Over the years, the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics has hosted many visitors on the rooftop of Davey Lab for evening telescope observing programs, and each year hundreds more participate in planetarium shows under the small dome in a classroom on the fifth floor.
The domes were part of the construction of Davey Lab in the early 1970s, and the planetarium was installed about a decade later in the mid-1980s. Thanks to visitors who have shared their own histories, we are reminded that Penn State has been hosting programs like this at University Park since long before these two facilities existed!
Years ago, near what are now the Eisenhower Parking Deck and University Health Services, there were two small brick buildings with metal domes atop them, which were built and used for telescope observing programs in the 1930s. Many of us have been asked about those domes over the years, but none of our current faculty or staff had ever been inside them, and their history had been mostly forgotten.
That changed several years ago when a member of the Yeagley family attended one of our programs and told us that family patriarch Henry Yeagley (1899–1997) had taught telescope-making at Penn State in the 1930s and been the champion of small-telescope observing at Penn State.
Following that revelation, Professor Richard Wade decided to do some digging in the University Archives and in the archives of the Daily Collegian.
Observatories and Planetaria
We learned that Professor Yeagley had indeed taught a telescope-making course, that the Class of 1936 gifted a telescope in his honor that was originally mounted on the roof of Buckhout Laboratory, and that the Class of 1938 gifted the funding to build those two observatory domes previously located on Eisenhower Road.
What really caught our attention, though, was that Yeagley had a bigger vision for bringing astronomy to the community: He had worked very hard to convince Penn State to build many more than those two observatories, and he wanted to bring a large planetarium to the University Park campus.
In the 1940s, Armand Spitz from the Franklin Institute began selling low-cost planetarium projectors so that institutions could bring planetarium shows to more people, and Yeagley built a small planetarium in Osmond Laboratory around one of those projectors. After finding that original projector (serial No. 9) in Davey Lab storage and having it restored to working condition, we now have it on display outside the entrance of the current planetarium on the fifth floor of Davey Lab.
For many years now, faculty in the department have been advocating for a new, 150-seat planetarium at University Park, and the current proposal is to build it at The Arboretum at Penn State.
While working to define the concept for this proposed new planetarium, we found pictures and design drawings in the University Archives for a planetarium and multiple observatories that Henry Yeagley proposed in the 1940s to be built on the current site of either the Penn State Golf Courses’ White Course or the Arboretum—he had made virtually the same pitch as ours more than 70 years before!
We were also fortunate to talk with Henry’s son Witt Yeagley, who was incredibly proud of his father’s work and also was kind enough to share a 1986 Town & Gown magazine article about his father, which noted that he was really a physicist who taught telescope-making but was not trained as a research astronomer.
Henry Yeagley wanted Penn State to build a department of astronomy, and he knew that meant the University would have to begin recruiting new faculty with doctorates in the field. So in the early 1950s he contacted Harlow Shapley, with whom he had studied at Harvard, to ask for recommendations for a new astronomy faculty hire at Penn State. Shapley suggested his advisee Carl Bauer (1916–2019), who had recently finished his doctorate. Bauer came to Penn State soon after as the University’s first faculty astronomer, and he subsequently created and taught many of the courses that would form the foundation of the undergraduate astronomy program.
Bauer’s daughters Cynthia Bauer-Levy and Deborah Gabriel shared with us how he had a great love for teaching, and that he continued to grind mirrors for telescopes and present night sky tours in the Osmond Lab planetarium throughout his career.
Bauer made many contributions to the field through his research. He had a passion for chasing down meteorite falls, and his daughters shared stories of long searches for a meteorite that fell in eastern Pennsylvania, which ultimately were unsuccessful. But Bauer’s legacy of contributions to our understanding of meteorite evolution came from his analyses of many other meteorite samples.
In a recent video recorded by his great-grandson, Bauer shared that at Harvard he also studied under Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who became the first woman to earn tenure as a professor from within that institution. Because of Payne-Gaposchkin’s status as a trailblazer in the field of astronomy and astrophysics, the Eberly college recently named its Science Achievement Graduate Fellowship in astronomy after her. Although at the time we didn’t know of this connection, it now seems quite fitting that our department was founded by an astronomer she mentored.
Culture, Community, Memory
Today, we often talk about how sharing the work we do through outreach efforts in our small planetarium or using the rooftop telescopes is an integral part of the culture in astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State.
Now that we know that these two pioneers of astronomy at Penn State—Henry Yeagley and Carl Bauer—believed in the same type of service to the community, it also feels like a great connection to our past.
Although we wish we’d had the opportunity to honor both of these important founders during their lifetimes, we are glad that we can still do so now to keep their memories alive for future generations of Penn Staters.