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A Short History of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society

The Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS), established officially in 1911, traces its origin to probably 1909. One of America's earliest established amateur astronomical societies; it experienced two unique periods during its history. The first period, 1911 to 1941, was dominated by Dr. Delisle Setwart, the Society's founder and President, as he attempted to establish a quasi-professional observatory. The second period, 1941 to the present, was administered by 14 presidents as they guided the Society in its pursuit of classical amateur activities -- telescope making, learning astronomy, and public educational activities.

1911 - 1941 

From 1896 to 1910, Dr. Delisle Stewart served as an assistant astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory of the University of Cincinnati. Research at the observatory during this period centered on the classical stellar measurement techniques. Stewart attempted to persuade the observatory's director to apply the then new astronomical research tool, astrophotography. Stewart's interest in astrophotography was intensified by his Harvard training and his previous two years service at Arequipa Observatory, Peru, where he photographed the southern skies. Stewart eventually lost his job over his persistent attempt to persuade the Cincinnati Observatory to adopt astrophotography.

Stewart's response to his rebuke was to establish a new astronomical society with the goal of building a new observatory dedicated to astrophotographic research. The Society's name, Cincinnati Astronomical Society, was borrowed from the original CAS, 1845-1870. This was the first professional astronomical society in America. Its telescope and assets were donated in 1870 to the city of Cincinnati. The city subsequently donation the assets to the University of Cincinnati (and its then new Cincinnati Observatory) from whence Stewart was dismissed.

An unusual event occurred in Cincinnati in 1911 that affected, initially positively but eventually negatively, Stewart's plan to establish a new observatory. The city was rightfully proud of its Chamber of Commerce building that was designed by the famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The building received world-wide recognition for its beautifully carved, expansive, Romanesque arches. The edifice was destroyed by fire in 1911. Since Stewart was a lover of Richardson's work and the city loved its Chamber of Commerce Building, Stewart found a way to turn this disaster to his advantage. He offered to build his new observatory based on the architectural plan of the Chamber of Commerce building. The new observatory would then be faced with the Richardson granite stones that were salvaged from the destroyed building.

The citizens responded to Stewart's concept by generously donating services to transfer the huge Richardson stones to a temporary storage site and by buying bonds that were issued by CAS. Sufficient funds were acquired within three years of the fire that CAS acquired 142 acres of land in Miami Heights/Mt. Zion (the current CAS location) for the new observatory site about twenty miles west of Cincinnati. The site's principal selection criterion was its distance from the city's light pollution, a problem that then prevented the inner-city located Cincinnati Observatory from performing adequate astrophotography.

All of the solicited funds were consumed in financing the transfer of thousands of tons of the massive Richardson stones from the original downtown site, to their temporary storage site, and finally to Miami Heights/Mt. Zion. The largest stone weighed 27,500 pounds. For the next twenty years Delisle Stewart begged wealthy Cincinnatians to purchase the remaining CAS bonds in order to raise the required funds. Finally, by the end of the 1930's, sufficient funds were obtained so that the observatory's construction could begin.

The architects designed a two-story observatory building that included a large central dome and two side domes--each mounted on the end walls. The building's main floor was designed to include offices, a reception hall and museum of astronomy, a lecture hall, classrooms and the Richardson Memorial Collection. The second floor was to have a library, reading and study rooms photographic darkrooms with separate rooms for plate storage, spectroscopic and photometric laboratories, and rest rooms for the night observers. The  domes were to house two large reflecting telescopes and one large refractor telescope. As with icing on a cake, the observatory would be faced with the famous Richardson granites. Assuredly this would be a magnificent facility, one in which the Cincinnati Astronomical Society and the city would be proud.

The effect of the Great Depression took its toll on CAS and its observatory. Construction of the basic outline of the building was completed, and the basement was finished to a degree that the CAS members could use the area for a meeting room. However, the Society lacked the funds to complete the project.

1941 - Present 

With the death of Dr. Stewart in 1941, the Society lost its driving force. There was no one left with the ability of desire to make another effort to raise the required funds, and somehow, to complete the building. It was ironic that the Richardson arches, which had inspired the construction concept, proved to be its undoing; not a single block of granite was raised into place. The granite stones remained strewn around the observatory site, mockingly tombstone like. 

For the first 32 years of its history, CAS was dominated by Dr. Delisle Stewart. Since 1941, the Society underwent a transformation from a quasi-professional society to an amateur one. From a society on the verge of extinction, it had rebounded to become a responsive, respected organization under the direction of fourteen succeeding Presidents.

Those interested in reading the complete history of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society are invited to read the 132 page book A Brief History of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society , by John E. Ventre and Edward J. Goodman.