Astronomy pops up in unexpected places. Consider, for example, this fantastic old refracting telescope:
This telescope has an aperture of roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters). The tube appears to be brass. The telescope has a very stout wooden case, visible in the picture above. The picture below gives another view of the telescope, the case (now open), and an eyepiece for the telescope (lying to the left of the telescope).
By now you have probably noticed the telescope’s surroundings, namely the monstrances and crucifix on display in the background. Why is an old telescope sitting on a table, surrounded by religious articles? Because this is the telescope of Monsignor Michael Bouchet (1827 to 1903), former vicar-general of the Diocese of Louisville, Kentucky. It is housed within the Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget Library, which itself is part of the Archdiocesan History Center of Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption. Tim Tomes, a parishioner at the Cathedral who does a lot of work with the History Center, introduced me to the telescope this past December.
The telescope is still functional. I got to look through it and can testify that this telescope and eyepiece produce a good image, although the telescope’s focusing mechanism is stiff and seems to be somewhat gummed up. The mount for the telescope is lost—my view through the telescope was of the lights in the parking garage adjacent to the Cathedral, a view obtained with the telescope lying on a table. Nevertheless, it was very cool to think that Tomes and I might well have been the first people to have looked through Bouchet’s telescope in over a century, even if all we were looking at was just a parking garage light!
Bouchet himself must have been an interesting character. Among other things he was both an inventor (he constructed and patented a mechanical adding machine, which is on display in the History Center) and a science fiction writer (he wrote a story about a trip to the Moon).
Bouchet’s combination of interests—technology, astronomy, science fiction—is a combination found in many astronomers today, be they amateurs or professionals. Bouchet’s obituary noted, “Never was there a more singular, a more eccentric, a more contrarily gifted man who used his gifts and his winning personality so little to his own purposes…. He was at once both sage and child.”
I imagine Monsignor Bouchet would be most pleased to know that he is being remembered on account of his telescope—and that someone was looking through it well more than a century after his death. There is a reasonable chance that this telescope is the oldest operational telescope in Kentucky, almost certainly the oldest that is “Kentucky-born,” and I imagine Bouchet would be very pleased by that as well.
Information about Bouchet comes from the History Center and from An American Holy Land: A History of the Archdiocese of Louisville by Clyde F. Crews (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1987).