On the Edge

From Bagpipes to Telescopes

above: When not tuning the high-maintenance bagpipes he made himself, Ron Zissell keeps the Five College telescopes ready to scan the skies and builds or fixes intricate contraptions for science students and faculty. And every February he pipes "Happy Birthday" to Mary Lyon.

As five college astronomy technician, Ron Zissell's eyes are on the sky, but most of his work is decidedly down to earth. He maintains all of the Five Colleges' eight telescopes, including Williston Observatory's eight-inch and twenty-four-inch telescopes. He follows no set schedule, but frequently works while the rest of the campus sleeps.

A born tinkerer with a PhD in astronomy, Zissell has years of experience building and fixing anything mechanical or electronic. Although he stockpiles odd parts, often Zissell must invent parts to finish a job. For example, the large telescope's camera in Williston Observatory kept fogging over until Zissell designed and built an apparatus in which a tiny fan blows through a tube of desiccant to keep the lens dry. And when a gear was stripped on the 1880s-vintage small telescope, Zissell "played dentist, making and installing thirteen new teeth."

He handles high-tech duties with equal aplomb, using computers to aim Williston's big telescope at precise points in the night sky, and manipulating the data he collects using sophisticated computer programs. He also provided information to a 1995 space shuttle mission, and constantly helps students with their astronomical observations and research projects. Despite his computer prowess, Zissell seems to prefer handcrafted solutions. A sheaf of dog-eared pages from a 1950s model-building magazine shows how Zissell gained mechanical expertise. He taught himself machining page by page, by trial and error.

Zissell has made clocks, watches, and even the bagpipes he plays with the Holyoke Caledonian Pipe Band. "The pipes need more maintenance than any other instrument," he notes. Perhaps that's part of their charm for Zissell, who claims no Scottish heritage but has loved the instrument since boyhood. Many years, he pipes "Happy Birthday" to Mary Lyon.

He also maintains the founder's legacy through the clock in Mary Lyon Hall. Each spring and fall Zissell climbs the steep stairs and goes through trap doors to adjust the time one hour. "It gets pretty intense when you're up there and the bells strike the quarterhour," he says of the six-inch-thick bells. Zissell also fixes the clock's works when cold stalls the mechanism, lubricates the parts annually, and replaces the lightbulbs illuminating the clock's four faces.

Whether he's dealing with a nineteenth-century clock or a 1990s computer, Zissell carries on an old tradition. "Today you just get what you pay for, but people used to make things the best they could." He still does.

[ Previous | Top | Next ]