Ohio History Journal

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Science and Democracy:

Science and Democracy:

A History of the Cincinnati

Observatory, 1842-1872


by Stephen Goldfarb



The Spy Glass out on the hill

Is  now  entirely finished.

The distance twixt us and the moon

Is  sensibly  diminished.

When Mitchel looks, it comes near

He sees the hills and trees

Which most conclusively doth prove

That 'tis not made of cheese.

--Cincinnati Enquirer, 18451


The Cincinnati Observatory, housing an eleven-and-one-half-inch refractor

telescope, was opened for viewing in the spring of 1845. The circumstances

by which the observatory came to be built constitute an exemplary story

of science and democracy in the middle decades of the nineteenth century,

as are also the efforts, and ultimate failure, to make it become an important

research institution. Justification for the observatory from its inception in

1842 was found in a curious blend of localism, nationalism, and a belief

in democracy and the progress of man. The monies for the telescope and

construction of the observatory were raised by public subscription, making

this the first astronomical institution of its size to be built without either

royal or governmental patronage. As a symbol of civic pride, the observatory

was viewed as an outstanding achievement by a city freshly cut from the

wilderness. John P. Foote, who served both as secretary and president of

the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, expressed this sentiment later in 1855

when he wrote: "We [the citizens of Cincinnati] gave an example to the

old and wealthy which they ought to have given to us, who were young

and poor. . . . Cambridge and Washington have now larger telescopes than

that of Cincinnati, which at the time it was mounted, was the largest in

America. . . ."2

The observatory also was built as a symbol of the intellectual ambition

of the young country. In 1842 when the project was conceived, this nation-