When people say Robert “Bob” Ariail has his head in the clouds, he takes it as a compliment. Bob, now 79, has been a serious stargazer since his third grade teacher mentioned one day that the class was going to study astronomy.
“I didn’t know what she meant at first,” says Bob. “But after we started talking about it, I became extremely interested. I began checking out books from the library. I soon became addicted to astronomy. After it gets you in its grasp, it’s hard to get it out of your system.”
Bob continued to read, study and analyze astronomy as an aggressive hobby for more than 70 years. His first telescope was made of cardboard and equipped with a mirror for reflection of the image being viewed. His first astronomy books were basic textbooks. However, as his passion grew, so did his collection.
When Bob told Jill Parker he had some telescopes and astronomy books at his house that he wanted her to look at, she remembers thinking, “That’s nice.” Jill, a hair stylist and business owner, first met Bob 25 years when they worked out at the YMCA together. Today, she not only cuts his hair, but she also considers him to be a dear friend.
“What he had at his home I had never seen before,” Jill says. “He is such a quiet, unassuming man, but what he had in his study and on his bookshelves was a fortune in centuries-old books and antique telescopes. When I saw that one book was written during Sir Isaac Newton’s time, I almost fainted. It’s truly astounding what he has collected. I was blown away.”
Equally impressed was Dr. Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and history of science at Harvard University. He and Bob first met in the 1980s when Bob asked for Owen’s assistance finding a specific book, and he was guest speaker at the opening of “Mapping the Heavens: An Exhibition Introducing the Robert B. Ariail Collection of Historical Astronomy,” which was on display at the University of South Carolina’s Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library Sept. 13 through Oct. 31.
Bob’s entire collection, which he donated to USC and the State Museum, is called the “Robert B. Ariail Collection of Historical Astronomy” and includes more than 5,200 rare books and star atlases, scientific journals, rare offprints and manuscripts, historic and modern telescopes, as well as binoculars, lenses and other scientific equipment. Some items date back 500 years.
“Robert Ariail put together a vintage collection of astonishing proportions,” Owen says. “It is the finest assembly anywhere of American telescopes. With respect to popular astronomy of the 19th century, his book collection rivals, and in critical areas exceeds, the Library of Congress.”
He adds, “It’s just amazing that this collection was put together by an individual. There’s such considerable depth. I have to say that I’m intensely jealous.”
Bob’s passion for finding old books on astronomy and collecting telescopes was first ignited when he found an old brass telescope and learned to restore it. He spent much time researching antique telescopes, including ones by Henry Fitz, America’s first commercial telescope builder in the 1800s, and he restored an 1849 Fitz telescope from Erskine College that is now housed in the State Museum.
He also had, according to Owen, the world’s largest collection of 19th century telescopes made by Alvan Clark and Sons, the premiere maker of refracting telescopes in the world.
Robert “Bob” Ariail’s collection of historic telescopes, some of which date back to 1730, are on display in the Palmetto Gallery at the SC State Museum.
Tom Falvey, director of education and curator of science and technology for the State Museum, says, “This is a collection that was amassed over a lifetime. It is priceless. The historic scopes, which date back to 1730, were individually made, not mass-produced. This collection could not be duplicated anywhere in the world.”
Bob’s donation formed what USC President Harris Pastides calls a “partnership.” He explains, “Each part of this collection has landed in its rightful place. The curators at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library will be caring stewards of these wonderful documents and books and will ensure that they are accessible for students of history and astronomy around the world.”
The collection includes an elaborate book that has superimposed, moveable circles or wheels designed for calculating the movements and positions of planets and constellations. Many of the books are hand-colored and one book, the collection’s oldest, dates to 1540.
There is also a manuscript written by William Stukeley, a contemporary and colleague of Sir Isaac Newton. In the manuscript are theories about the Milky Way. “The Stukeley manuscript is special because Stukeley idolized Newton and they worked together,” says Bob. “He would bring his manuscripts for Newton to review. Newton was the top name in all of astronomy.”
Tom McNally, USC’s dean of libraries, says the collection provides a unique understanding of the study of astronomy. “It provides historical and artistic dimension to a scientific field and is a reminder that, in every field of study, achievements are built, as Sir Isaac Newton said, ‘on the shoulders of giants.’”
Bob continued what he calls his “advanced hobby” even after he married his wife, Patricia, and became a partner in an insurance company. He kept detailed journals about what he learned and observed over the years at various observatories. “I did so much visual astronomy work with those antique telescopes as well as modern telescopes. Plus, the books provided a world of information.”
Today he still dabbles in astronomy. He kept a few telescopes and reads extensively. “This collection evolved. By keeping it together as a collection, I’m hoping people will get enjoyment out of it and that researchers will learn from it.”
Tom Falvey says, “This world-class collection will attract historians, researchers, astrophysicists, and other scientists, plus hobbyists, from every corner of the planet.”
Many of Robert’s telescopes are on open display in the State Museum’s fourth-floor Palmetto Gallery and will be joined in the future by the remainder of the telescope collection in a large, designated space being planned by the museum. There is no extra charge to view the exhibit. Information about the exhibit is available on a special link on the State Museum website: www.museum.state.sc.us. A special exhibit of the books ended Oct. 31 at USC. However, the books are accessible to any reader or researcher who visits the Reading Room for Rare Books in the Hollings Library, which is attached to the Thomas Cooper Library on the campus of USC. Anyone can request a tour of the collection by contacting Elizabeth Sudduth, associate director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at email@example.com. There is also a website for the collection: http://library.sc.edu./ariail.