Milwaukee Astronomical Society

 

Ralph Buckstaff

1887-1980

Ralph Buckstaff PortraitRalph Noyes Buckstaff was a long time Milwaukee Astronomical Society member who passed away on November 2, 1980, at the age of 93. He was a member of the MAS for 46 years. And he was an important member of our club, even though he resided in Oshkosh!

Ralph Buckstaff was born in Oshkosh and after attending Oshkosh Normal School, he went on to graduate from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, in 1912 where he studied furniture design.

Buckstaff apparently had a love of nature early in his life as he was interested in ornithology, entomology, and meteorology. Astronomy, however, was really not a great interest as that would come later. His profession was a cabinet maker and he didn't have much choice of career because furniture was the family business, the Buckstaff Furniture Company, and it was always assumed that one day he would take it over. And he did becoming the companies President.

His interest in astronomy was ignited because of the return of Halley's Comet which was particularly exciting because the Earth would pass through the tail of that comet. This event prompted him to buy his first telescope, a 3-inch refractor. In 1918 he made an 8-inch reflector. Around 1920-21 he built his first rotating domed observatory on his property to house that instrument. Soon after he acquired a 12-inch reflector and a second domed observatory was added. Finally, he added a third domed observatory in a tall structure which housed his 3-inch refractor.

With his 12-inch reflector he made quite a few drawings of Mars during the 55.78 million km close approach of 1924.

Mars during the 1924 opposition

Mars on August 30, 1924

1924 Mars Opposition Collage

Mars Opposition of 1924 - Collage



At some point Buckstaff replaced the 8-inch reflector with a 5 inch refractor which he would use exclusively for solar observations and specifically sunspot counting.

Buckstaff's Solar Scope - Buckstaff at right

At the eyepiece of the solar telescope. Buckstaff at the right.

Buckstaff's Solar Telescope

Buckstaff's 5 inch solar telescope.

Buckstaff's Observatoriest

Buckstaff's 3 Observatory Domes

Buckstaff's 3rd Scope in a Dome

Buckstaff's 3-inch refractor in the tall dome.

Buckstaff joined the Milwaukee Astronomical Society (MAS) in 1934 and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) in 1929. He observed variable stars for the AAVSO and reported 11,013 estimates. He also contributed his sunspot counts to their Solar Section.

Buckstaff's 16 inch Cassegrain reflector

16 inch Cassegrain reflector completed after World War II.

Buckstaff's Observatory

Observatory showing his weather stations.

MAS B-Scope / Buckstaff Telescope

Buckstaff's 12" reflector now at the MAS Observatory.

Sometime during the late 1930's, Buckstaff wanted a larger telescope to replace the 12". He decided on a 16 inch telescope, but of the Cassegrain design. The construction, however, was delayed due to the outbreak of World War II. MAS B-Scope PlagueAfter the war and construction resumed he informed the MAS that he would donate the old 12 inch to our club. By 1947 that scope was in our possession and would dictate the construction of an observatory building to house it. In 1961 the scope was officially designated the Ralph N. Buckstaff Telescope. It would also become known as its unofficial name: B-Scope.

Despite residing in Oshkosh, Buckstaff was not only a member of our club, he was fairly active. He participated in observing programs, donated money, and had two terms on the Board of Directors. And in 1946 served as our Vice-President. As recognition for his many contributions, in 1948 Buckstaff was awarded Founder Member status and thus became a lifetime MAS Member.

Buckstaff at the Observatory dedication in 1938

Buckstaff with Prinslow and Armfield - Obs. Dedication

Ralph Buckstaff with the staff of the MAS in 1951

1951 - Board of Directors group taken in the Monastary. Buckstaff is standing, second from left.

Buckstaff attending the 1966 AAVSO Annual Meeting in Massachusetts.Besides the MAS, Buckstaff was also a member of the AAVSO (joining in 1929) where he served on their Council from 1945-1949 and again from 1954-1963. He was the President from 1958-1960. And he attended many meetings. In 1965 Buckstaff was awarded the AAVSO Merit Award "...in recognition of his outstanding service to astronomy, his many years with this Association as Officer and observer, and his contribution to the scientific life of his community and state."

He was also a member of and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Astronomical League.

His observatory and property were deeded to the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 1965 so well before he passed away, and he continued to live in the residence. With his death it was hoped that the university could make good use of the equipment and facilities. But that did not happen and eventually they sold the property. Then in 2010 or 2011 the observatory buildings were dismantled and moved. So, sadly, the Buckstaff Observatory at the Milwaukee Astronomica Society is the legacy of his observatory.

A Man of Many Interests

Astronomy was just one of Buckstaff's many interests. His other interests also included meteorology, archeology, ornithology, biology, geology, ethnology and history. For about 60 years of Ralph Buckstaff's life, he was a member of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts & Letters (WASAL), having joined in 1922. In 1954 he became a Patron member, and he also was elected President for the year 1954-55. He served on the Council many years and was an Honorary Life member almost two decades.

Buckstaff Planetarium at University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh Although he was a businessman (he retired as President of the Buckstaff Furniture Company of Oshkosh in 1958) his primary avocation was in scientific research, astronomy, meteorology and entomology. In his message to Academy members in the summer of 1954, he pointed out the organization's traditional history of support for scientific inquiry in Wisconsin. He kept the official daily weather records for Oshkosh 56 years and received special honors from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce on his 40 and 50 year anniversaries of service to the Weather Bureau. In 1920 he began building a private astronomical observatory in Oshkosh which was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites. In 1965 he deeded this property to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and they eventually named their planetarium building in his honor.

Buckstaff Planetarium interiorHe was a long time affiliate of the Oshkosh Public Museum which started in 1924 and served on the Museum Board of Directors for 51 years. He was the Museum's founding Curator of Natural History. Over the years Buckstaff collected 278 meteorites and more than 4,000 insects which he gave to the Museum.

He was a charter member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for over 50 years. In addition, he was a veteran member and leader of several groups, the Milwaukee Astronomical Society, Astronomical League and American Association of Variable Star Observers. When President, he contributed two important articles to the Wisconsin Academy Review, "A Snowstorm on Mars," and "A Businessman Looks at Nature," which was the subject of his Presidential Address at WASAL's 85th Annual Meeting. He also wrote an article on "Meteorites" for an issue of the Wisconsin Academy Review in 1962.

Other memberships included: Wisconsin Historical Society, Meteorological Society, Wisconsin Archeological Society, Winnebago County Historical Society, and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

Walter Scott of the WASAL wrote in Buckstaff's obituary, "Ralph Noyes Buckstaff was the epitome of a scientific citizen and worked to communicate his interests to students of all ages--giving generously of his time and talents."

Weather / Meteorolgy

As much as he loved astronomy and his other interests, arguably tracking the weather became his greatest. He appears to have started active gathering and recording data around 1924 as an outgrowth of his astronomy activities, something any amateur astronomer can relate. He did this every day, driving home once or twice a day to take the readings or to and when he wasn't able to because of his business or traveling, his caretaker who lived in a cottage who lived on the property would make the readings.

Scattered around his property were instruments to measure the weather: an aanemometer, rain gauge, thermometers, and barometers. Buckstaff always carried a notebook so no matter where he was he could record the results of visual observations which require no weather instruments like whether the sun was shining, or it was cloudy, fog, mist, and the hours that rain was falling.

The massive amounts of data he collected that he plotted on graphs and charts were shared with the National Weather Service in Washington.