Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1997 Volume 35 Number 3, Pages 109–118

Berwyn's Amateur Astronomers

Thomas R. Williams

Page 109

[Editor's note: The appearance of the Comet Hale-Bopp in our skies during March and April, and its visibility to the naked eye, has made all of us more aware of the new frontier which exists in space. The astronomer, the astrophysicist, and the astronaut are the pioneers of this new age, but we should not overlook the contributions made by earlier pioneers who searched with primitive equipment for the answers to questions about the make-up of the universe. We salute two pioneers of an earlier day, Alden Walker Quimby and Harry Barlow Rumrill, both of whom lived in our Berwyn community in the first half of this century, and, although only amateurs, had a passion for astronomy.

The material in this article is taken from a paper titled "On the Main Line : Ama­teur Contributions to Astronomy from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania" which was read by Mr. Thomas R.Williams of Houston, Texas, at the January 14, 1991 meet­ing of the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, held at the Convention Center in Philadelphia. Back in 1990, the History Club was, in a small way, able to assist Mr. Williams in his research for this paper.]

It seems appropriate to begin ... with two [local] individuals who ... actively shared their interest in solar observation. The periods of their active observation of the sun overlapped by a few years, and their combined record of over 60 years of sunspot counts (5.5 cycles) is an outstanding illustration of the value of amateur contributions to astronomy.

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Even today, the older parishioners of the Berwyn United Methodist Church fondly recall the twenty-six year tenure of Reverend Alden Walker Quimby as their pastor, although Rev. Quimby passed away in 1922. Such favorable recall is not surprising when the whole of his record is considered, for it appears that Rev. Quimby was indeed an exceptional individual.

Quimby was born in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania in 1854. [He was the son of John Brooks and Agnes Stevens Quimby. Little is known of his family back­ground, but the names of two brothers are known -- Charles S(tevens) Quimby, born in 1856, and Henry Hodge Quimby, born in 1858. Charles Quimby was a resident of Berwyn where he ran a plumbing and heating contracting business from 1885 to 1909. Henry Quimby was a bridge engineer for Phoenixville Bridge Works. His name appears on a bronze tablet, dated 1906, marking the Walnut Lane Bridge over the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia.]

When his mother died, young Quimby was moved to be raised by her aunt in Philadelphia. At the age of 13 he entered Philadelphia Central High School, but remained in school for only six months before accepting employment as a Junior Clerk in the offices of the Phoenix Iron Works. [Note 1] How or when Quimby concluded he should enter the ministry is unclear. However, in those days, it was possible to take what amounted to a correspondence course, and then be examined for suitability to enter the ministry. [Note 2] Quimby apparently followed this path, for there is no record of his further education at a seminary before accepting his first call to churches at Bainbridge and Falmouth [on the east bank of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania] in 1878. [Note 3] [It appears that Quimby had married and started a family before entering the ministry, as sons Edward and Charles were born in 1874 and 1877, respectively.] At the time of his death in 1922, he was survived by his wife, Jennie, two sons and a daughter, [Note 4] although [his biographer, W. H.] Pickop notes that the marriage produced "three worthy sons and an admirable daughter". [Note 5]This branch of the Quimby family was not to survive, for apparently no children were born to either of the surviving sons or the daughter. [Note 6] [He is buried, with his wife and eldest surviving son, in the church yard at Radnor United Methodist Church.]

However informal his education for the ministry may have been, Quimby was well suited for this profession. Ruth Moore, who grew up in Berwyn and knew him, characterized him as a "gentle and kindly pastor". [Note 7] His commitment to his minis­try was deep, and he always gave it his first priority. For each of his congrega­tions, he formed plans for what he could contribute. While at Radnor, Quimby refused a re-assignment to a larger, more prestigious post in order to have the opportunity to work through his plan with the smaller congregation. [Note 8]

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Children, in particular, were a significant focus of Quimby's ministry. Moore recalls, "Seldom did one see him alone; children were always at his heels. He would often visit the school playground, where youngsters gave him rapt atten­tion as he wove fascinating tales about them and their playmates. The writer well remembers many mornings when he skipped down the hill to the post office with her, meanwhile making up entertaining little stories and verses." [Note 9] Visits to the playground were not the only form his ministry to children took, for he was a welcome lecturer at the public schools [Note 10] and is recalled fondly for memorable picnics with the children of the congregation. [Note 11]

All aspects of the pastoral life received his attention, preaching, counseling, ministering to the sick, distributing food to the needy and even fund raising to pay off the church mortgages. Moore notes, "He said of himself that he was no preacher, but there was scarcely anyone in the community who did not in some way come under his influence, and on occasion the forcefulness of his speech was marked." [Note 12] Even others in the ministry commented on his lasting influence. The Rev. Thomas Fort of Germantown remarked that when "Brother Quimby left Port Richmond Church, I felt like I would like him to be my pastor as long as I lived." [Note 13]

Quimby's contributions as a minister did not go unrecognized in his lifetime. He was awarded a Master of Arts degree, and was later recommended for an Honor­ary Doctor of Divinity degree by Dickinson College by the District Superintendent and other ministers of the district. He was later awarded an honorary DSc de­gree by Dickinson College, but he refused to go to the ceremony to receive the honor. [Note 14]

A person of apparently broad intellectual capacity, Quimby was noted for his fondness of mathematics, history and "naturalist's devotion to nature and the artist's eye for landscape loveliness" in addition to his understandable interest in Methodist history and polity, theology and hymnology. [Note 15]

Quimby enjoyed taking long walks in the surrounding countryside, and was well known to residents for miles around Berwyn because of his frequent expeditions on foot. His interest in nature and the out-of-doors combined with his interest in history in a particularly effective way. Quimby frequently used these walks to retrace historical events, and was one of the more knowledgeable local histori­ans. He is said, for example, to have known more about the Battle of Gettysburg than any of the "official guides" of his time. [Note 16]

Quimby's interest in history eventually led him to write a historical novel about Valley Forge. [Note 17] The reviews of Valley Forge that appeared in the local press

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are glowing, "... written with painstaken care and graceful pen ... solely in an ardent love of the Chester Valley and its people .... " [Note 18] The success of Valley Forge encouraged Quimby. His literary efforts were extended to another novel that appeared in serial form in [the Epworth Herald, a church] newspaper but apparently never came together in book form. [Note 19] A caption under an available picture of Quimby reads, "Alden W. Quimby. (A. W. Q. of the Philadelphia "Public Ledger.1)" suggesting that Quimby was a frequent contributor as a writer. [Note 20]



The sun was the focus of Rev. Quimby's astronomical interest. His first recorded observation of the sun was on July 1, 1889. Over the following 32+ years, Quimby observed the sun assiduously. Rumrill concluded that the only days when Quimby did not manage to record a sunspot count were those days on which the sun could never be seen at any time between dawn and dusk. Rumrill's summarization of Quimby's observations [shows that] Quimby averaged 335 observations a year. [Note 21] This is a record of dedication, for it required careful watching of cloudy skies for an opening during which the surface of the sun could be examined. When an opening appeared, then prompt action would be required to set up the telescope and conduct an observation before it closed. No doubt this was somewhat easier for a minister who had less rigid duties during most days of the week. It is, in any event, quite a remarkable record of achievement.

Quimby observed sun-spots with small (by today's standards) refractors which were quite adequate for this particular type of observing. Initially he used a 3­inch refractor, but within a few years had acquired a very good 4 1/2-inch refractor with a Bardou objective lens. The instrument was mounted on a tripod, and used from the yard of the church parsonage when weather permitted. Observation through a window of the house, though undesirable as a rule, was Quimby's practice for inclement weather. Rumrill also comments on Quimby's visual acuity, "... he was gifted with discriminating sight, as witness the number of spots counted at many of his observations, sometimes exceeding 300, including faint spots that might have been beyond the reach of ordinary vision or of object glasses of inferior defining quality." [Note 22]

The results of Quimby's observations were published regularly in the Astronomical Journal, and also were provided to the Polytechnium, Zurich, Switzerland for inclusion in the world wide data base. The discovery of some secondary law or laws of periodicity in the sun-spot cycle was Quimby's "earnest desire" and his analysis of his own observations coupled with the observations of other observers was directed to this end. [Note 23]

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It is apparent that Quimby was known and respected by the professional astrono­mers of his era. He was invited to participate in the dedication of the Flower Observatory of the University of Pennsylvania. [Note 24] When the time came to form a nationwide organization of astronomers, Quimby was among those invited to join. The first organizational efforts were initiated by Simon Newcomb and others at the First Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists, held in 1897 in con­junction with the dedication of the Yerkes Observatory. [Note 25] Quimby was invited to the dedication and participated in the Conference, and thus became a "charter" member of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America (AASA), which later was renamed American Astronomical Society. Quimby was one of only a half dozen amateurs who commanded sufficient respect among professionals to be so recognized at that time. In fact, by the time the fledgling society's secretary had published a listing of the charter members and those who had joined since that time, only seven additional amateurs had been invited to join. [Note 26]

Observations of the sun was apparently only one use to which Rev. Quimby put his telescope. Comments abound on his willingness to show the heavens to others. For example, Moore recalled, "Another favorite memory is the night she was introduced to the mysteries of the moon's craters through the telescope in the parsonage yard." [Note 27] "Hap" Williams also commented about the night viewing sessions, noting that Quimby left his tripod set up in the backyard of the parson­age, so that only the tube was removed to the house. Williams also recalled that Father John Carey, pastor of the local Catholic Church, was a frequent observer with Rev. Quimby. [Note 28] Quimby sprinkled astronomical topics or examples in his other talks, so that his interest in astronomy was well known in the community at large. His effort to popularize astronomy apparently was successful, at least when judged against the track record of awareness it created.



Reverend Alden Walker Quimby was an excellent example of ... an amateur astronomer. He was a serious observer who published the results of his ex­tended series of solar observations, and tried to add to their value by analysis. He participated in the formal organization of astronomy and was recognized as an astronomer by his professional peers.

Rev. Quimby's observing was terminated by illness in 1921. Before his death in 1922, however, Quimby "passed the baton" to his friend and neighbor, Harry Barlow Rumrill. The record of achievement of these two solar observers really should not be considered separately, for Rumrill, though an altogether different personality, extended Quimby's observations of the sun for another three decades.

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Born in Philadelphia in 1867, Rumrill was raised and educated (through second­ary school) across the Delaware River in Haddonfield, New Jersey. His father, Henry J. Rumrill, was personal secretary to General Sewell of the West Jersey and Pennsylvania Railroad, and is no doubt responsible in some measure for many of the personality traits that were an important part of his son's character. Accuracy, punctuality, perfection, dedication, these were the important factors in Rumrill's own life, and in his expectations for others. [Note 29]

In 1896 Rumrill married Anna Coates Crawford of North Adams, Massachusetts, described as "a fine Baptist woman of high family standing." Two children were born to this marriage. The son, Henry C. Rumrill, became a well known civil engineer, and at one time was head of all highway construction in the state of Pennsyvania. The daughter, Elizabeth, became a research chemist and assistant professor at Temple University. Elizabeth was very devoted to her father, and lived at his home in Berwyn all of her life. When Rumrill died in 1951, Elizabeth made an effort to donate his library and equipment to the Rittenhouse Astronomi­cal Society, but was unable to stimulate interest in preserving these materials. She therefore locked up Rumrill's Tredyffrin Observatory, and all his material remained intact until after her death in 1986. At that time, some of Rumrill's papers were acquired by local amateur astronomers while the telescope, acces­sories and the library were sold at auction.

Rumrill began his career in business at age 17, auditing freight receipts as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He remained an employee of the PRR for his entire working life, rising in the course of this 49-year career to the position of Special Accountant. In 1911, Rumrill published the "Freight Revenue Tables", which were adopted for use by the PRR. A greatly expanded version of these tables was issued as a second edition in 1916. As a clerk, accountant and audi­tor, Rumrill learned the value of accurate, complete records, a characteristic that carried over strongly into his personal life.

There was little time for astronomy in the earlier years in Rumrill's adult life, as he was a dedicated music student. Studying with the eminent blind organist, David Duffield Woods, Rumrill acquired excellent skills as an organist and musician, and in addition learned to read Braille. Woods was, for many years, the organist and music director at St. Stephen's Church in Philadelphia, where Rumrill was to fill in as part-time organist, and serve for a short period as Choirmaster. For the remainder of his life, music was an important element of Rumrill's routine, as he performed and directed choirs at a number of churches, and served a term as national treasurer of the Organ Players Club of America.

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Mechanics and working with his hands also interested Rumrill. Rumrill con­structed a home workshop and equipped it with fine tools. He was known by family and friends as a fine draftsman and craftsman. Working in his shop, he invented, patented and sold the patent rights for a reversible scale for a type­writer to the Underwood Typewriter Company. When he came into possession of a fine telescope objective lens, he insisted on assembling the instrument to utilize this lens in his own shop. He purchased some of the necessary parts from John Brashear, and fabricated the tripod and other parts himself. Fortunately, he had already become acquainted with Brashear through their mutual friend Alden Quimby. Brashear, and his son-in-law, James B. McDowell, provided substantial guidance necessary for the completion of this telescope as an operable instru­ment. [Note 30] Rumrill added accessories to the telescope set from his own shop, in­cluding two cameras of his own design and construction. [Note 31]

When Rumrill tackled the job of constructing an observatory, it was this same desire for manual involvement, and drive for perfection, that prompted him to handle nearly the complete construction project himself. In a local newspaper article describing the initial phases of the observatory project, Rumrill stated he would be his own mechanic "owing to the difficulty in finding workmen skilled in constructing the type of building he wants." [Note 32] The construction job took several years as a one man job "but with advantages of uniformity in workmanship and a not unwelcome saving in labor cost." [Note 33] As he later wrote to further justify this decision, "With the exception of the masonry (foundations and pier), I did all the work myself, which helped to make it possible to realize many of my own ideas of construction." [Note 34]



Elizabeth Rumrill traces her father's first interest in astronomy to the period while he was a student at Central High School. [Note 35] However, not much activity devel­oped from this interest. It was not until 1904, when he purchased a copy of Langley's New Astronomy, that Rumrill was activated to begin assembling the components of a modest telescope. In 1905, Rumrill attended an astronomical lecture by Professor Eric Doolittle of the University of Pennsylvania. At that lecture, Rumrill met Alden Walker Quimby and began to learn of Quimby's strong interest in the sun, which paralleled his own interests. With common interests in astronomy, church music and taking long walks, the two formed a close friend­ship. By 1910, Rumrill had saved enough money to purchase a home in Berwyn, close to the Quimby home.

Before Quimby died in 1922, he asked Rumrill to continue the sun-spot work, which Rumrill agreed to do to the best of his ability. With this added pressure to

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observe sun-spots regularly, Rumrill attempted to adjust his observing schedule to achieve nearly daily coverage of the sun. He adopted the practive of observ­ing the sun early each morning before departing for work. The difficulty in provid­ing the nearly continuous coverage that had been achieved by Quimby is visible in ... both observers1 results. In the eleven years between Quimby's death and his own retirement, Rumrill averaged 232 daily observations. In the first eleven years after his retirement, however, Rumrill was able to average 281 days a year on which he recorded solar observations. [Note 36] In his own observing program, Rumrill placed more emphasis on the appearance of the sun-spots and faculae, making regular attempts to sketch the details of the more interesting objects.

During World War II, there was a substantial need for up-to-date information about sun-spot activity in order to prepare predictions of radio propagation. [Note 37] Rumrill was an active participant in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Solar Division, although he apparently never became an AAVSO member. Solar Division Chairman Neil J. Heines was eloquent in his praise of Rumrill in an appreciation published in Popular Astronomy. [Note 38]

Like Quimby, Rumrill enjoyed writing, but his attention as a writer was more clearly focused on astronomy. His daughter was asked to summarize his writing for a "Bibliography of Chester County," and the [list is impressive, running to nineteen entries ....] Like Quimby, Rumrill's writing in Popular Astronomy was at first somewhat historical in its orientation. However, it gradually became more oriented to the details of equipment and observing technique. Finally, Rumrill began to summarize the results of his own as well as Quimby's observations and attempted some analysis of the whole time series. In addition to this effort to make sense of his data technically, Rumrill did an extensive amount of writing to popularize astronomy. In two separate spurts, Rumrill took on writing short articles for periodical publications. From 1932, the year he retired, until 1940 he was a regular contributor to the Mutual Magazine published by the Pennsylvania Railroad, with a total of twenty-one articles on various subjects. From 1947 to 1949 he wrote thirty-three short articles for the weekly Upper Main Line News. [Note 39]

Unlike Quimby, Rumrill appears not to have been very active in professional journals or meetings. Instead, his contacts were more focused locally. Rumrill served a term as President of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society in 1932, and was active in that Society for many years. [Note 40] He was a member pf the American Astronomical Society, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, British Astronomical Association and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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Harry Barlow Rumrill followed closely in the footsteps of his friend, Alden Walker Quimby, in observation of solar sun-spots. Together, these two individuals forged a sound record of the sun-spot cycles for over sixty years. Their efforts as ob­servers, and popularizers of astronomy, can be considered as truly substantive contributions.... [Our community can be proud of the legacy they left behind.]



In the preparation of this paper I had substantial assistance from a number of individuals. To highlight my gratitude for this effort on their part, and for simplicity in later bibliographic refer­ences, I would like to acknowledge here the wonderful contributions of the following individuals: Diane Calkins of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Bart Fried, Conshohocken, Pa.; Barbara Fry and her husband C. Herbert Fry of Berwyn, Pa. and the Chester County Historical Society; Mary-Louise Mussell of the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History; and Ann Marie Parks, Secretary of the Berwyn United Methodist Church.

1 Pickop, Wm. Holden, "Alden Walker Quimby," Official Journal and Year Book of the Method­ist Episcopal Church, 136th Session. Philadelphia: Methodist Episcopal Book Room, 1923.

2 Mussell, Mary-Louise, private communication, letter to Tom Williams dated November 30, 1990.

3 Pickop, op. cit.

4 WEST CHESTER DAILY LOCAL NEWS, September 26, 1922.

5 Pickop, op. cit.

6 Freund, Elizabeth Aiken, private communication, letter to Tom Williams dated November 25, 1990. Ms. Freund comments, "I don't believe there is anyone who can help you .... Both his children died without issue, his son in 192[8] and his daughter in the 1960s or 70s." The second and third sons remain un-accounted for at this point.

7 Moore, Ruth, TREDYFFRIN EASTTOWN HISTORY CLUB QUARTERLY, 2, 1 (1939 Janu­ary), 12-13.

8 Pickop, op. cit.

9 Moore, op. cit.

10 Robbins, D. H., "Editor News", an unidentified fragment from the Chester County Historical Society Clipping Files, probably from the WEST CHESTER DAILY LOCAL NEWS, near the time of Quimby's death. Robbins was the Principal of the Tredyffrin-Easttown High School from 1910 to 1914.

11 Williams, Howard, private communication, telephone conversation with Tom Williams, November 18, 1990. On one such picnic, children were climbing on the rocks around a mill pond. Williams fell in and was soaked. Quimby had spare pants and a shirt, and nick­named Williams "Happy" because he was so cheerful about the incident. Quimby's frequent use of this nickname thereafter caused it to stick for a lifetime, although it was later short­ened to "Hap".

12 Moore, op. cit.

13 Pickop, op. cit.

14 Pickop, ibid.

15 Pickop, ibid.

16 Lapp, Dorothy, "Historical Survey: Investigators Report, Lincoln Highway", from an Historical Survey of Chester County, Chester County Historical Society Clipping Files.

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17 The National Union Catalogue of Pre-1956 Imprints, Vol. 477, Page 412, cites "Valley Forge; a tale" published in 1906 in Cincinnati, reprinted in 1907 in New York, and a second edition of the same title published in 1917 in both Cincinnati and New York by The Abingdon Press.

18 "Valley Forge", WEST CHESTER DAILY LOCAL NEWS, October 23, 1906.

19 "Rev. Quimby's New Story", WEST CHESTER DAILY LOCAL NEWS, December 6, 1909.

20 This picture is in a small scrap book assembled by H. B. Rumrill. The scrapbook contains, in addition to the picture, a clipping of Quimby's appreciation/obituary for John Brashear, "An Amateur Astronomer", THE CHRISTIAN ADVOCATE, July 15, 1920.

21 Rumrill, H. B., "Record of Sun-Spots and Faculae", POPULAR ASTRONOMY, 52, 9 (1944 November), 428-441.

22 Rumrill, ibid.

23 Rumrill, ibid.

24 Quimby described the ceremonies in one of his few articles in POPULAR ASTRONOMY, 5, 2 (1897 June), 112-113.

25 Rothenberg, Marc, "Organization and Control: Professionals and Amateurs in American Astronomy, 1899-1918", SOCIAL STUDIES OF SCIENCE, 11 (1981), 305-325.

26 Hussey, William J., "Organization and Membership", Pub. AASA, 1,1 (1910), vii-xiv. Identification of amateur astronomers in a list of names not otherwise annotated is difficult. In these statistics of membership I am relying on my own Unedited List of Amateur and Professional Astronomers dated June 13,1990. The results differ somewhat from those of Rothenberg, who notes that about 15% of the 293 members at that point were amateur astronomers. (Rothenberg, op. cit.)

27 Moore, op. cit.

28 Williams, op. cit.

29 I have relied on an unpublished manuscript by Bart Fried labeled 2nd Draft and dated September 17, 1988. This manuscript was apparently the basis for a heavily edited version which appeared in print, Fried, Bart, "H. B. Rumrill: An Amateur's Legacy", SKY AND TELESCOPE, 78, 1 (1989 January), 86-87. Unless otherwise noted, much of the material included here is extracted from this "2nd Draft" and is not otherwise footnoted.

30 For example, in a letter dated October 29, 1906, Brashear describes their practices for attachment of the lens and tailpierce to the tube. "We will say that we never screw either the cell end or the eyepiece end in the tube. The tube is mounted in a lathe, carefully faced off at each end, and then the two parts are forced into the end of the tube, and then fas­tened with screws. This is a much better way than screwing them in, particularly with a light tubing."

31 Rumrill, Elizabeth, "Tredyffrin Observatory", TREDYFFRIN EASTTOWN HISTORY CLUB QUARTERLY, 17, 4 (1979 October), 95-98.

32 MAIN LINE TIMES, July 14, 1933.

33 Rumrill, Elizabeth, op. cit.

34 Sterns, Mabel, "Directory of Astronomical Observatories in the United States", Ann Arbor: J. W. Edwards, 1947.

35 Rumrill, Elizabeth, op. cit. Presumably, this is the Central High School in Haddonfield, or perhaps Camden, New Jersey, and not the Philadelphia Central High School, which offered a fine observatory for student training during this period.

36 Rumrill, H. B., op. cit. 37 Taylor, Peter O., "Counting Sunspots", SKY AND TELESCOPE, 68, 5 (1984 Nov.), 475-477.

38 Heines, Neil. J., "Mr. Harry B. Rumrill --A Tribute", POPULAR ASTRONOMY 59, 5 (1951 May), 262-263.

39 Rumrill, Elizabeth, letter to Dr. Robert E. Carlson dated May 9, 1978. Dr. Carlson was Chair­man, Dept. of History, West Chester State College ... and was compiling a bibliography ....

40 Billings, Cecil M., "History of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, 1888-1960", Phila....


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