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OAN can be traced back to the Gillis Expedition, a project of the United States Naval Observatory. Led by James Melville Gilliss, it arrived in Chile in 1849 to observe Mars and Venus from the southern hemisphere so as to improve solar parallax. Gilliss and his party set up their equipment on Santa Lucia Hill, a small rise in downtown Santiago. After completing the project in 1852, Gilliss sold the equipment and the buildings that housed it to the government of Chile, which formed OAN at that time.
After two years of operating on Santa Lucia Hill, the director of the new observatory, Carlos Guillermo Moesta, noticed that daytime heating of the dark rock of the hill caused the entire landform to move slightly. As a result of this discovery Moesta decided it would be best to move the observatory elsewhere. A new facility was built in what is now Quinta Normal starting in 1857, and OAN officially moved to the new location in 1862. However, it proved to be one of the foggiest locations in the area. The building is now home to the Aeronautical Technical School of the Civil Aviation Authority of Chile.
In 1908 President Pedro Montt appointed Friedrich Wilhelm Ristenpart of Germany director of OAN. Ristenpart organized another move of the observatory, this time to what is now the suburb of Lo Espejo, south of Santiago. Ristenpart died in 1913, and the subsequent director, Alberto Obrecht, completed the move in 1916. The buildings in Lo Espejo have been torn down.
Federico Rutllant became director in 1950, and in 1956 the observatory began a new campus on Cerro Calán under his direction. The transfer was completed in 1962. Rutllant played an important part in bringing foreigners in to build the big observatories in the Atacama Desert in the 1960s. The extensive site research for what would soon become Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and La Silla Observatory was conducted while he was director. The Soviet Union also sent astronomers and provided several telescopes to OAN beginning in 1962, but it withdrew after the 1973 Chilean coup d'état.
A 0.45 m (18 in) Cassegrain reflector made by Goto was purchased with a grant given to OAN by the Japanese government in 2002. It is housed in a building with a roll-off roof built when the campus was founded. It is used for instruction and outreach.
A 28 cm (11 in) refractor built by Gustav Heyde (Dresden, Germany), originally installed at Lo Espejo in 1913. It was moved to Cerro Calán, where it is now used for outreach.
A 28 cm (11 in) refractor built by Gautier was installed in 1894 at Quinta Normal. It is a Carte du Ciel-type astrograph. It was moved to Lo Espejo and then Cerro Calán, where it is now used for outreach.
A 60 cm (24 in) refractor built by Grubb was ordered in 1909. The dome was in place by 1913, but the final parts for the telescope did not arrive until 1933. It was finally finished, but did not work satisfactorily so was seldom used. The dome was moved to Cerro Calán but the telescope was never installed at the new facility.
A 9 cm (3.5 in) Bamberg transit telescope was purchased in 1910.
A 19 cm (7.5 in) meridian circle built by Repsold was first installed at Lo Espejo in 1912. It was moved to Cerro Calán and was used as recently as the 1990s.
A 18 cm (7.1 in) meridian circle built by Eichens was acquired between 1865 and 1889.
A 24 cm (9.4 in) meridian circle built by Repsold was acquired around 1873 but not put into use until 1883.
A 16 cm (6.3 in) refractor built by Henry Fitz was sold by Gillis to OAN in 1852.
An 11 cm (4.3 in) meridian circle by built Pistor and Martins was sold by Gillis to OAN in 1852.
^Naumov, V. A.; Naumova, A. A.; Seebach, N.; Torres, C.; Zverev, M. S. (1967). "Preliminary Results of Observations with the Pulkovo Photographic Vertical Circle". Soviet Astronomy. 11: 148. Bibcode:1967SvA....11..148N.
^Belyaev, Yu. A.; Vasil'Ev, V. M.; Peralta, R.; Plyugina, A. I.; Streletskii, Yu. S.; Tavastsherna, K. N.; Tapija, R. (1970). "Installation of a Transit Instrument of the Large Pulkovo Type in Chile for Absolute Determinations of Stellar Right Ascensions". Soviet Astronomy. 13: 722. Bibcode:1970SvA....13..722B.