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   Department of Astronomy Records, 1880-1917.

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Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Department of Astronomy Records; Box and Folder; University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

COinS Metadata available (e.g., for Zotero).

Summary Information


The Department of Astronomy and the Observatory Records document the origins of the modern astronomy department and the construction of the early observatories at Columbia University. The correspondence and writings of faculty members illustrate the growth of the department in its formative years and highlight contemporary scholarly interests within the field.

At a Glance

Call No.:UA#0055
Bib ID:5804362 View CLIO record
Creator(s):Columbia University. Dept. of Astronomy.
Title:Department of Astronomy Records, 1880-1917.
Physical description:5 linear ft. (4 record storage cartons, 2 document boxes)
Language(s): The material is predominantly in English. Some correspondence is in German, French, and Italian.
Access: This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least two business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. This collection has no restrictions.  More information »



This collection is arranged in 5 series.

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Scope and Content

This collection contains the records generated by the founding members of the modern astronomy department at Columbia University. The bulk of the collection is comprised of the correspondence of Professor John K. Rees along with the correspondence and writings of Professor Harold Jacoby. The records also include financial reports, departmental reports, curriculum outlines, student reports, and observatory ledgers. A few photographs and technical drawings of telescopes are included with the correspondence. The collection provides insight into many aspects of the department including: procuring donor support to build the observatories, the growth of the department as it went from the School of Mines to the School of Pure Sciences, the central role of the observatory within the department, contemporary astronomical events of interest to the scholarly community, and the professional input sought in regard to the construction of the observatories. Furthermore, the collection highlights public interest in the observatory and in the field of astronomy in New York City at the turn of the century.

Series I: Correspondence of John K. Rees, 1880-1902

This first series contains extensive correspondence between Rees and his colleagues from across the country and abroad. Beginning in 1880 as the newly appointed "Director of the Observatory," Rees seeks and gives advice as plans are made to construct an observatory for the department on the mid-town Columbia College campus, and later on the Morningside Heights campus. Most carbon copies of Rees' letters are preserved along with original letters from a variety of senders including Columbia faculty members, contractors, astronomical instrument makers, and scholars.

Series II: Correspondence of Harold Jacoby, 1888-1913

Like his mentor John K. Rees, Harold Jacoby's written correspondence demonstrates an extensive communication with colleagues within the Columbia community and beyond.

Subseries II.1: General, 1907-1913

This subseries includes the bulk of Jacoby's professional correspondence with publishers, manufacturers of astronomical instruments and colleagues. Communication with Carl Zeiss, an astronomical instrument maker in Germany, contains some photographs and technical drawings of telescopes and is predominantly in German. Jacoby's carbon copy responses are in English. Of additional interest is correspondence between Jacoby and the general public regarding inquiries and appointments to visit the observatory, and a folder of letters pertaining to the 1908 meeting of the Astronomical Society of America at Put-in-Bay, Ohio.

Subseries II.2: Jacoby’s Letter File, approximately 1888-1891

This subseries is arranged alphabetically according to Jacoby's personal letter file and contains both professional and personal correspondence with colleagues, friends and family members. Many carbon copies of Jacoby's original letters are included and of special interest is correspondence regarding Jacoby's involvement in an expedition to Cape Hope, South Africa to observe an eclipse in 1887.

Series III: Other Faculty Correspondence, 1908-1910

This small series is comprised of two folders: One containing the correspondence of Professor Charles Lane Poor, and the other the correspondence of Professor S.A Mitchell. Poor's letters document the establishment of a course in Nautical Science as he communicates extensively with naval officers, interested attendees and other colleagues. The correspondence of S.A Mitchell provides further insight into the general departmental activity of a founding faculty member.

Series IV: Writings of Harold Jacoby, approximately 1908-1911, undated

Series IV consists of Harold Jacoby's manuscript and typewritten lectures as well as articles for publication. Jacoby's writings cover a wide range of astronomical topics and contemporary events.

Series V: Observatory Ledgers and Astronomical Reports, 1896-1917

The final series of the collection is comprised of notes, observations and computations on graph paper as well as two hard-cover bound student project reports. About half of the graph paper records are marked as the charts of the "Lick Eros Plates" and represent a collaborative effort with the Lick Observatory in California. Some correspondence regarding this collaboration can be found in Box 2 Folder 7.

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Using the Collection

Access Restrictions

 This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least two business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

This collection has no restrictions.

Restrictions on Use

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the collection must be requested from the Curator of Manuscripts/University Archivist, Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Department of Astronomy Records; Box and Folder; University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

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About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Archives; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University Libraries Digital Library Program Division

Processing Information

Papers processed 7/2008 Gwyn Hervochon

Finding aid written 8/2009 Gwyn Hervochon

Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion November 17, 2009 Finding aid written in English.
    2009-11-17 xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz

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Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
Astronomical observatories.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Columbia University--History--19th century.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Columbia University--History--20th century.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Columbia University.--Dept. of Astronomy.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Columbia University.--Observatory.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Jacoby, Harold, 1865-1932.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Mitchell, S.A, (Samuel Alfred), 1874-1960.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Poor, Charles Lane, 1866-PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Rees, John Krom, 1851-1907.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID

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History / Biographical Note


The records within this collection begin with the recruitment of J.K Rees to Columbia College as Director of the Observatory in 1881. A graduate of Columbia in 1875, Rees left his position at Washington University in St. Louis as Professor of Math and Astronomy and joined the faculty of the School of Mines at Columbia. He took charge of the newly founded Summer School of Geodesy and taught courses in astronomy and geodesy throughout the academic year. At the urging of his fellow professors of the School of Mines to President Barnard in 1883, Rees was promoted to the position of Professor in 1884 and to the title of Professor of Practical Astronomy and Geodesy in 1892. In addition to his contributions at Columbia, Rees was an active member of many professional societies throughout his career.

As Director of the Observatory from 1881-1902, Rees oversaw the construction of the first observatory at Columbia and lead the astronomy department through significant transitional phases both in academic structuring and in physical location. When Rees began his work at Columbia, the college was located in mid-town Manhattan and the School of Mines at the corner of 4th Avenue and 49th Street. Soon after the construction of the Latitude Observatory between 1881 and 1883, the college began to outgrow its limited campus size. As Columbia College developed into Columbia University, the campus was relocated to Morningside Heights and Rees was once again in the position of building another observatory at the new location. Simultaneously, the astronomy department moved from a department within the School of Mines to the School of Pure Science. A Faculty of Pure Sciences was established in 1892 with 13 professors and adjunct professors spanning 10 departments. The faculty grew quickly over the next four years and officially moved to its Morningside Heights location on October 4, 1897.

A student and protégée of Rees, Harold Jacoby was hired as the Assistant in the Observatory in 1888, as Instructor in Astronomy in 1890, and was promoted to the Faculty of Pure Sciences in 1896. As successor to Rees, Jacoby lead the department and continued working to rebuild an observatory at the new location. The Wilde Observatory was constructed between 1906 and 1907 on the corner of 120th Street and Broadway.

Use of the Wilde Observatory was essentially replaced in 1927 by the Rutherford Observatory. Still in use today, the Rutherford Observatory is located on the roof of Pupin Hall at 550 W 120th Street and hosts regular public outreach programs.

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