The Telescope Man of Union Square


The infinite twinkling of the stars, not the temporal glistening of neon, are what enraptured him. The unknown beauty of planets, moons and galaxies, not the schematic towering of skyscrapers, engaged his attention with awestruck scrutiny. Comets and asteroids, their paths through the untold vastness of space, absorbed his imagination and captivated him. For this was Arthur F. Nursey, aka the “Telescope Man,” who lived and viewed the universe in the early part of the 20th century.

I chanced upon Nursey while sifting through the New York Times archives (08/06/1932)…in a way, similar to Nursey’s own sifting through space. But I had heard of him long ago from my grandmother who told me of this little man that I had, until now, faintly remembered.

He was a small, gentle-looking man and, in today’s terms, perhaps “nerdy” in appearance. For thirty years he and his beloved telescope were fixtures in Union Square (Manhattan). He solicited passer-byes to “gaze upon the wonders of the universe, see the mountains of the moon, the pale splendor of the pole star and the beauty of Saturn…all, ladies and gentlemen, for a dime.” A small but sizable number of New Yorkers would take Nursey up on his offer and gaze through the metallic tube of his telescope, not really understanding what they saw but realizing that it was marvelous; a bargain at ten-cents.

This was Nursey’s sole means of income; rather small for a onetime Oxford student who was trained in astrophysics and astronomy. He lived alone at 224 East 21st Street and when rain or snow or cloudy weather would make star-gazing impossible, his typewriter could be heard deep into the night writing scientific treatises; at other times, poring over maps and charts, delving into various tomes, to learn yet more. He would have been a credit to any scholastic or scientific institution but preferred to make Union Square his classroom, the ordinary man and woman his student.

On the morning of August 1, 1932 he left his apartment to buy breakfast. Walking along First Avenue, he became, as usual, absorbed in thought. According to the Times, he “raised his head, his eyes turning in quest of a cloud or a mist that might interfere with his night’s work and, with his mind so occupied, he stepped off the curb….Brakes squealed, there was a thud, a smothered cry of pain.”

Nursey, 71 years old, was rushed to Bellevue Hospital. He was critically injured and dying but remained conscious throughout his remaining moments. His only concern was for the safety of his telescope. Attendants assured the astronomer that it was safe and to further comfort him had his apartment door padlocked. The Times ends Nursey’s story by stating that “the padlock remains on the door, his body is in the city morgue.”