Palomar Observatory: A Man and Big Dreams (Part 5)

To begin where we did in this story, with our own trip to Palomar Observatory, start with PART 1.

George Ellery Hale
George Ellery Hale

In the second half of the 19th century, Chicago grew at an unprecedented rate: from 4,000 people in 1833 to one million in 1890. This is not the unprecedented of today’s hyperbole-inclined, media-saturated world. This is the unprecedented of Merriam-Webster: “not done or experienced before.” To that, we could add, or since. Chicago kept on going, reaching two million in 1909 and three million by 1923.

This was the milieu, the dynamic, constantly energized environment into which George Ellery Hale was born. As we described in our previous post on Hale, Hale’s family—through the vehicle of his father’s hydraulic elevator company—was front and center in Chicago’s economic and industrial engine.

It isn’t too much of a stretch, given the ambition and drive that George Ellery Hale displayed throughout his life, to infer that Chicago’s machinic energy rubbed off on him at an early age and stayed with him into adulthood. In addition to his precocious laboratory building as a pre-teen (detailed in our previous post), Hale made a practice of contacting accomplished scientists and asking them questions in a way that belied his youth.

In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, Helen Wright describes a meeting between the then seventeen-year-old Hale and telescope-maker John Brasher:

He introduced himself as “Mr. Hale of Chicago.” Brashear looked at his visitor in astonishment, “If some fellow had taken a baseball club and hit me very, very hard, I should not have been any more surprised.”

In Wright’s passage, she further recounts Brashear as having assumed—based on the quality of Hale’s letter writing—that Hale was an accomplished man of science and probably about forty-five years old. In another incident, the teenaged Hale receives a package from London addressed to Dr. George Ellery Hale. A cousin who witnessed the event assumed “George had gained an international reputation.”

Hale emerged from his childhood a confident and burgeoning young scientist. In the fall of 1886, he took his energy and enthusiasm to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While at MIT, Hale made two friends that would see him into adulthood: classmate Harry Goodwin, who’d later become MIT’s Dean of Graduate Studies (and for whom a Teaching Assistant award is named today), and chemistry instructor Arthur A. Noyes, whose future included the presidency of MIT and a lengthy tenure at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In addition to taking a degree in physics, Hale received his first exposure to evolutionary theory, an educational hazard faced by many young scientists raised in church-minded homes. While at MIT, Hale also found time to work for Edward Pickering at Harvard College Observatory. We’ve mentioned Pickering before, primarily in the context of the Harvard Computers, a group of scientifically inclined women—including Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Antonia Maury—whom Pickering hired on the cheap. Hale’s time didn’t overlap with the more famous of the Harvard Computers.

Chicago of Today
Chicago of Today

After his graduation in 1890, Hale returned to Chicago and convinced his father to fund the building of what would become Hale’s personal observatory, the Kenwood Observatory. He also found spare time to marry Evelina Conklin, though even that looks, as we peer back into history, like part of his plan for astronomy. Their honeymoon, a trip through the West, wound up at the great Lick Observatory, on California’s Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose. While there, Hale saw Lick’s 36-inch refracting telescope, the largest telescope in the world at that time. That encounter set Hale’s mind to the task of building a great telescope.

Though he briefly considered earning a his scientist’s driver’s license—the PhD—he instead threw himself into the creation of his own 12-inch telescope and furnishing the Kenwood Observatory. All the while, Hale is a lecturer at Beloit College, Illinois College, and Northwestern University. Nonetheless, events taking place nearby on Chicago’s South Side would set the trajectory for the rest of Hale’s career.

In 1890, John D. Rockefeller gave the founding gift—a whopping $600,000—for the University of Chicago. The university’s first president, hand-picked by Rockefeller, was the organized and ambitious William Rainey Harper. Wright’s biography of Hale suggests that Harper’s work will “revolutionize College and University work in this country.”

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )
Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )

While investing his energies in creating a model institution for the future of higher education, Harper took notice of the ambitious Hale. He made contact with Hale’s friends, colleagues, and former teachers, including Pickering of the Harvard College Observatory, to ascertain Hale’s suitability for a professorship at the University of Chicago. While Harper admired Hale’s work, what he really sets his sights on is Hale’s Kenwood Observatory. He wants it for the new institution.

Unfortunately for Harper, in his first direct approach to Hale, this desire to acquire the observatory is all too clear. Hale came away feeling that, ultimately, he was secondary to the observatory, and he rebuffed Harper. It took several approaches and more than a year, but eventually Harper convinced Hale to join the university. This became the seed of the partnership that would enable Hale to build what would become the largest telescope in the world, the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes Observatory.

The story of Palomar Observatory continues to unfold in PART 6, and you may be surprised at how one thing leads to another.

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