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Road Trip: Perkins Observatory

Perkins Observatory is located two miles south of the city of Delaware. It was built in 1923 by a retired professor named Hiram Perkins. Tom Burns has been the observatory’s director for 20 years. "Old Hiram Perkins never made more than $1200 a year teaching math and science. And yet, because he sold hogs during the Civil War to the Union Army and saved every penny he earned, managed to build what was at the time the third largest telescope and observatory in the world. What a guy!" And what an observatory. The powerful telescope has a 32 inch main mirror. Burns is proud that it’s accessible to the public.

"It’s not the biggest telescope in the world but it’s the biggest that anyone is gonna let you look through."

Perkins died before the observatory was completed. But his dream lives on today under the watchful eye of Director Burns, who, with a touch of the dramatic, starts the electric motors that rotate the observatory’s huge dome.

"Have you ever seen those old Frankenstein movies on TV?," asks Burns. "Well I have to confess that every time I do this, I get the distinct feeling that Frankenstein’s monster is slowly rising to the ceiling. ‘It is alive, I tell you… alive...alive...alive!!!’"

Upstairs the dome rotates so that two 25,000-pound doors can open, allowing the telescope to scan various portions of the limitless universe. "I have seen in this particular telescope the Hercules cluster of galaxies which is a billion light years away...one light year is 6 trillion miles, you multiply it out, I’m too tired, wait, let me see, carry the three … that would be really, really far away." You can travel through time and space yourself at Perkins. Most Friday nights the observatory opens its doors to the public at sunset. After a brief presentation by Professor Burns, visitors climb the stairs to reach the dome. "Okay, what we’re going to do," says guide Don Stevens, "is I’m going to bring you up to the telescope one at a time so I can show you…we’re looking at Mars. I’m going to show you Mars through the telescope." Stevens guides visitors through the darkened dome … and shows them how to use the eyepiece to study the surface of Mars. "You look right down through here."

Visitor: "Okay. Wow! Wow! It’s amazing!" Stevens: "Do you see the polar cap?" Visitor: "Oh yeah, look at that! I do see it! Wow that’s amazing. Thank you."

You might be able to purchase tickets at the door, but buying them in advance is strongly recommended. You can visit the Perkins Observatory and other stops along this New Ohio Guide Tour. To download the tour, go to seeohiofirst.org. The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.