Lee Observatory
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Lee Observatory

Among the first buildings erected on the campus of the Syrian Protestant College after its founding in 1866 was the old Lee Observatory. Predecessor of the present building, it stood on the same site, perched on a prominent hillock in the middle of the campus. Surrounding the building was sparsely planted virgin land that commanded a magnificent view of the St. George's Bay and the coast of Lebanon. This was the site chosen by Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck, one of the University's pioneers. Though a physician by profession, Van Dyck's passion for astronomy knew no bounds. He taught astronomy and published texts on the subject in Arabic. He started systematic records of meteorological data assisted by Faris Nimr, and made arrangements with the Ottoman authorities to send daily telegraphic reports to the Imperial Observatories in Constantinople and thence to Vienna. Thanks to Van Dyck's efforts, a sum of 150 English pounds was donated by Henry Lee, a British merchant from Manchester, to build the new observatory. Van Dyck supervised its construction at the same time that College Hall was under way. Completed in 1874, the structure was named the Lee AstroPhysical Observatory. Van Dyck purchased equipment for astronomical and meteorological observations out of the income from his medical practice. Among these were a 10-inch reflecting Newtonian telescope, a prime-meridian transit and a sidereal clock. When Van Dyck resigned in 1893 he donated most of his equipment to the University. Robert H. West succeeded Van Dyck, first as instructor, and later as Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy and Director of the Observatory. He saw to it that new equipment was purchased by soliciting funds from various sources. To keep pace with advances in the field of astronomy, and recognizing the inadequacy of the old Obsevatory, in 1891 West decided to have it rebuilt. Through the good offices of Mr. D. Stewart Dodge, a donation of $1,500 was obtained for this purpose. Having previously supervised the construction of Bliss Hall, Fisk Hall and the west wing of Dodge Hall, and drawn up plans for the Chapel, West next designed the new Observatory. The plans had the approval of his former astronomy professor at Princeton, Charles A. Young. Thus, construction of the new Observatory and the Chapel was launched simultaneously in 1892, under the supervision of Professor West. The Observatory building as it stands today was completed in 1894. Funds were raised for new equipment, such as the 12-inch telescope on equatorial mounting with its accessories built by Warner Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio. The lenses and the spectroscope were constructed by Brashear of Allegheny, Pennsylvania. The dome, a lightweight structure built in Dublin, Ireland by Sir Howard Grubb's Rathmine Co originally had a cover of light material. Later this was replaced by aluminium. The telescope was mounted on a special pedestal with foundations on bedrock to protect it from the building's vibrations.Its installation, entrusted to Mr. Von Heidensfein, a Swedish engineer with the Beirut Water Company, was a delicate job since it was the first of its kind in this part of the world. His efforts proved successful, however. and today the telescope still stands on its original mounting. Around 1900 West set up a Milne seismograph for registering earth tremors. Unfortunately, problems developed with the new instrument: "... since the advent of the tramway along nearby Bliss Street, it had fits and jitters.. The needle jumping out of range at every passage.. until finally it had to be put out of its misery..." Among the people who devoted their lives and energies to keeping the observatory alive and functioning were: Raymond S. Dugan, and his student Mansour H. Jurdak, (BA '01, MA '07), George M. Maler and Alfred H. Joy. Jurdak became Adjunct Professor of Mathematics and Acting Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. The southeast room of the Observatory served as his office and for over sixty years he used it for his research and writing. In 1910 Alfred H. Joy made a series of photographs of the Haley Comet with a 7-inch camera mounted on the telescope. In all, twenty-nine observed returns of this comet have been recorded worldwide since 240 BC, the latest of which occurred in 1986. Joy served as the Observatory's Director until 1914, and was succeeded by Jurdak, who held full position throughout World War I. Other graduate students who assisted in the Observatory were Nikula J. Shahin (BA 18, MA 20) and later Emile M. Bustani, (BA 29, MA 34). Shahin continued his association with the Observatory until it closed in 1979. By the end of World War I AUB and its Observatory had won the confidence of the community. One of the many scientific services it rendered was for Dar-al Fatwa, which had come to depend on AUB's telescope to record the birth of the moon and the start of the holy month of Ramadan. In 1919 Julius A. Brown succeeded Jurdak as Director of the Observatory, and like him and West before him, he was interested in variable stars. He also constructed two new seismographs, which were installed on a rock in the southwest room, and recorded solar eruptions with his students. In 1936 Brown was appointed Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and in the same year a portable 4-inch Zeiss telescope was donated to the University. Before he retired, Brown found a successor in the person of Dr. Robert W. Sloane of Glasgow University, a physicist who specialized In Electrical Engineering. By then, after the outbreak of World War II, most of the Observatory's scientific instruments were in disrepair. With the assistance of skilled Lebanese technicians such as Tanios Hobeika and Halim Hurani, Sloane embarked on his plan to save the Observatory's scientific wealth. By 1952, when he joined the new School of Engineering, Sloane had managed to restore most of the equipment, "saving from certain ruin the equatorial telescope which is worth around $150,000". Sloane was succeeded by his assistant, Dr. Georgio Contino, who had worked at the Observatory and who together with the Rev. Plassard, Director of the Ksara Observatory, formed the National Lebanese Committee of Astronomy. Mansour H. Jurdak was appointed President. Owen Gingerich became Director in 1955 and resumed courses in astronomy, discontinued in 1947. Assisted by Contino, he continued the battle for the Observatory's survival, bringing new life into it by organizing "Open Nights", and by setting up an Astronomical Library. In 1958 Gingerich was succeeded by Dr. Frans Bruin of Amsterdam University, who continued restoration work and carried the torch of the Observatory until the teaching of astronomy was discontinued in 1979. The AUB Observatory was formally transformed into the Arts and Sciences Conference Center in 1980, thanks to funds made available by the Lilly Foundation of New York. After the collapse of College Hall it was occupied by both the Department of History on the upper floor, and the Department of Arabic on the ground floor. The dome, however, was abandoned and fell into disuse, the lonely refracting telescope on its solid pedestal pointing upwards into the unseen. Fresh efforts are now underway to renovate the Observatory dome and the building, which soon commemorates its 100th anniversary, will stand again in a new garb. Like other AUB buildings of its generation, it bears witness to bygone times when scientific endeavor was being edified on the shores of Lebanon.


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