During the 1900s Allegheny Observatory was one of the major astronomical research institutions of the world. It was originally conceived in 1859 when three citizens of Allegheny City who were interested in astronomy worked with 29 others to establish the “Allegheny Telescope Association.” In May 1867 it was donated to the Western University of Pennsylvania, which later became the University of Pittsburgh. In 1912 the Allegheny Observatory building was rebuilt and dedicated at its current site in Riverview Park, four miles north of the Golden Triangle (downtown Pittsburgh) and an eight mile bus trip from the University of Pittsburgh's Oakland Campus.
When Allegheny Observatory became established at the University of Pittsburgh, research became its primary function. Allegheny Observatory has a rich history in a variety of areas, and it became especially well-known for its astrometric parallax research program, which set the standard for measuring the distances to nearby stars. Similar observatories often used results from Allegheny Observatory as a calibration reference. This work was done with the 30-inch Thaw Refractor. Two other telescopes are currently housed at Allegheny Observatory: the 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor and an automated 16-inch Meade telescope, which replaced the original 31-inch Keeler Reflector. The Allegheny Observatory telescopes are now primarily used for teaching, research, and public outreach. Recently, Allegheny Observatory facilities have proved to be especially valuable for students who wish to gain a research experience in the STEPUP (Search for Transiting ExoPlanets at the University of Pittsburgh) program led by Professor Wood-Vasey. Beyond the many historic items, the Allegheny Observatory also houses a collection of more than 110,000 astrometric photographic plates taken with the Thaw Refractor, an all-sky camera used to monitor the weather at night, a seismograph linked to the national network, and a NASA All-Sky Fireball Camera used to track bright meteors.
Importantly, throughout its long history the Observatory has always been aware of its obligation to allow the public to become acquainted with the wonders of the night sky by arranging observing sessions through its telescopes and arranging for illustrated lectures. These public opportunities are summarized below.
Visiting the Observatory
Review the latest Allegheny Observatory Public Lecture Series held on the third Friday evening of the month, January through November. The public lectures are given by local scientists.
Public tours of the building are offered April through the end of October. These are not held November through March because of the potential for very cold temperatures inside the telescope domes (the same as the outside), and this can be a problem for many people. Even in the summer months clear nights can be quite chilly, so those visiting the Observatory should dress warmly. There are usually Thursday night tours held in May through August and Friday night tours held in April through October. All tours begin at 8:00 pm and last until approximately 10:00 pm. A short slide or film presentation is shown followed by a walking tour of the building, finally ending up at the 13" Fitz-Clark Refractor. If it's a clear night you’ll be shown some celestial objects observable with the telescope that night.
These tours and observing sessions are free of charge but you must have a reservation. For a reservation call (412) 321-2400 / (412) 321-2401 between 1:00 and 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday. If you call and someone doesn’t pick up, please leave your name and phone number and someone will return your call as soon as possible, usually within the next business day. If the tour is not full, reservations can be made up to the day of the tour, however no reservations will be accepted after 5:00 pm. Group or individual reservations are acceptable with a maximum group size of 45. We do not put any age restrictions on the tours but we do recommend that children under the age of seven be left at home, since their attention span is often too short and they can be disruptive to the rest of the group. The tour rules are as follows: Please do not enter any areas that are marked employees only. Do not open any doors that are closed. Do not go into any areas where the lights are off. You must stay with the group at all times. Wandering around the building is not permitted.
An annual advertised open house is held in the fall. It differs from the tours in that more of the building is opened to the public. Instead of having a tour guide, visitors follow a designated tour path around the building. Both of the 30-inch Thaw Refractor and the 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor are set up for public use, and members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh set up additional telescopes on the front lawn. You must call the above number to get tickets to the open house, but they are also free of charge.