The history of the Bassett Planetarium is the history of the rise of technology, the quest for Space, and the ingenuity of two Americans, Armand Spitz and Preston Rogers Bassett.
Preston R. Bassett '13, a generous benefactor of the college, inventor, and an alumni trustee from 1954 to 1960, died at his home in Ridgfield, Conn. on April 30, 1992. He had celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends only six weeks earlier.
Bassett's gifts to Amherst included the Preston R. Bassett Planetarium in Morgan Hall, the Bassett Physics Prize Fund, and the Bassett Room and early American furniture at the Mead Art Gallery.
His long and active life included numerous accomplishments of an extraordinary breadth ranging from helping Albert A. Michelson measure the speed of light to preserving old mills on Long Island to be being the director of Abilities, Inc., a company that employed only the handicapped.
Bassett was born in Buffalo, NY on March 20, 1892, a son of Edward Bassett (Amherst 1884) and Annie Preston Bassett. He received his high school education at Erasmus Hall in Flatbush. After graduating from Amherst in 1913 he continued his education at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1914 while working as a research engineer at the Sperry Gyroscope Company. He rose through the ranks of the Sperry company, becoming chief engineer in 1932, vice president and general manager in 1944, and president in 1945. He did much to steer the company through its most critical years as it manufactured vitally important aviation and naval instruments for the battles of World War II. He was also vice president of the newly merged Sperry-Rand Corp. (now Unisys) in the mid '50s until his retirement in 1957.
Bassett held 35 patents and was instrumental in developing the anti-aircraft searchlight, the automatic pilot, and other guidance systems for aircraft.
He served on many committees dealing with the development of aviation in this country. He was president of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences and a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) where he served as chairman on the subcommittee on aerodynamics.
It was while serving on NACA along with General Jimmy Doolittle that NACA changed its name to NASA, thus making Bassett one of the charter members of NASA.
History and the preservation of antiquities were other lifelong interests. Wherever Bassett lived, he wanted to see the heritage of that region preserved. He lectured on the old houses and mills of Long Island. When he moved to Ridgfield, Ct., in the 1950's he became interested in the history of that area and the preservation of the old Keeler Tavern at the foot of the road where he lived. He was curator of the Keeler Tavern Museum. He was a member of the Nassau County Historical Society and the Friends of Old Bethpage Village, and vice president of both the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities and the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown. He served as village historian of Rockville Centre, NY and was a member of the Ridgefield Historic District Commission.
Bassett was the author or coauthor of several books, including a history of Rockville Centre, NY and Raindrop Stories - a children's book about the cycling of water in nature. As an accomplished landscape and still-life painter, he preserved images not only of his many summer days in Vermont but of some of the atmospheric phenomena and antiques that he wrote about.
In the later years of his life, Bassett called himself an "uncollector." After 60 years of collecting antiques, he shifted over smoothly to the business of directing his collections to museums. More than a dozen museums around the country benefited. The Smithsonian was so pleased with the collection of early American lighting and bicycles they received from him that they held a one-man show in his honor.
Mr. Bassett was survived by his daughter and three sons (all three of whom are Amherst graduates). He also left two sisters, 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.