June 7, 2020

Exploring the Roper Mountain Science Center & the Charles E. Daniel Observatory.

The Daniel Observatory open & ready for


(All photos by Author except as noted).

We love telescopes, old and new. Recently, we had a chance to explore a gem of an observatory nestled in the foothills just outside of Greenville, South Carolina. As we reported in Week 3 of our journey throughout the U.S. southeast, Greenville is the heart of all that is hip in western South Carolina. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Roper Mountain Science Center and the Charles E. Daniel Observatory houses a fine piece of astronomical history.

Standing watch for Martians; the “War of the Worlds” refractor.

The history of the Science Center follows an emphasis on education and technology that is immediately evident in the area. Established in 1985, the Roper Mountain Science Center includes the Simms Hall of Science, the Darell W. Harrison Hall of Natural Sciences, the separate Living History Farm and the T.C. Hooper Planetarium. The Planetarium itself is a modern dome utilizing a Digistar II projection system and currently has showings at 7:00 & 8:15PM EST in conjunction with viewing at the observatory.

And speaking of which, don’t miss the Charles E. Daniel Observatory and its fine Halsted Refractor. With an f/15.6 focal length and an effective aperture of 23” inches (58.4 cm) in diameter, the Halsted is the 32nd largest refractor of all time & the 8th largest in the US. For contrast, the largest in the world is the 40” behemoth at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.

A closeup of the flyball governor.

Built in 1882 by the famed telescope makers Alvan Clark & Sons for Princeton University and rebuilt by J.W. Feckner in 1933, the scope has a storied history. It found its way to the U.S. Naval Observatory in the 1960’s and fell into disuse in favor of modern instruments until transferred to Roper Mountain in 1986. Word has it that then South Carolina Strom Thurmond himself had a hand in assuring that the science center received the grand old instrument. The giant refractor was purchased by the state of South Carolina for the princely sum of 1$ U.S., not including shipping! It’s been modified with modern electronic drives and tracking, although you can still see such state-of-the-art 19th century innovations such as the fly-ball governor in action. Very Steampunk! We firmly believe that such majestic instruments need to be employed in showing the public the night sky, & the Roper Science Center certainly delivers.

The tale of the “War of the Worlds” telescope.

But the Halsted Refractor has one more curious claim to fame. On October 30th, 1938, the dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds as read in a radio broadcast by Orson Wells inadvertently frightened Americans into believing the Martian invasion fleet had landed with heat-rays blazing at Grovers Mill, New Jersey. In the radio version (we know, the book differs) the news commentator Carl Phillips cuts to the “Princeton Observatory” for the staff astronomer’s opinion of the affair. In reality, the Daniel Observatory refractor was housed at the Halsted Observatory in Princeton at the time, and would have been the telescope alluded to by the background whirring and clicking heard in the broadcast. Thus, the Halsted refractor has become known as “The War of the Worlds Telescope,” a harbinger of the invading vanguards from the planet Mars in an invasion that never was. The refractor was also engaged in some true-to-life cutting edge science of the day, including observations of Uranus and its moons, follow up observations of Jupiter’s newly discovered moon Amalthea (discovered at the Lick observatory in 1892), and studies of Mars during the favorable opposition of 1892.

A sketch of Mars made with the Halsted refractor.

(From the 1892 Journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics, 1892. In the Public Domain.)

Visiting the Roper Mountain Science center is easy; the center is currently open 8:30AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday and Starry Night Friday Nights at the Planetarium and the Charles E. Daniel observatory start every Friday Night at 6:15PM EST.  The Roper Mountain Astronomers are also active in the area, with events, star parties and much more.

Observatory dome plus Jupiter.

Located only a few hours northwest of Columbia, South Carolina, Greenville and Roper Mountain would make a fine daytrip after visiting the South Carolina Science Center and their new planetarium and observatory opening later this year. And don’t forget, the total solar eclipse of August 21st, 2017 passes over the Roper Mountain Science Center on its diagonal northwest-to-southeast trek across South Carolina; the Charles E. Daniel observatory would make an unforgettable backdrop for this unique event!


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