AAF grant recipient and Dean of Studies Caroline Odden and John Briggs ’77
March 13, 2024

The return of the Abbot Telescope

John Briggs ’77 and the Abbot Academy Fund bring the iconic instrument home
by Jill Clerkin

“It was like stepping into a time machine that carried me back a century,” recalls John Briggs ’77, perhaps the last Andover student to visit the Abbot Observatory and explore the sky with the school’s historic telescope.

The five-inch refracting telescope was purchased in 1875 from esteemed optics maker Alvan Clark & Sons for $1,200—thanks to the mighty fundraising efforts of Abbot Academy astronomy teacher Mary Belcher. Students, faculty, and townspeople alike welcomed the sophisticated scientific instrument with great excitement and curiosity.

Readily visible from his childhood home on the south coast of Massachusetts, the star-studded Milky Way sparked Briggs’s early interest in astronomy. “The Space Race was just beginning,” he says. “Once I saw things like meteors and eclipses, I was totally hooked!”

While reassembling the Abbot telescope in its new home in the lobby of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, astronomer John Briggs drew a small crowd and delightedly answered student questions. He is pictured at the top of the story with AAF grant recipient and Dean of Studies Caroline Odden. Photos by Neil Evans.

This telescope can show you Saturn and its rings—about a billion miles away—at a level of detail that first-timers find nearly unbelievable.

John Briggs ’77

An Abbot Academy student looks into the telescope at its former location in Abbot Hall. Image courtesy of the Phillips Academy Archives.

The Thornton Observatory at Evans Hall, which Briggs noticed during a campus tour, was a big factor in his decision to attend Andover. When a few of his ninth-grade classes were held on the Abbot campus, he happily discovered the observatory atop Abbot Hall and visited several times.

In early 1974, following the merger, the Abbot telescope was sold and Briggs helped disassemble and pack it up for the new owner. Eight years later, Briggs, who had begun collecting astronomical antiquities himself, acquired the Abbot telescope. He went on to become a renowned astronomer and instrumentation engineer who used the finest computerized telescopes at observatories around the world. But the manually operated Abbot telescope, “a work of art as much as it is of technology,” he says, remained his sentimental favorite.

Last fall, an Abbot Academy Fund (AAF) grant awarded to Dean of Studies Caroline Odden enabled the purchase of the telescope, and in mid-February Briggs personally drove it from his home in New Mexico to the Andover campus.

“A jewel of Abbot’s campus, the telescope symbolizes the school’s early commitment to educating girls in the sciences,” says Beth Humstone ’66, AAF board president. “Its prominent placement in the library is yet another reminder of Abbot’s legacy at Andover on this 50th anniversary of the merger of the schools.”

For more about Abbot & Andover at 50, which celebrates 50 years of learning and growth since the merger of Abbot Academy and Phillips Academy, visit www.andover.edu/thennownext.

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