History of the Hastings-Byrne 6-1/4 Inch Refractor

by John Church

Hastings-Byrne Refractor

Hastings-Byrne Refractor

As many current AAAP members may not be fully acquainted with the story of our fine 6-1/4 inch refractor, this history is presented so that the club may make an informed decision about its future use. Also please click the link to see page images of a 1979 article in Sky & Telescope magazine by this writer, giving more details on how its history was traced and the design of the objective lens.

1879 – Physicist and teacher Dr. Charles S. Hastings grinds and polishes the elements of the future Hastings-Byrne refractor, using glasses for which he had accurately measured the refractive indexes in 1878 and his own design methods.  This was the second of three objectives made personally by him. The third one, a flint-in-front design with an aperture of 9.4 inches, was installed at an observatory at Johns Hopkins and used successfully for many years.  See J. Church, “Optical Designs of Some Famous Refractors,” Sky &Telescope for March 1982, p. 302-8.

Rockwell 1880 – The Smithsonian Report for 1880 (issued in 1881) mentions that Charles Rockwell of Tarrytown, NJ had had a 6-1/3 inch Hastings lens mounted by telescope maker John Byrne of New York City. The instrument is installed in Rockwell’s private observatory in Tarrytown, NY in a 12 1/2 foot diameter dome.

Nov. 7, 1881 –  Rockwell observes a transit of Mercury from Honolulu in the “Sandwich Islands” (as they were then called) with this refractor. Written up in Sidereal Messenger, Vol. 1, 1882,  p. 29-30.  Location:  W. Long. 10 hr 31 min 27.3 sec, N. Lat. 21 deg. 17 min. 56.3 sec. (equivalent to 157.8638 deg. W. Long. and 21.2990 deg. N. Lat.). This would have been near the present intersection of Route 92 and Forrest Avenue/South Street, at the entrance to Pier 1.


March, 1882 – In the American Journal of Science, Hastings mentions the 6-1/4 inch doublet lens of 91-inch focal length that he had ground and polished in 1879.  He is very pleased with its performance. He states that the original aperture of 6-1/3 inches was reduced to 6-1/4 inches by Byrne’s mounting.

November, 1882 – Hastings describes this objective in more detail in the Johns Hopkins University Circulars for this month, p. 8.  He says that it is in Rockwell’s possession, was used for the Honolulu transit of Mercury, and was able to resolve the double star Zeta Boötis in 1879 when the separation was 0.55 arcseconds. This article also includes data for the 9.4-inch Johns Hopkins objective.

December 7, 1882 – Rockwell observes the transit of Venus with his telescope, the entire transit being visible from the eastern United States. He publishes a report, with timings, in Vol. 1 of the Sidereal Messenger. In 2004 we observed the next transit of Venus with this same telescope at Washington Crossing (see below).

1883 –  An article in Sidereal Messenger, Vol. 2 , p. 39 by Hastings states that he either gave or sold the doublet to Rockwell, an avid amateur astronomer and friend/patron of Hastings, not long after making the lens.

May 6, 1883 – Hastings and Rockwell use Rockwell’s telescope to observe a total solar eclipse on Caroline Island in the mid-Pacific Ocean as part of a substantial expedition mounted by the U.S. Naval Observatory.  The expedition was written up in Volume 2 of the Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, published later in 1883.  It was also described by Joseph Ashbrook on p. 211 of the March, 1978 issue of Sky & Telescope in one of his “Astronomical Scrapbook” articles, which also mentions Rockwell’s telescope.

January 1, 1904 – Rockwell dies at 77. He wills all of his property to his sister Anna Rockwell,   who sells the refractor to Rutgers University later that year for $500.00, paid in two installments.  Rutgers uses it off and on in astronomy coursework for many years.  Rockwell’s obituary is on p. 262 of the June 1904 issue of Popular Astronomy.

January 31, 1932 –  Hastings dies at age 83.  A remembrance is in the June 1932 issue of the American Journal of Science.   A much longer article about him is published in 1938 in the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences.

1937 – The Galileo Club of Trenton is given permanent custody of the refractor by Rutgers.  It is used occasionally and stored in a club member’s garage.

November 1, 1968 – AAAP purchases the refractor from the defunct Galileo Club for $200 with member contributions.  It is placed outside on George Parker’s farm in Plainsboro, covered with a tarp, and is rarely used.

September 1972 – As the only member of AAAP willing to take custody of the refractor stored on Parker’s farm, which George needed to have removed from his property, John Church accepts this responsibility.  Other members help him move the entire assembly to his garage in Princeton Junction for storage, evaluation, and refurbishment.  Church cleans the objective lens and mounts the 500-lb assembly on a rolling dolly for ease of moving it in and out of his garage. Club members visit and use the telescope.

Nov. 10, 1973 – Church, Freeman Dyson, and Tullio Regge (Institute of Advanced Study) observe and time the transit of Mercury from Church’s driveway.  Their results for Contacts III and IV (Contacts I and II occurred before sunrise) are a few seconds earlier than predicted but were near the peaks of histograms constructed from 124 other sets of observations as reported in the January 1974 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Mid-1970’s – Church measures the curvatures and thicknesses of the two elements and    finds by ray-tracing that the glasses described by Hastings (out of many other candidates) are the only ones that give the known properties of the lens in terms of focal length and optical corrections (spherical aberration, chromatic aberration, and coma).  Hasting’s notebooks at Yale University listed the surface radii and thickness of the crown element (only), with figures closely matching those determined by Church.  Hastings also drew a 1/6 scale sketch of what he called “Rockwell’s column” that matches the current pier.  The 1978 Ashbrook article on the Caroline Island eclipse expedition serves as one of the motivations for preparing the Sky & Telescope article mentioned below.

Mar. 17, 1975 – Church observes Sirius B with the refractor.

August 1978 –  The refractor is installed in the new AAAP observatory at Washington  Crossing State Park and immediately put to frequent use. Several long feature articles about the observatory appear in the local media.

March 1979 – Church publishes the results of his technical and historical research on the  refractor in this issue of Sky & Telescope, p. 294, identifying the objective lens as having been made by Hastings and the entire mount by John Byrne.  There is a photo of the telescope (with its original mounting) in the observatory in this article, which also includes a photo of Mars taken with this telescope at the favorable opposition of early October, 1973.  Click to read Hastings-Byrne Article.

November 1999 – The original Byrne equatorial mount for the refractor is replaced with a Losmandy G-11 mount, adding greatly to the usability of the equipment.

Summer 2002 – Gene Ramsey and John Church install a new custom-made Burg tailpiece and focuser on the refractor. (The original focuser was worn out and not repairable.)  The remaining original parts of the instrument are the Hastings objective (still in good condition after 135 years as of 2014), its solid brass cell, the steel tube which was refinished in white powder-coat epoxy several  years  ago, and the heavy cast-iron pier, all the latter having been made or  supplied by John Byrne’s shop.

June 8, 2004 – AAAP-ers observe the third and fourth contacts of the transit of Venus at Washington Crossing.  The sun barely clears the tree line in time for a group, including Congressman Rush Holt, to see the sun’s image projected on a screen by the refractor and get a good view of the contacts.

Mid-2014 – The mount is replaced with a donated Losmandy Gemini 1 GoTo mount.

October 2014 –  Discussion begins on future plans for the refractor.

This entry was posted in November 2014, Sidereal Times and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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