 6, 1882, setting up three free scholarships, the McCormick and Vanderbilt Scholarships for the study of practical astronomy, and the Corcoran Scholarship for academic study, copied by William A. Winston, Secretary of the Board of Visitors.

  • Dr. James F. Harrison, Chairman of the Faculty, to Leander J. McCormick, 1882 September 22

    Informs McCormick that the Executive Committee has removed the Leander J. McCormick Scholarship restrictions for the next session so that the appointee would be free to choose any of the academic schools.

  • Alvan Clark & Son to Leander J. McCormick, 1882 October 4

    Apologizes for not answering his letter right away, citing busyness, especially with the upcoming observation of the transit of Venus. Clark has had two interviews with Ormond Stone about the building of the Observatory, which he feels should be ready about May 1. Years ago they sold the eight inch telescope on McCormick's direction but a new one can be ready for the Observatory in the spring.

  • Dr. James F. Harrison, Chairman of the Faculty, to Charles E. Haas, Attorney at Law, Harrisonburg, 1884 July 10

    Forwards a resolution, dated June 26, 1884, from a meeting of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors copied by William A. Winston, Secretary of the Board of Visitors, assuring McCormick the fund he has donated to the University will not be diverted in any manner for any other purposes than what he intended.

  • Dr. James F. Harrison, Chairman of the Faculty, to Charles E. Haas, Attorney at Law, Harrisonburg, 1884 July 16

    Forwards a resolution, dated June 28, 1884, from a meeting of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors copied by William A. Winston, Secretary of the Board of Visitors, accepting "the recommendation of the Faculty in regard to the removal of the limitations upon the Corcoran and McCormick scholarships be adopted; and that the nominees to these scholarships be allowed to enter any school of the University without payment of fees."

  • Leander McCormick-Goodhart to Samuel Alfred Mitchell, Director of the Leander J. McCormick Observatory (1913-1945), n.y. June 13

    Additional funds from McCormick family in the form of a grant of $4500 (an increase of $575), "It is not as much as I personally should have liked but still it is something. I do not think that any stipulation as when it should be spent will be made to you. We can assuredly leave to you the manner of its expenditure in the best interests of the observatory and its staff." He also asks for copies of pictures of the solar eclipse.

Series II. Correspondence of Leander J. McCormick with non-University of Virginia advisors and representatives of Washington and Lee University:
  • J. H. Safford, Dearborn Observatory, Chicago, to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 April 28

    Detailed notes, specifications, and recommendations for suppliers or sources of manufacture for each part of the "Virginia" observatory, including various instruments 1) the object glass and the mounting for a telescope equatorially mounted, 2) the transit instrument (meridian circle), 3) altitude and [?] instrument, 4) spectroscope, 5) astronomical clock and 6) a smaller telescope and an heliometer; and estimate for the costs of each part.

  • Jacob Fuller, Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Washington College, to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 October 1

    Recommendation by "The Committee to whom was referred certain papers relating to the subject of an Astronomical Observatory," that they resolve to acquire the McCormick Observatory and pledge "an annual appropriation of $6,000 from the annual income of the College, and as a specific guarantee of this amount, the income of $100,000 of the permanent endowment fund is hereby pledged."

  • Judge Frank Anderson, Washington College Board of Trustees, to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 October 26

    Discusses the loss to the state resulting from the death of Robert E. Lee on October 12, 1870 and his work in making Washington College a first-rate institution; believes an application will be made immediately to the Legislature to change the name of the college to Washington and Lee. At the next meeting, they will elect a successor to Lee and resolve to do all they can to carry out General Lee's plan to make Washington College a great American University and "a lasting monument to General Lee." One possible successor named was General George Washington Custis Lee, his eldest son. He also implores McCormick to continue to consider Washington College as the site of his observatory in spite of Lee's death. Notation on envelope- "Mr. C. McCormick will please forward immediately to his Brother."

  • S. McDowell Moore to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 November 6

    Letter and accompanying Resolutions from a Public Meeting of citizens of Rockbridge County, dated November 6, 1870, in which they urge McCormick, "to establish such an observatory at Washington and Lee University and thus develop his own comprehensive views in practical connection with those of General Lee in promoting the cause of science in the University of his own country and in consummating the noble purpose of its illustrious President for the advancement of literary and scientific culture among the young men of the South." A note on the back of page four of the resolutions says, "I am greatly sorry that they did not get the Great Telescope. The within shows how much interest the whole community took in it. They may lay the failure at the door of J. D. Davidson." -L. J. McCormick

  • Professor Joseph Henry, Smithsonian Institution, to Leander J. McCormick, 1870 December 29

    An eleven page letter full of advice on building an observatory and a program of astronomical study from the beginning, written in response to a letter from McCormick dated December 29, 1870, and with the benefit of Henry's recent trip to Europe which included visits to several observatories. He urges McCormick to build a physical observatory, whose "primary object is to investigate the physical phenomena of the Earth and the heavenly bodies, in contradiction to an ordinary astronomical observatory which is principally devoted to the observation and discussion of the motions of the planets and the determination of the relative positions of the fixed-stars." He also emphasizes the new opportunities for research with a physical observatory due to the application of the spectroscope and other recent inventions; the importance of the study of emanations from the sun, including light, heat, chemical, and phosphorogenic emanations; other important areas of study aided by a physical observatory, such as the magnetism of the earth and meteorology; and the vital importance of the selection of the director of the observatory. Finally he recommends Mr.[Joseph Norman?] Lockyer as a candidate for the director of such an enterprise and the University of Virginia as a site for the observatory if erected in Virginia.

  • Joseph Henry, Smithsonian Institution, to Leander J. McCormick, 1871 April 8

    Gives his advice about building a first rate observatory and comments about McCormick's plans for his observatory, suggesting "the observatory you are about to erect should be a physical one, i.e., one in which especial attention is given to observations of the physical changes in the heavenly bodies in connection with those on the earth; since it is now well established that at least the appearance of the Aurora Borealis and the alterations of the direction and force of terrestrial magnetism are connected with changes going on in the sun and it is not improbable that other terrestrial phenomena are also intimately connected with variations in the celestial bodies." He also warns that it should not be patterned after the observatories of Greenwich or Paris, or "the a priori conceptions of an architect whatever his genius" which could absorb large amounts of the funds, pointing out that McCormick's plans contained "no provision for magnetic, photographic, or electric observations!" He also recommends that the first order of business should be the hiring of the observer, second that the instruments be procured under his directions and then the construction of the permanent building. He also furnishes an estimate of how much money would be needed for each part of his plan, and urges McCormick not to expend the bulk of the money on the building itself.

  • Simon Newcomb, Naval Observatory, to Leander J. McCormick, 1875 October 5

    Regrets being unable to share the drawings and specifications for their new 26-inch refractor telescope at the Naval Observatory which he feels needed some alterations in any case.

  • Professor William Preston Johnston, Washington and Lee University, to Leander J. McCormick, 1875 December 7

    Thanks McCormick for his attention to his request about Horace Anderson.

  • Leander J. McCormick to R. D. Lelley, 1876 October 9

    Copy of telegram promising that if they can raise the funds to equip and endow the telescope, he will take great pleasure in donating it to Washington and Lee University.

  • Printed Announcement Centennial Meeting in Philadelphia October 10, 1876 To Organize a Movement For the Better Endowment of Washington and Lee University, 1876 October 10
Series II. Blueprints, Drawings, and Miscellaneous
  • Reprint from Nature, pages 408-410, "The Newall Telescope" with the inscription: "To Robby Hall McC from his grandfather L.J. McC, January 5, 1893." 1870 February 17
  • Blueprint of Observatory University of Virginia Plan & Section of Wall, Scale 1/4" per foot, Wilson Brothers & Co. Civil Engineers & Architects, Philadelphia 1882 September 28
  • Drawing of three views of the Pier for the telescope (side, front and top), presumably also by Wilson Brothers , n.d.
  • Sketch on Paper of a Plan for South Cottage, showing sketch on one side, and layout on the reverse, with bedrooms labeled by occupant (A.V.'s, M.K.'s, PvDK's room for Alexander Vyssotsky, Michael Kovolenko, Peter van De Kamp). n.d.