If you've ever driven by Julian Curtiss School at the intersection of Milbank, East Elm and Lexington Streets, then you've probably noticed a small, round building with a dome on top. This structure was built in 1942 by the Natioanl Youth Administration, and named after Dr. J. Edgar Bowman, who donated a 10 3/4 reflecting telescope for the observatory. It replaced a telescope donated earlier by Dr. Oresters Caldwell, a local resident and inventor of the electric eye. Bowman's telescope weighed 200 lbs. and was 10-feet long. The 15' dome was manually operated. A company in Waterbury had manufactured it. The original Director of the observatory was Alden W. Smith, a science teacher at Greenwich High School. He brought his students to the observatory until 1969. After he passed away several years later, the observatory fell into disrepair. The dome was damaged, the interior was falling apart and the telescope was vandalized. An early UFO group know as the National Observers of Aerial Phenomena lent a telescope to the observatory in return for use of the building. However, the building started to leak, rust prevented the dome from being moved and NOAP removed its telescope. According to the Greenwich Time, it was closed to the public in 1979.
In 1982, RTM member Fred Sibley and Dr. Joseph Wesney (head of the GHS Science Department) started a movement to revive the Bowman Observatory. They approached the Town three years in a row to ask for funds to repair the observatory. Comptroller William Reynolds said the project was a "low priority item". Meanwhile, the Astronomical Society of Greenwich was established in 1985. Regular meetings were held at Bruce Museum. The group partnered with Sibley and Wesney to lobby the RTM for funding. As luck would have it, Halley's Comet was due to re-appear in 1986, and interest was renewed in all things celestial. The RTM allocated $7500 so that the Board of Education could rebuild the observatory and buy another telescope. Greenwich received a matching federal grant, and additional funds were raised by the Greenwich PTA, Junior League, Greenwich Jaycees and private citizens. This allowed the Astronomical Society to repatch the weather-beaten walls, repair the dome track and rebuild the dome. A vandal-proof door was also installed. The work took 6-months to complete. In October 1986, the observatory was officially re-opened. Mrs. Alden Smith - widow of former Director Alden Smith - was the guest of honor. This happened to coincide with Mar's closest approach to earth in 17 years.
In December 1992, fifty people visited the observatory to view a total lunar (moon) eclipse. The following year the Astronomical Society opened the observatory to the public on every second and third Tuesday of the month, as well as on special occasions. It was also available for group tours. Regular hours were 8:30 to 10:30 pm. ( The Society itself meets every third Wednesday at Bruce Museum.) In May 1994 the observatory was opened at 1:37 pm to view a partial solar (Sun) eclipse. An image was projected onto a small screen on the wall of the observatory. (During a solar eclipse, people should not look at the eclipse directly, but use a filter or other protected viewing device.) The next solar eclipse will be in 2012. Then, in July of 1994, 175 people came to view the collision of 21 or so fragments from the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that hit Jupiter. On another occasion (August 2003), the observatory was opened because Mars was closer to Earth than it had been for 60,000 years. It was only 34 million miles away compared to the usual 150 million miles. The next closest approach would be in 2287. As NASA received more and more data from spacecraft investigating Mars, people became very interested in pyramid-like structures and right angle markings similar to city street grids. Some experts thought sunlight played a big role in distorting the photos. The observatory telescope allowed viewers to see Mars deep canyons, the crater-marked surface and Olympus Mons - an inactive volcano some 3 times the height of Mt. Everest! Dust storms in Hellas Basin with winds up to 200 mph are responsible for the reddish tinge of the planet.
Just as interest in the observatory was starting to build, the Astronomical Society ran into a glitch. It was determined in 2004 that the Board of Education liability coverage did not cover night events! Activities were suspended. Fortunately, the Astronomical Society discovered a loophole the following year. Night activities under the auspices of the newly reorganized Department of Adult and Continuing Education were covered under an umbrella policy. Star gazing at the Bowman Observatory now became part of Continuing Education.
By 2004, the observatory was beginning to show its age. Rust was rampant, water leaked through the cracked walls, and the floor was warped. The domed roof no longer functioned properly. It had been repaired so many times that it was beyond repair. Members of the Astronomical Society lobbied the Board of Education for money to fix the observatory. As a result, $30,000 was allocated in the 10-year plan for a new roof in 2006. In September 2007 a 4,000 lb. dome manufactured by Observa-Dome in Jackson, Mississippi arrived on a flatbed, and was raised by a crane onto the observatory. A 12.5" motorized reflective telescope was installed. The building was refurbished and re-aluminized. The observatory was reopened to the public.
It's been 70 years since the Bowman Observatory was opened. During this time, the public has been able to use its telescope to view several important celestial events. Hopefully this will continue to be true in the future. Funds will be needed for regular and major maintenance. Public awareness of this great treasure is indeed a positive step in the right direction.
SOURCE: Greenwich Time