A Creation of His Own

Tappan's Detroit Observatory
Patricia S. Whitesell
Brings to life the fascinating story of this physical legacy of the University of Michigan's first president, Henry Philip Tappan


The year was 1852. The University of Michigan was about to embark upon an exciting period of its history, led by one of the most dynamic, visionary leaders in the history of higher education—and an observatory was one of his first orders of business. The Detroit Observatory was completed in 1854 and named to honor the city of its major benefactors. Reflecting on his great achievement years later, President Henry Philip Tappan wrote: "I cannot speak of the Observatory without emotion. No one will deny that it was a creation of my own."

A Creation of His Own: Tappan's Detroit Observatory delves deeply into the Observatory's early biographical, architectural, and scientific history. It is a fascinating exploration of the historical context of Tappan's efforts to implement progressive educational ideas on the Michigan frontier. Tappan's success in building the Observatory would result from a magical matching of scientific and applied interests: Tappan would have his scientific research laboratory, and the Friends of Science in Detroit would benefit from the applied uses of astronomical science. The book provides significant previously unpublished information and over 100 photographs and illustrations that bring to life the fascinating story of this physical legacy of the University of Michigan's first President.

Today, the Detroit Observatory is one of the most perfectly preserved early observatories in the country. Its original 1854 Pistor & Martins meridian circle telescope and astronomical clock by Tiede, which were purchased by Tappan in Berlin, and the 1857 American-made Henry Fitz refracting telescope are all intact and operational. The 1997-98 historic restoration of the Observatory is also chronicled in the book, with photographs and descriptions of the painstaking work, including the restoration of the telescopes.

Patricia S. Whitesell, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Detroit Observatory. She is a historian of higher education, astronomy, and the evolution of the physical campus, and a specialist in historic preservation.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . a subtly woven historical tapestry outlining the early beginnings of astronomy, science, education, and industry in this country. . . . There are many monographs concerned with observatories, but this definitive work is one of the few volumes devoted to the complete history of such a facility. As such, it relates to the history and development of other observatories in early America. This book combines first class research with an excellent story that captures the reader from the beginning. It is highly recommended. reading."
    —Robert B. Ariail, Antique Telescope Society
  • "Patricia Whitesell masterfully weaves history and science into a fascinating narrative about what first U-M President Henry Philip Tamman felt was his greatest contribution to the University: the Detroit Observatory. . . . [She] succeeds in bringing Tappan vividly to life, helping us to see what educational strides he brought to the University. She nicely places the history of astronomy in the U.S. and its status in nineteenth-century education, with its place in U-M history. This highly readable account of an important part of the U-M's past is one you'll want to add to your library."
    Michigan Alumnus, Late Summer 1999

Product Details

  • 6-1/4 x 9-1/4.
  • 250pp.
  • illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 1999
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-59006-3

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  • $58.00 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 1998
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-59007-0

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  • $24.95 U.S.