Halley’s Comet

Soon after the turn of the century an astronomical event of major scientific as well as popular interest stirred the citizens of Honolulu: the predicted appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910. By public subscription an observatory was built on Ocean View Drive in Kaimuki, which was then a suburb of Honolulu in the vicinity of Diamond Head.

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Physics student Barbara Jay in 1958 with the Kaimuki Observatory telescope.

A civic group known as the Kaimuki Improvement Association donated the site, which offered an excellent view of the sky. A six-inch refractor manufactured by Queen & Company of Philadelphia was placed in the observatory along with a very fine Seth Thomas sidereal clock and a three-inch meridian passage telescope. The observatory was operated by the fledgling College of Hawai`i, later to become the University of Hawai`i. The public purpose of the Kaimuki Observatory was served and Halley’s Comet was observed. But, unfortunately, the optics of the telescope were not good enough for serious scientific work.

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The Astronomical and Astrophysical Society’s Comet Halley observatory by Diamond Head in 1910.

Because of Hawai`i’s longitude (157º W) and low latitude (21º N), it was well situated for observing Halley’s Comet. The Comet Committee of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America determined to sponsor an expedition to Hawai`i to observe and measure the comet. Professor Ferdinand Ellerman of the Mt. Wilson Observatory made up the one-man expedition. With assistance from the U.S. Weather Bureau, the College of Hawai`i, and the U.S. Coast Guard, he set up a temporary observing shelter on the seaward slope of Diamond Head, not far from the Coast Guard’s Diamond Head Light House, and obtained an excellent series of observations.

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Comet Halley as photographed by Prof. Ellerman near Diamond Head in 1910

In 1916 Professor Arnold Romberg of the youthful physics department of the College of Hawai`i joined forces with Frank E. Midkiff, science instructor at Punahou School, to make observations of Mars at its close opposition. They moved the superior Punahou telescope to the Kaimuki Observatory, and there it stayed for the next forty years. It was used periodically by persons from the College of Hawai`i, and others as well. During 1917 to 1918 the telescope was used rather regularly by R.W. French, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and E.H. Bryan, Jr., of the Bishop Museum, both charter members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, to observe variable stars. During the following decades, the Kaimuki Observatory with the Punahou telescope was used mainly for educational purposes and public viewing of the skies. John S. Donaghho, professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Hawai`i, and Mr. Bryan took the leading role in attending to the observatory.

Alas, the ravages of time and termites eventually took their toll, and in 1958 the badly deteriorated structure of the Kaimuki Observatory was demolished.

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The Seth Thomas sidereal clock, now located in the UH Institute for Astronomy library. The large hand reads minutes, upper small hand, hours, and the lower small hand, seconds, of sidereal time, or time by the stars, as opposed to solar time. On the right is seen one of the two weights that drive the clock. They must be wound to the top once a week