The Daily Gamecock

Donor gives USC, museum astronomy collection

Telescopes, documents may be worth $1 million

Starry-eyed officials of USC and the South Carolina State Museum announced Tuesday afternoon they had received a valuable donation of astronomy documents and telescopes, including the first printed star atlas, published in 1540, and a copy of Sir Isaac Newton's famous work "Opticks," published in 1718.

Robert B. Ariail, 79, of Columbia donated the collection, which has not had a professional appraisal but was estimated by Ariail as being worth $250,000 to $1,000,000. The more than 5,200 astronomy documents dating back almost five centuries will be housed in USC's Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, and the telescopes will reside on the fourth floor of the museum.

Ariail, who made his wealth in the insurance industry, said he couldn't sell his collection because it would feel like selling his children. He said he remembers beginning his collection in 1954.

"I was a pretty good bird dog in finding reasonably priced instruments," Ariail said. "Now you can't do it any more because the Internet has changed everything. Now everyone puts everything up and you bid so it's always a high, high amount. You'd be surprised how many little old ladies' homes I found a telescope in, who didn't know what it was and wanted to get rid of it. I never cheated any of them, I was fair about it."

Ariail said he chose to donate his collection now because he is getting "old as Methuselah" and no longer has the eyesight nor the physical strength to use his instruments.

"Astronomy is probably the earliest science and you can have a lot of fun with it," Ariail said. "It gets in your blood, looking at the sky and seeing these fabulous things that make the Earth just a little speck."

Tom McNally, USC's dean of libraries, said Ariail was a man with a singular passion who devoted an entire wing of his house to the collection.

In a university release, Owen Gingerich, a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, called the collection of early American telescopes "the finest anywhere" and said the collection of documents "rivals, and in critical areas exceeds, the Library of Congress itself," with respect to 19th century astronomy.

USC President Harris Pastides said Tuesday that the university and the museum have never partnered in this way before.

"As you might imagine, both institutions probably wanted both the telescopes and the documents, but what ultimately happened was the donor decided to use the best qualities that we had, which is a state-of-the-art repository for archives, and also what the State Museum is, a great place for children who visit on school trips," Pastides said. "Someday we may be here announcing a subsequent gift, so it's very important on both levels."

Pastides said USC is going to create a virtual display of the documents so that most people who view the Ariail Collection at will be doing so online.

USC and the museum have created a website for the collection that can be accessed at or at The astronomy documents will be on display now through the end of October in the Irvin Department Gallery of the Hollings Library. The exhibit is titled "Mapping the Heavens: An Exhibition Introducing the Robert B. Ariail Collection of Historical Astronomy."