Today in Smithsonian History: February 3, 1853
Image of the Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle from the 1860s, probably taken by Mathew Brady’s Studio. There are several versions of this picture from slightly different angles and the picture is held by the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, among other repositories. The view is looking east from what is now Independence Avenue, but was B Street at the time the photograph was taken. A few houses along B Street, SW, can be seen to the right. People are standing along B Street, with a fence between the street and the “Smithsonian Park,” which had been landscaped according to a plan by landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The Castle is nestled among a stand of trees, far different than the stark flat Mall we know today. The Smithsonian’s Magnetic Observatory can been seen within the trees. The U.S. Capitol is in the distance, with downtown Washington behind the Castle.
February 3, 1853 The Board of Regents authorizes the expenditure of $1,100 to build a magnetic observatory on the Smithsonian grounds to measure the variations and intensity of the earth’s magnetic force. The observatory consists of a small, 12′ x 16 ‘ underground room and an above-ground portion, constructed of wood and designed to correspond somewhat to the architecture of the Smithsonian Institution Building. Jointly established by the Smithsonian and the U.S. Coast Survey, the observatory remained in operation until 1860, when the instruments were transferred to a Coast Survey station on Key West, Fla.
Established in 1890, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was one of the earliest observatories to practice the “new astronomy,” or astrophysics. Originally located behind the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle, in 1955, the Observatory moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has observing stations in Arizona, Hawaii, and Massachusetts. This photo shows buildings in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle), including the small building on the left used by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives
Posted: 3 February 2017