The 130-Year-Old Washburn Telescope Gets Its First Maintenance in Forever

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The Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been the school's scientific centerpiece since its commissioning in 1881. The same year which, coincidentally, was the last time anybody bothered to clean the optics.

The observatory has actually been undergoing renovations for nearly two decades—the dome was redone in the '90s and the building's facade was updated three years ago—but the telescope's optics have not been touched since the Garfield Administration. That's why the University called in John Augustine, specialist in antique instruments, to perform the maintenance. "There aren't too many guys who do this kind of thing," explains Jim Lattis, director of UW-Madison's Space Place.

According to Augustine, the 15.6-inch telescope lenses should have been removed from their brass housings, cleaned, and repolished once every decade, however, given the difficulty he had extracting them (and the complete lack of service records), he suspects that they've never been serviced in their 130 years of use.


With the application of some elbow grease, Augustine was able to remove the lenses for soaking and has spent nearly a week cleaning the telescope's 50-pound optical array of dust, grime and wasp nests (pro tip: ketchup works wonders on brass). [UW-Madison via Physorg Top Image: UW Campus Photo Library - Side Image: Jeff Miller / UW News ]