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College of Arts & Sciences
Physics and Astronomy

History of the Melton Observatory

The Melton Memorial Observatory is not, as some may believe, the first telescope or observatory owned and run by the University of South Carolina. The first observatory was constructed on the roof of one of the earliest buildings on campus, the Library and Science Building (1817), where Legare College now sits. There is no mention of the instruments used, nor is there much else known about this first observatory.

The second observatory on the USC campus is now called the "Old Observatory". In 1850, money was given and set aside for a telescope and building. The telescope had a seven inch aperture, was constructed mostly of brass, and was most likely a refractor. UPDATE: Recent research has found more information on this telescope and shows that a 6-3/4 inch Henry Fitz refractor with an 8-feet 4-inch focal length was purchased by the University, then South Carolina College, in 1851 for $1,200. The building, which stands behind DeSaussure College near the Osborne Administration Building on the corner of Pendleton and Bull streets, was completed in 1852. During the Civil War the equipment was stolen, presumably for the brass content, and the building was never again used as an observatory.

For several decades after the Civil War, USC did not have a working observatory, in spite of possessing a telescope. The 1923 Bulletin of the University of South Carolina, a yearly financial and goals report written by the school president, lists a "Hanahan Telescope". In the 1924 report, there is an explanation by president William Davis Melton which indicates the telescope was donated by J. Wilson Hanahan of Winnsboro, SC, mounted through an appropriation from the General Assembly of SC, and then stored for several years in the attic of LeConte College. Dr. Melton requested funds for a building and mentions that a friend would donate funds for the "revolving top". His request was turned down.         

Dr. Melton died in 1926. The following year Edwin Seibels, a friend of Melton's and an alumnus of USC, announced his gift of $15,000 to build an observatory in Dr. Melton's honor, which was completed in May of 1928. The building, the Melton Memorial Observatory, is still in use today and houses a Cassegrain reflector, believed to be the Hanahan telescope, which was originally a 15-inch Newtonian reflector. There is sufficient documentation to indicate that the telescope tube is the original Hanahan, but it is unclear whether a new mirror was installed or if the old mirror was redrilled when the telescope was converted to a Cassegrain. The current mirror is approximately 40 centimeters in diameter, which is between 15 and 16 inches. Current documentation lists the telescope as a 16-inch Cassegrain. The Observatory was designed to house a much larger telescope in the event of one being made available.

Research done by Elizabeth M. Orosz and Alex Mowery. Any information on the history of the Melton Memorial Observatory or the telescope would be greatly appreciated.