History of Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium
James Irving Holcomb (right) standing next to the optical tube
assembly just before it was hoisted into the dome of the
When Butler University was located in Irvington on the east side
of Indianapolis, Joseph I. Irwin, a member of the Butler University
board of trustees from Columbus, IN, gave the university its first
observatory. It was a small round building made of sheet metal with
a dome and an opening in which the 6-inch refracting telescope
could be placed while being used.
After Butler University was moved to the north side if
Indianapolis in 1928, the telescope was dismantled and stored, and
the Irvington observatory was torn down. In the 1930s the telescope
was repaired and remounted by Will Irwin, the son of Joseph I.
Irwin and also a member of the board of trustees.
However, during the World War II courses in astronomy were
discontinued and the telescope was not used until October of 1945
when the Math club had the privilege of using it.
This picture shows the support structure for the telescope
pier Note the highlighted region where the pier will sit. This
structure does not come in contact with the rest of the building so
that vibration of the telescope is minimized.
In April of 1953, Indianapolis industrialist and vice president
of the Butler board of trustees James Irving Holcomb and his wife,
gave $250,000 to the university for the construction of an
observatory as a gift for the university's centennial celebration.
The observatory was intended for public use and student learning.
Initially the observatory was supposed to house a 24-inch telescope
valued at $30,000 in 1953 dollars, but in October of 1953 a larger
38-inch mirror was available and Holcomb jumped at the chance to
have the largest telescope in the state of Indiana and the ninth
largest in the United States. This raised the cost of the telescope
to $48,500 and the total project cost to $325,000. In October of
1954 the telescope was installed by J.W. Fecker, Inc. The telescope and
assemblage was shipped to Indianapolis from Pittsburgh by truck.
Installation of the telescope in the 50 foot high dome was done by
crane (even today a crane must be used to get the 600 pound mirror
from the dome to ground level for resurfacing every five years).
Governor George N. Craig delivered the dedicatory address and
Charles F. Kettering, vice president and director of General Motors
Corporation, spoke at the dedication dinner on November 5th 1954.
The observatory was placed on a high knoll on the north end of the
Butler academic campus, adjacent to the woods of the Holcomb
Gardens. The observatory is visible from 38th street and to
motorist driving northward on Clarendon Road.
This picture shows the dome just before completion. The
original dome was made of wood. After several decades of Indiana
weather the dome was replaced with the current aluminum dome.
In addition to the telescope, the observatory has a lobby, clock
room, class room, and planetarium. The lobby is considered by
designers as the "showplace" of the building. This is a 14 foot
replica of the zodiac done in brilliantly colored terrazzo on the
floor. Ceiling spotlights emphasize the design and colors. A
cantilever stairway, also bearing zodiac and planet signs in iron,
winds upward to the dome and telescope. Along the stairway and on
the landings are 20 lighted cases containing images from telescopes
and spacecraft. The planetarium is both a laboratory and theater,
used to examine the motion of celestial objects and learn the
location and motions of these objects. The entire celestial sphere
can be projected, making it look as if you were outside far away
from the light pollution of Indianapolis. The day or night sky can
be presented, and we can accelerate time and motions of celestial
objects to view the past or future. The planetarium equipment
consist of Spitz A3P projector which was installed in 1981 and can
seat 60 visitors. The projector is controlled by the operator at
the north end of the planetarium. The planetarium has many special
features and audio visual equipment that make an evening at the
planetarium entertaining as well as educational for people of all
In 1995, Butler University began the first phases to upgrade the
38-inch telescope. The telescope was mechanically and
structurally sound but was difficult for the observer to use. The
refurbishment of the telescope was done by AB Engineering of Ft
Wayne, Indiana. Slewing motors were added to the telescope so that
it no longer had to be moved by hand and to allow computer
controlled pointing of the telescope. The University hired AB
Engineering of Ft. Wayne, Ind., for the upgrade. This refurbishment
of the telescope was finished in April 1997. The upgrade made
deep imaging possible; celestial objects 6 million times fainter
than the human eye can be detected through the Holcomb Telescope.
The telescope has been used for both introductory and advanced
courses and several student research projects, particularly for
determining critical asteroid rotation rates, examining variability
of dying supergiant stars, and following transiting exoplanets.
In 2008 , Butler University strengthened its astronomy program
by joining the SARA consortium, thanks to
a donation by F. Levinson. This consortium of 10 universities
possesses two 1-meter class telescopes, one at Kitt Peak, Ariz.,
and the other at Cerro Tololo, Chile. Having remote access to these
telescopes has provided Butler students, at all levels and majors,
with the unique experiences of being an astronomer and
participating in original astronomical research.
During 2012 the Holcomb telescope and dome of
the observatory will once again be overhauled. Primary items to
be addressed in this overhaul are the optics of the
telescope. The telescopes focal ratio will be reduced from
and f/16 to an f/8. This reduction of focal ratio will
quadruple the field of view of the telescope. The dome will
also have failsafe mechanisms allowing it and the telescope to be
used remotely. One key goal of the proposed refurbishment is
to have the Holcomb Telescope operations be identical to those of
the SARA telescopes, so that our students can use the same seamless
interface when observing. This overhaul will be completed
by Astronomical Consultants & Equipment,
Inc. They have upgraded over 30 telescopes including
two similar Fecker telescopes, one for the University of Georgia
and one for Agnes Scott College. This overhaul is once again
possible due to a generous donation by F. Levinson.