Palomar Observatory: Bigger Is Better (Part 6)

George Ellery Hale
George Ellery Hale

The tag cloud for our blog is a litany for aviation, science, and space exploration. Air Shows, Nobel Prize, Radioactivity, and Space Shuttle are among the keywords that are featured prominently. Only one abstract concept appears in the list: Serendipity. The first page of Google results will tell anyone who bothers to look that Serendipity is “a happy accident” or a “fortunate mistake.” The road George Ellery Hale took to Palomar Observatory was paved with fortunate mistakes and quirky ambitions.

Almost immediately after taking on his new role as an Associate Professor of Astral Physics at the University of Chicago, George Ellery Hale traveled to Rochester, New York to speak at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While there, Hale learned that two 40-inch lens blanks were sitting unused in the shop of optics maker Alvan G. Clark. The lenses, originally ordered by the University of Southern California (USC), were available for $16,000. USC had been gifted some land to put towards the purchase of the lenses, but, in a ridiculous cycle that continues to this day, one of Southern California’s earliest land bubbles burst. The land was worthless, and USC could no longer afford the lenses.

USC’s misfortune became Hales happy accident, his first opportunity to build what would become the world’s largest telescope. At 40-inches, the lenses would provide 25 percent more light than the 36-inch Lick Observatory telescope. The Lick telescope, which—as we mentioned last week—Hale had seen on his honeymoon, was then the world’s largest. To bring this “fortunate mistake” to fruition, Hale needed to find a fortune: $300,000.

Hale and the University of Chicago’s president, William Rainey Harper, had gotten off to a rocky start. In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, Helen Wright points out that Hale and Harper mended fences after Hale was impressed with the faculty that Harper was attracting to the university. Hale was most impressed by the hiring of Albert Michelson, who would win the nation’s and the university’s first Nobel Prize in 1907.

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

Hale was truly a bee-in-your-bonnet kind of guy. Immediately after finding out about the availability of the USC lenses, Hale returned to Chicago to begin soliciting the funds to obtaining the lenses and to build an observatory to house the resulting telescope. Hale and Harper eventually focused in on Chicago Robber Baron Charles Tyson Yerkes. Yerkes was a latecomer to Chicago’s burgeoning business scene, having started his career in Philadelphia. A jail sentence for financial shenanigans convinced Yerkes to head west, and he amassed a considerable fortune and great political influence (often through bribery) by building Chicago’s public transportation—streetcars and trains—system. (Interestingly, after leaving Chicago in 1899, Yerkes would follow his own Chicago model—financial maneuverings to takeover struggling transportation lines—in an early 1900’s attempt to remake the London underground. Some of London’s most famous tube sections—Bakerloo, Hampstead, and Piccadilly—were the result of Yerkes’ work.)

Before Yerkes left Chicago, Hale and Harper convinced him to donate $1M to put his name on the observatory. Hale and Harper started their push for Yerkes’ bankroll in the fall of 1892. Ultimately, their appeal was simple and direct. The brilliant young astronomer and the driven young university president told the financier that the resulting telescope would be the biggest in the world. Then, they stepped back, and let Yerkes’ own vanity do the rest. On October 17, 1892, Hale published a short piece in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific announcing “The Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago.” Thus began a five-year whirlwind of design, engineering, and construction.

Throughout 1893, a site for the observatory was sought. Locations near the university were ruled out because of Chicago’s notorious factories and the soot and smoke that filled the city’s sky and obscured a good view of the heavens. Ultimately, a site near Williams Bay, Wisconsin, was selected to be the home for the telescope and its supporting observatory and research labs.

The Big Telescope at the Columbian Exposition
The Big Telescope at the Columbian Exposition

Early on in the process, Hale decided that he wanted to display the telescope’s tube and mounting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The resulting engineering marvel—the mount is 43 feet tall and weighs 50 tons; the tube is 60 feet long and weight 20 tons, and the gearing is another 5 tons of machinery—was displayed in the Manufacturers’ Building, a decision that nearly led to disaster before the project really got started. In July 1894, a fire at the Columbian Exposition came close to destroying the Manufacturers’ Building and the telescope. Wright’s book quotes President Harper’s thoughts on the event: “I left the building still burning at 11:30, but I think that we have saved the telescope.” This was not the only disaster to beset the project.

On May 21, 1897, with the observatory nearing completion, the now installed World’s Largest Telescope collected its first light, that reverential, almost mystical moment when a new astronomical machine takes its first images of the universe. Eight days later, an explosion of sound escaped from the dome enclosing the telescope. The mechanical floor—used to raise and lower observers—that surrounded the telescope and its mounting had failed. Engineers and workers were brought in to redesign and repair the contraption. Eventually, the observatory was dedicated on October 21, 1897—almost five years to the day from Hale’s first announcement—in an event that made for an odd juxtaposition of high-ceremony (the world’s largest telescope! a modern marvel!) and high-comedy (as many of the university’s and Chicago’s leading citizens made the final part of their journey to the dedication on farm carts).

Yerkes Observatory would go on to be one of the leading centers for astronomical research. Yerkes scientists such as Edward Emerson Barnard (Barnard’s Star bears his name) would go on to photograph and catalog the heavens. The observatory’s website claims it as “The birthplace of modern astrophysics.”



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