William Smith

1818 -1912

Willliam Smith was born in 1818 in Canterbury, Kent, England. He and his brothers developed a very successful nursery business in Geneva in the mid 1800's. His legacy of generosity and business sense can be considered to have a pivotal role in Geneva's development. He was an organizer of the Standard Optical Company in 1883 and director of the First National Bank of Geneva. His name is appropriately recognized at the college that bears his name, William Smith College for women, as well as Smith Opera House and the Smith Observatory. He had the Smith Opera House built in 1894 and gave it to Hobart College in 1906.

Like other wealthy Victorians, Smith exhibited an interest in astronomy and astrology. Perhaps because of this interest, or because of the prestige of owning such a structure, Smith initially had a 'crude' observatory erected behind his 29 room mansion at 600 Castle Street.

Apparently not satisfied with this facility, he commissioned the professional Warner & Swasey building and prevailed upon William R. Brooks to direct it. He had hoped that it would serve as a beacon of enlightenment for the people of Geneva. He promoted free lectures offered by Dr. Brooks.

In 1907, five years prior to his death in 1912, Smith willed to Hobart College his mansion, the observatory and the house he had built for Brooks. Upon Brooks' death in 1921, his daughter, Anna, purchased the 'director's house' from Hobart and continued to live there until 1952, a total of 64 years.

William Smith died at the age of 93, just before the charter class of William Smith College was to graduate. Hobart and William Smith (HWS) colleges were joined as coordinate colleges.

To this day his legacy has an impact on his adopted home town of Geneva, N.Y.

William R. Brooks

1844 -1921

Willliam R. Brooks was born June 11, 1844 in Maidstone, Kent, England. In 1857 Brooks, his mother and his Baptist minister father immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Marion, N.Y.

After his marriage, he and his wife moved to Phelps, N.Y., where Brooks became the village photographer. An earlier voyage to Australia sparked Brooks' interest in astronomy as he watched the ship's captain make celestial observationswith a sextant. In Phelps, Brooks built his own telescopes and discovered his first comet in 1881. In the those days sizable awards were given for such discoveries. In 1886 he discovered 3 comets with his Phelps observatory.

Brooks' success as a 'comet finder' in Phelps attracted the attention of wealthy nurseryman William Smith. To lure Brooks to Geneva, Mr. Smith erected a state of the art observatory and a Victorian home for Brooks and his family. Besides making his observations and photographing celestial bodies from his new observatory, Brooks lectured and taught at Hobart College. His research at the Smith Observatory yielded the discovery of 16 more comets.

Brooks considered his greatest triumph was his observation of Pons's comet of 1812 during its first return. The record number of comet discoveries is held by Jean-Louis Pons (1761-1831), with 28 comets to his credit, followed by Brooks' 27. Of the two comets that bear Pons's name, the 12P Pons Brooks Comet is listed among Pons's discoveries.

By the time of his death on May 3, 1921, Brooks had been honored for his many accomplishments. He received medals from the Lick Observatory, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the International Jury at the St. Louis Exhibition, the Astronomical Society of Mexico and the Lalande Medal of the Paris Academy of Sciences. The winner of many awards and medals, Brooks had been named a Professor and Honorary Doctor of Science by Hobart College.

William R. Brooks

Portait on display in the Smith Observatory library.

William Smith

Images courtesy of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Archives

The Brooks House, present day
A postcard featuring the Smith mansion on the right, the observatory left of center and the Brooks home on the left. Circa 1900's.


Astronomical Society of the Pacific Medal

"This medal, founded A.D. MDCCCXC by Joseph A. Donohoe is presented to W.R. Brooks in commemoration of the discovery of a comet on October 16, 1893"

Astronomical Society of the Pacific

W. R. Brooks'
Red House Observatory
Phelps, N.Y.
Popular Illustrated Lectures
on the
Wonders of Astronomy

November 24, 1886 Agreement for Lens Construction

I John Clacy telescope maker of Boston, Mass do hereby agree to make for Mr. Wm Smith of Geneva,  N.Y. an astronomical objective as follows: Aperture to be 10 inches clear,  the focal length to be not more than 9 ft. 6” or less than 8 ft. 9”, said objective  to be free of spherical aberrations and the outstanding color to be reduced to the smallest amount possible quality. Said objective to be furnished with a cell of brass with a cap or cover for the same this cell to be made of such a form as will be best  suit much to the rest of the mounting.

And it is agreed that said objective  shall be completed by the last day of March 1887. And it is agreed that John Clacy shall receive  for the above written  objective the sum of twelve hundred + fifty dollars to be paid as follows: $150 when this agreement + $150 on the 24 of January 1887 and the balance when the objective glass shall have been fully and satisfactorly tried, moved and accepted. 

In agreement whereof we have set our names


Wm S
Lalande Medal of the Paris Academy of Sciences, December, 1899