General Astronomy classes were instituted in the very early years ofthe University, but not until 1946 did the University possess a significant telescope. In that year the Bausch & Lomb Company gave to the University a 10.5-inch refractor, formerly the property of Carl L. Bausch. The telescope was designed by George Saegmuller, a B&L designer, in 1912. The telescope had stood on the top of a B&L building in Rochester, New York, until about 1941.
Housing for the telescope became possible when in 1949 the University of Colorado received a bequest of $49,054 from the estate of Mrs. Mayme Sommers im memory of her husband Elmer E. Sommers. These funds were to be used to construct an observatory building. The Sommers-Bausch Observatory was built in adapted rural Italian style to match most of the buildings on campus. The new building was dedicated on August 27, 1953, during the 89th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
The Observatory was operated under the directorship of Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, jointly owned by the University of Colorado and the High Altitude Observatory of Harvard University, which already had an observing station in Climax, Colorado, and offices on the CU campus. The Observatory was used by CU classes and for public night viewing. In addition it was used for part of the HAO offices until the adjacent building was constructed for HAO in 1960. Sunspot observations were made in conjunction with the HAO station in Climax, and the room under the dome was used for radio communication with Climax and with the observatory at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico.
Teaching and research in astronomy greatly developed in the 1960's, under the acting directorships of various faculty members of the Department of Astro-Geophysics (since named the Department of Astrophysical, Planetary, and Atmospheric Sciences, and now called the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, or APS), including Dr. Roy Garstang, long- time proponent and supporter of observational astronony at CU. As the General Astronomy classes steadily increased in size, there was also a feeling that additional facilities were needed to provide training for graduate students before they went to a larger observatory for observing runs.
In 1971 the University received a $164,000 grant from the Science Development Program of the National Science Foundation to purchase a new telescope. Originally it had been intended to acquire the telescope from the Ealing Corporation. Eventually it was decided to purchase a 24-inch cassegrain-coude reflector from the Boller & Chivens Company (a division of Perkin-Elmer Corporation) at a cost of $132,000. Auxiliary equipment and building modifications brought the total cost to approximately $205,000. The telescope was installed in 1973 in the original SBO dome.
The 10.5-inch Bausch telescope was removed and dismantled, the mounting being placed in the lobby of the newly-constructed Fiske Planetarium as an exhibit (it is still there). The objective glass was used to construct a solar telescope which was installed on the roof of the Duane Physics Building under the direction of Dr. Don Billings, a member of the original HAO solar observing group. The heliostat was purchased from Carson Astronomical Instruments for $39,600, of which $27,000 was for the heliostat itself and the remainder for auxiliary equipment.
Dr. Bruce Bohannan became Observatory Director in 1974, and in 1979 secured a grant of $360,000 from the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation to construct a 4,000 square foot addition to the building. Ground breaking took place on January 24, 1980, and construction was completed in 1981. The addition provided four darkrooms (the original darkroom being converted into a reading room), a laboratory, several offices, a workshop, and a large open observing deck. The solar telescope was moved back from the Duane Physics Building and re-erected in the new addition.
In 1980 the Foundation made an additional grant of $135,000 for the purchase of an 18-inch cassegrain reflector from DFM Engineering of Longmont, Colorado. The new telescope was installed in 1982 on the observing deck under a temporary roll-away shed instead of a dome.
In 1986 the University provided $118,000 to consruct a roll-off roof over 1200 square feet of the new addition observing deck, to afford greatly-improved protection for the 18-inch and to provide cover for a second telescope. A 16-inch DFM reflector was subsequently acquired with University funds, and the roof and telescope were dedicated on February 12, 1987.
That same year a Texas Instruments 800x800 pixel charge-coupled detector (CCD) was acquired from the National Science Foundation, which was installed in a Photometrics camera control unit, and interfaced with a Sun 3/180 computer. The cost of the new equipment and associated ancillaries was covered by $70,000 from University funds and an equipment grant from Sun Microsystems Corporation. The acquisition enables the Observatory to enter the modern age of electronic astronomy.
In 1989 the APAS Department introduced the combined lab/lecture Introduction to Astronomy course series, which greatly expanded daytime and nighttime involvement at the Observatory by undergraduate students.
Dr. Catharine Garmany became the new Director of Sommers-Bausch Observatory and Fiske Planetarium in 1991, and has continued to promote improved facilities for undergraduate astronomy education. The past several years have seen a heliostat upgrade to provide imaging of the solar chromosphere (from the CU President's Fund for Information Technology); a satellite downlink (now superseded by internet data) providing minute-by-minute solar x-ray flux readings and forecasts, courtesy Dr. Allen Kiplinger, who coordinates world-wide solar flare monitoring campaigns from the 18-inch at SBO; acquisition of a new Sun Sparc10 computer; extensive new undergraduate lab equipment including an SBIG ST-6 CCD camera; in the summer of 1994, a refurbishment of the aging 18-inch telescope control system (funded by $20,000 from the student laboratory course fees); and in the fall of 1995, a similar upgrade to the 16" telescope ($9,000 from the student lab fees).
In 1997, the Observatory was partially renovated to make room for an astronomy computer lab facility. Two of the four conventional photography darkrooms were converted, along with additional space, into a 3000 square foot area where thirteen computers are now stationed. Although formal lab exercises using the computer systems are just now being developed, the lab is already used extensively by undergraduate and graduate students alike for a variety of purposes - some related to astronomy, some not. Also this past year the Observatory has added a large-format autoguiding ST-8 CCD camera for use at the 24" telescope.