A Brief History of Penn State Astronomy

By Chris Buchignani, May 2016

For years, they stood unused and largely unremarked upon: Two single-story brick structures capped with white domes adjacent to the Eisenhower Auditorium.

In the years before they were torn down during one of the latest campus facelifts, people would occasionally ask about them. These buildings obviously served some function related to observing the night sky, and though they remained shuttered and locked, surely somebody somewhere knew what it was. Not necessarily; at least not until one clear evening a little more than 10 years ago.

That night, Dr. Chris Palma, a Penn State alumnus who is now a senior lecturer in astronomy, was leading one of his regular stargazing sessions on the roof of Davey Lab when someone in the group inquired as to what, exactly, was in those domes. Palma gave his standard answer: “I don’t know.” But unlike every time before, that wasn’t the end of it.

Another attendee believed his wife’s grandfather, a former faculty member, had been involved in their construction. He didn’t know details, but he had one vital piece of information. “My wife’s maiden name is Yeagley,” he told them.

That name became the crucial clue that launched a search for long-forgotten details about the origins of Penn State’s astronomy department. Motivated by a curiosity about what had come before and furnished with a way to begin his investigation, Palma turned to the digital archives of The Daily Collegian. He was joined by his colleague Dr. Richard Wade, a now-emeritus professor of astronomy with a penchant for historical research, particularly genealogy (through which he discovered a family connection to Penn State president Joseph Shortlidge).

In searching the Collegian’s archives, they discovered Dr. Henry L. Yeagley, an associate professor of physics from 1928 to 1958 who can fairly described as the father of astronomy at Penn State. Although astronomy did not separate from physics to become its own department until the 1970s (another revelation resulting from Wade’s archival research), Yeagley brought his love for the field to campus decades earlier, teaching telescope making and holding public stargazing sessions.

Yeagley, Palma says, was “pretty much working by himself on some of these things in the 1930s and 1940s… maybe it was only one person, but it really traces back 40 more years than people think of.”

It was through that happenstance encounter on the roof of Davey Lab (during public stargazing, appropriately enough) that Yeagley’s name reentered the departmental discourse, but insight into his legacy and the department’s roots didn’t stop there.

A 1950 Daily Collegian article about a fire in the Osmond Building reported on damage to Yeagley’s and “the adjoining planetarium.” To that point, the common belief was that Penn State’s first planetarium was constructed in the 1980s.

“We were trying to look up information on these domes, and we were like, ‘woah,’” Palma remembers. A bit more digging and a Google search for 1940s-era Spitz-brand planetariums yielded an even more monumental realization by Palma – “I’ve seen that thing in a closet.” Thanks to their research, the projector – a novel relic from an earlier era – was rescued from storage and restored.

Richard Wade expanded their search to the University archives, and in four boxes of materials filed under Yeagley’s name, he discovered ambitious, but largely unfulfilled plans to expand the study of astronomy and engage the local community.

“What we uncovered was… there was a planetarium here in the 1940s,” says Palma. “The Class Gift of 1936 was a telescope, and the gift of the Class of 1938 was those observatory domes to house those telescopes in. We discovered this history of Penn State doing outreach in astronomy and planetarium shows and inviting people in to stargaze through telescopes dates back 40 more years than anyone working here now really remembered. It was all about making the University and the department open to the public.”

So why all this effort? Why did two professors in the hard sciences spend so much time digging deep into the past? Part of it boils down to the glory of Old State.

“I’m an alum. I love this place,” Palma says. “On some level, it’s just that I’m interested in Penn State history.”

But there’s more.

“I don’t want the class gifts to be forgotten. They’re on a list, but the physical things are gone. Students donated money to the University for this, and because of ‘progress,’ they got torn down. My biggest regret in this whole thing is that those class gifts couldn’t have been preserved in some way.”

With this historical perspective comes practical modern application. Palma serves on the committee that will plan fundraising efforts for a public planetarium at the H.O. Smith Arboretum. The effort will benefit from his relatively-newfound knowledge of nearly a century spent exploring the idea of public outreach with far more talk than action.

“I found notes that an exactly identical committee went through this exact same exercise in the Eighties and essentially made the same recommendations to Penn State that we made a few years ago, and then when we dug even deeper, we found out that here was this guy trying to make the exact same arguments and trying to sort of build capacity for the exact same kinds programs 40 years before that. There’s been at least three documented generations of Penn Staters trying to make the same thing happen for the community and the University.”

As Penn State looks to expand the Arboretum with the addition of a planetarium, we can now orient this latest development within the context of a long history of reaching out to the community and exposing the people of State College and the students of Penn State to the wonders of the cosmos. That’s really what all this is about – creating context, dispelling mystery. Just as our probing the depths of outer space offers perspective on our place in the universe as a species, a deeper understanding of where we have been and what is around us in our community grants a greater sense of place and purpose as a people.

“The hope is that we’re going to build a planetarium at the Arboretum some time in the next five years,” explains Palma. “I think we need to have the history of planetariums at Penn State. That projector has got to go in a case somewhere.”

For the late Henry L. Yeagley and others, the planned state-of-the-art public planetarium represents a dream long deferred, but one day, visitors will pass by his old projector and feel the connection between past and present manifest. It’s all thanks to the detective work of a two Penn State faculty members who realized that uncovering the lessons of the past could enrich appreciation of their work as it exists here, in the Nittany Valley, distinct from similar scholarship occurring anywhere else.

This is the third installment of a multi-part series that examines local efforts – by The Nittany Valley Society and others – to refresh the stories of our past so that the knowledge and experiences of those who came before us can make a tangible impact on the present. Next month, we will revisit The Nittany Valley Society’s work to catalog the archival materials of the CBICC.