Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1979 Volume 17 Number 4, Pages 95–98

Tredyffrin Observatory

Elizabeth Rumrill

Page 95

In a small volume, entitled "Directory of Astronomical. Observatories in the United States", compiled by Mabel Sterns in 1947, is found

H. B. Rumrill
Berwyn, Pennsylvania

"Named from the township. Latitude 40 3'; longitude 75 27', 18 miles from the center of Philadelphia,"

Harry B. Rumrill, my father, was an amateur astronomer. He lived on Conestoga Road in Berwyn. The 16-foot square observatory is located in the back yard on the south side of his home.

The description of the observatory in the Directory is in his own words: "'My little observatory required rather more than a year to build, the nameplate on the door being 1933. With the exception of the masonry, I did all the work myself, which helped to make it pos­sible to realize many of my own ideas of construction. When I began working with my telescope, about 40 years ago, I mounted it on a tripod which in use proved to be much too heavy for portability and could only be handled by assembling the various parts in and out of the house. It was this that led me to the idea of an observatory, and as mounted therein you would probably notice a few features not entirely orthodox, but which have proved successful in rendering the instrument stable...

Page 96

"Most of my work has been the study of the sun,'" he continued, "'particularly making drawings of the spots and faculae, of which I have many hundreds. The equipment for this work consists of a Herschel-Brashear helioscope, a Merz-Brashear polarizing helioscope, and a Zeiss sliding wedge absorption glass... I may say that my lenses are the finest ever made, including many beautiful eyepieces from the Brashear works, as well as a good many odds and ends picked up at various times. To these I have added two cameras of my own design and construction — one for plates, the other for Kodak film. With the plate camera, I made a number of lunar photographs...'"

As indicated above, his interest in astronomy in general, and in the sun in particular, began before the turn of the century, when he was still a student at Central High School. "My interest in the study of the Sun," he pointed out in an article in Popular Astronomy, "grew originally out of reading Langley's 'The New Astronomy' some years ago before I possessed a telescope with which to examine its surface. It was while living in Bryn Mawr in 1906 that I received a four-inch object glass from the John A, Brashear Company, Pittsburgh, together with some necessary parts, including a universal equatorial head, for mounting it, which I undertook because of wishing to embody certain ideas of my own, particularly a strongly braced tripod of more than usual weight for a portable instrument."

The bronze plate on his telescope bears the inscription :

Objective, equatorial head, helioscope etc. from J.A.Brashear Co. Allegheny Finder mounted by Zentmeyer, Philadelphia Tripod, camera, etc. designed and in part made by H.B.Rumrill, Bryn Mawr, Penna. 1909

It was at about this time that my father became acquainted with Dr. Alden W. Quimby, for many years the Methodist clergyman in Berwyn, whom he first met at Eric Doolittle's lectures on astronomy. Their mutual interest led to a deep friendship which lasted until Dr. Quimby's death in 1922.

Dr. Quimby had also been observing the sun, sending his reports to the Astronomical Journal and to the Polytechnium, in Zurich. When he became ill, Dr. Quimby asked my father to continue his study of the Periodicity of Sunspots. This my father did, collaborating with the American Association of Variable Star Observers. His observations were not confined to the sun, however.

Through his writings, which were published by Popular Astronomy, The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and later Scientia, he had a wide astronomical acquaintance.

Upon his retirement from the Pennsylvania Railroad, for which he was a special accountant, in 1932, he was able to devote more time to his interests in astronomy. No longer was it necessary for him to make his observations only in the early morning or at night, as it had been while he was still working in Philadelphia.

Page 97

It was also at this time that he was able to realize his dream of building an observatory, making it no longer necessary to make many of his observations out of a window with a southern exposure, a condition which had limited somewhat the scope of his work and his ability to use his telescope to its full capacity. (His years of observation in this manner were recalled in an unpublished manuscript entitled "Astronomy from a Back Window".)

Since the construction of the observatory was mostly a "one-man" job, as he observed in one of his articles in Popular Astronomy, it was "a somewhat slow one, but with the advantages of uniformity in workmanship and a not unwelcome saving in labor cost — always

the largest element of expense in building construction. After preparing a number of plans and making all necessary alterations and changes on paper, work began..."

In contrast to a single window, he noted, "On three sides of the observatory are large plate glass windows, sliding horizontally within the walls, for the comfortable study of the constellations in cold weather, the building being heated electrically at such times (not of course when the telescope is in service). The window openings are covered by old-fashioned batten shutters for protection of the plate glass."

Over the telescope is also a rotating dome, "The rotation of the dome," he wrote, "is performed by means of a yacht steering wheel placed on the wall at the right of the door, connecting by a link-belt sprocket chain with a bronze axle under one of the central rafters, which in turn activates a wheel in friction contact with an inner ring of ash fashioned flush with the upper surface of the dome ring."

The observatory also served as a "sort of astronomical studio", in which could be accommodated his collection of observatory annals, astronomical periodicals, and his library of more than 2500 volumes on astronomy.

His astronomical Journals over the years contain many entries, including details of his observations, letters, newspaper clippings, the galley proofs of articles he wrote for various journals, accounts of his talks on astronomy, drawings, articles written for the old Upper Main Line News, and photographs.

His articles published in the Mutual Magazine of the Pennsylvania Railroad were also collected under the title "Hearer the Stars". He also arranged Young's "Uranography" so that the plates of the constellations are opposite the descriptions, the former being in color, each always of the same hue.

Page 98

His contacts were international, as he was a member of the American Astronomical Society, the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the British Astronomical Association, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Solar Committee of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

He knew the sky. Working without circles on his telescope, he could turn it to any celestial object.

He continued his observations until the day of his death, on the 22d of January in 1951, at the age of 83.

North of the observatory is a sun-dial designed and presented to him by Dr. George Rosengarten, president of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. Its motto, taken from the works of Francis Bacon, is most fitting: "Time is — Time was". It helps us all recall the hours spent in the Tredyffrin Observatory and the observations and studies made there by H. B. Rumrill, of Berwyn.



Personal recollections of the author

Sterns, Mabel: Directory of Astronomical Observatories in the United States, 1947

Popular Astronomy, Vol. L, No. 5, May 1942

Popular Astronomy. Vol. LII, No. 9, November 1944


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