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Boyhood Hobby Grows into Amazing Astronomy Gift



Robert B. Ariail

With care, attention, and a deep fascination for the skies, USC alumnus Robert B. Ariail put together a major collection of astronomy books, documents, telescopes and equipment. In September 2011, it was announced that he had given those treasures to the University of South Carolina Libraries and the South Carolina State Museum.

The Robert B. Ariail Collection of Historical Astronomy began innocently enough. Ariail was in the third grade when his teacher introduced the class to the topic of astronomy. He used William Tyler Alcott’s Field Book of the Skies as a source for a class project, and checked that book out of the library many times. Years later, he bought his own copy.

From the Ariail Collection:
The 1730 Passemant telescope, which is
housed at the South Carolina State Library, along with
the collection's other telescopes and instruments.

“If you just look at one telescope or one star atlas, you’ll know the fascination they have for me,” Ariail said. “They are so beautiful, and they open up the world. And when you think about the people who have used these things throughout time, and you think about their skill, their talent, their intellect . . . it’s just amazing. I want to preserve the collection so it can be used by amateurs, scholars, writers, whoever is interested in the topic. The State Museum and the USC Libraries will do that.”

The collection is astounding: more than 5,000 rare books, star atlases, manuscripts and other items are to be housed at USC’s Hollings Library, and 200 antique and modern telescopes and other astronomical instruments are to be housed at the State Museum. Some of the items in the collection date back nearly 500 years. The telescope collection is considered among the best collections of American telescopes, and the book collection is the best collection of historical astronomy in the Southeastern United States, authorities say.

From the Ariail Collection:
Astronomer and telescope maker Claude Simeon Passemant's 1738 book,
Construction d'un telescope de reflexion de seize ponces de longueur,
shows the 1730 telescope.

“Robert Ariail has put together a collection of astonishing proportions, not only the finest assembly anywhere of early American telescopes, but a library to match,” said Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and history of science at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “With respect to popular astronomy of the 19th century, his book collection rivals, and in critical areas exceeds, the Library of Congress itself.” Gingerich surprised his friend Ariail by contributing a rare volume to the collection: Norton’s Star Atlas, a set of 16 celestial charts first published in 1910.

The oldest book in the collection is the earliest printed star atlas, compiled in 1540 by Alessandro Piccolomini, titled De la sfera del mondo. Other items include Johann Bayer’s Uranometria (1603), the first atlas to cover the entire celestial sphere; Sir Isaac Newton’s book Opticks (1718), in which Newton first showed a prism as a beam expander and multiple prism arrays, important concepts in the further development of the modern telescope; and a copy of the largest 18th-century star atlas, Atlas Coelestis (1753), by John Flamsteed.

From the Ariail Collection:
Plate 40 from John Bevis' Atlas Celeste, or The Celestial Atlas (1786).

The collection also includes an original manuscript written by William Stukeley, a colleague of Sir Isaac Newton. In the 1752 manuscript, Stukeley expands on his conversations with Newton and provides detail on his theory of the Milky Way, which predates other scholarship on the topic by 30 years.

Perhaps the rarest item in the collection is The Celestial Atlas, created by 18th-century British astronomer John Bevis.

“The book is so rare because Bevis was working with a printer to create the atlas when the printer went bankrupt and production stopped,” explained Dr. Patrick Scott, retired director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Hollings Library. “Of the roughly 25 copies that survive worldwide, several are incomplete, and it appears that no more than four have all the plates, both title-pages, and the index.” One of those four now resides in the Ariail Collection.

“This collection is important for teaching and research, and it will provide students and researchers a unique understanding of this area of study,” said Tom McNally, USC Libraries Dean. “It provides a 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’.”

Learn more, and see digitized versions of manuscripts from the collection, at

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Reflections, a University of South Carolina Libraries publication.