The Indiana University astronomy department was founded in 1885 by John A. Miller, who was keen to build an observatory. In 1886, he persuaded the State of Indiana to put up the funds to build the Kirkwood Observatory, which was constructed in 1900 and dedicated in 1901 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Old construction records show that the observatory was built for $7517, which would translate to about $750,000 today. $6516 of the total cost went toward building the telescope; the 12" lens was designed by the John A. Brashear company, one of the nation's top optical firms of the day.
Miller wanted the observatory built because he wanted to do research on visual double stars, and the Kirkwood Observatory's lens was designed specifically for that purpose. It enabled him and other researchers to visually track and measure twin stars to figure out what their orbits were.
At the time, the Kirkwood Observatory's 12" telescope was high technology; it was the largest in the state, and there weren't many bigger telescopes around the country. But telescope technology improved and Miller left IU in 1906, so the Kirkwood Observatory began to lose its scientific edge. It was an active research scope until about 1910, and thereafter it has been a teaching tool for the university, since it is still excellent for viewing brighter objects like the moon and the larger planets.
But since 1910, IU astronomers have used other telescopes for their research. In 1948, Dr. Goethe Link, an Indianapolis physician, gave the university an observatory near Mooresville that houses a 36" reflecting telescope. In 1966, IU built an $80,000 robotic telescope in the Morgan-Monroe state forest.
Though these other telescopes eclipse the 12" in the research arena, the astronomy department has not neglected its first observatory. In 1980, the astronomy department spent about $130,000 to recondition the dome and give the Kirkwood Observatory a second eye to the heavens: a solar telescope.
The solar scope does not reside inside the dome; instead, it points out at the North Star from the side of the observatory, looking like a giant white Q-tip. It works very much like a pinhole camera.
If you want to visit the Kirkwood Observatory, you can find it hiding in a wooded hollow behind the IU Law School off Kirkwood Avenue. The observatory is currently closed due to dome renovation, but when it's open, the astronomy department regularly holds weeknight open houses for visitors who want to take a peek through the scope.