Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 4)


To go back and begin reading this series from our initial visit to Palomar Observatory, start with PART 1.

When the big book of facts is finally written, it’s possible that George Ellery Hale’s contributions to changing the United States into a techno-scientific nation will outshine those of all others. Hale, eventually, spearheaded the building of Palomar Observatory, the biggest telescope in the world at the time it saw first light.

Hale was born in Chicago in 1869, just two years prior to the great Chicago Fire. The fire was an enormous influence on the fortunes of the Hale family. Hale’s father William founded the Hale Elevator Company based on his design for the Hale Water-Balance Elevator, which used the force of gravity (1). As Chicago rebuilt, elevators from Hale’s company found their way into buildings and skyscrapers across town. The fortunes of the Hale family were buoyed along with Chicago’s, which, post-fire, was remaking itself into the most dynamic city in the world.

Hale Telescope
Hale Telescope

George Hale shared his father’s curiosity and inventiveness regarding the mechanical world. A pattern of expansion of his working area to meet his expansive imagination was established in his childhood, and it repeated throughout his life. As a young boy, he turned his bedroom, which he shared with a younger brother, into his laboratory, filled with the tools, books, and paraphernalia of a budding young researcher. When his ambition outgrew that space, he convinced his mother to give him her dress room, located upstairs in the family home. Both Hale’s siblings were pulled into their older brother’s orbit and worked with him in the new workshop. In the comprehensive biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, author Helen Wright describes the setup in Hale’s workshop in a way that is giving the Lofty Duo ideas about what to do with our garage. Hale’s words describe his dress-room laboratory in that biography: “each of us had a seat and an ‘outfit’ consisting of Bunsen burner, batteries, galvanometers, and other devices, most of them made by ourselves.”

Chicago of Today
Chicago of Today

We wrote earlier this summer about a mid-1950’s book titled Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel. Passages from Wright’s biography of Hale would fit right in with the experiments described in that other book. “We poured hydrochloric acid on zinc and lit the evolved hydrogen as it issued from the slender tube.” It isn’t likely, in our current day and age, that many children are left unsupervised to do this type of investigating.

Hale’s relentless energy eventually even outgrew the well-appointed workshop. Eventually, he built another, larger workspace in the backyard of the family home. Some of the tools in his new laboratory were powered by a one-eighth horsepower steam engine. Hale had assembled the steam engine himself. When running, the belching, hissing steam engine shook the laboratory violently enough that it earned a nickname: demon.

George Ellery Hale
George Ellery Hale

If the richness of his home environment seems difficult to imagine these days, the austere, rigid environment of his school life was definitely apiece with the times. At twelve years old, George Hale began at the Allen Academy. There, the head of the school encouraged the youngster’s interest in astronomy. Allen thought so highly of the young Hale that “he asked George to become the ‘unofficial curator’ of the philosophical instrument’—an air pump, an electric machine, some Leyden jars, a few test tubes and a Busen burner.

By the time he was fourteen, Hale tried to make his own telescope and enlisted the advice of Sherbourne Wesley Burnham, a court reporter and, at night, an amateur astronomer. George’s father secured a secondhand telescope in time for the teenager to peer through it to view a Transit of Venus. Before long, he hitched a camera to his telescope and tinkered with the setup until he photographed the craters on the Moon clearly.

One thing led to another. The Dearborn Observatory fueled his obsession. He had big ambitions, saying, according to the biography, “I was a born experimentalist, and I was bound to find the way for combining physics and chemistry with astronomy.” He also picked up molding, casting, forging, and tempering skills in the unlikely event he would actually devote himself to the Hale Elevator enterprise.

Hale came of age in a time when science was just coming into its own in the United States. The Origin of  Species had been published in 1859. Ten years later, the year Hale was born, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev presented, then published, his periodic table of elements and predicted additional elements to be discovered. Ten years after that, Thomas Edison applied for the patent on the light bulb. All the while, astronomers are developing the observation of stars’ spectra, which leads to the discovery of helium and the ability to measure how fast a star is moving. Hale took full advantage of the opportunity into which he was born. These early years of his life set the foundation upon which he would imagine Palomar Observatory.

Read the next installment of our series on Palomar Observatory and the man named Hale HERE.


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