Hale, Palomar, and (the End of) the Story (Part 11)

We’ve spent a lot time and posts thinking about George Ellery Hale and his observatories over the last nine months or so, and it’s come time to say good-bye to this topic. We visited Hale’s crowning achievement: the 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory that bears his name. That’s where we started this journey nine months ago, and that’s where we’ll end it.

Hale Telescope
Hale Telescope

As was Hale’s way, he was never content to work on just one project at a time. At the same time that Hale was finalizing the financing, design, and construction of the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope, America was deciding what to do about the war in Europe. Like many in the United States, Hale’s opinion of the war was galvanized by the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. Helen Wright’s book about Hale describes one early American response to the war when she says that Secretary Josephus Daniels had selected Thomas Alva Edison to head a Naval Consulting Board to “aid in developing war devices to assist in perfecting the Navy as a fighting machine.”

When Hale saw the suggested list of board members—names such as Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Simon Lake, and Alexander Graham Bell—he is disturbed to see that the list only contains inventors, not scientists. He began a process of lobbying through his friends in Washington, D.C., that resulted in the June 1916 formation of the National Science Council. Hale became the first chairman of the committee. During the war, the National Science Council organized American scientific endeavors at the behest of policy needs in response to the demands of World War I. The National Science Council, an arm of the National Academies (National Academy of Sciences), exists to this day. In fact, this is likely the beginning of Big Science in the United States, and Helen Wright has the following to say about Hale’s time on the National Science Council:

It was an important step. Previously, organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science [ …] held meetings once or twice a year. But there had been little concerted planning for the general advancement of science and the national welfare. Now, under Hale’s leadership, American scientists would have the chance to develop cooperative research on an unparalleled scale […]. From this time science was to become an increasingly powerful force in American life.

At the conclusion of the war, Hale returned to the scientific endeavors he loved best: solar physics and building the world’s largest telescopes.

George Ellery Hale
George Ellery Hale

When he wrote a number of articles about astronomy for popular audiences in the mid-1920s, Hale began the process of creating of the Palomar 200-inch telescope. The most influential one, “The Possibilities of Large Telescopes,” appeared in 1926 in Harper’s Magazine. Hale arranges for an early version of the article to be sent to Wickliffe Rose of the Rockefeller Foundation, even though the telescopes of Mount Wilson had largely been funded and administered by the Carnegie Institution. Just as there had been competition between the men themselves, Rockefeller and Carnegie, the two philanthropic institutions had no established history of working together. Personalities and conflicts nearly derailed Hale’s vision for the grandest astronomical observatory in history. After much negotiation, largely undertaken by Hale, the two foundations came to an agreement: Rockefeller would provide the then unheard of sum of $6 million dollars to build the facility to be gifted to CalTech, and the Carnegie Institute would provide the scientists and administrators to run the observatory. Hale had triumphed again.

Hale’s health declined over the years. Hale didn’t live to see the eponymous telescope gather its first light in 1949. He died in 1938, shortly after construction began on Palomar Observatory.

In writing this series about George Ellery Hale, we relied heavily on Helen Wright’s biography, Explorer of the Stars, and the PBS Home Video documentary The Journey to Palomar. In some happy serendipity, this copy of the Helen Wright biography is now a part of Chapman University’s Huell Howser California’s Gold collection. This copy of Explorer of the Stars was originally in the Mount Wilson Observatory library, and it is inscribed, “For the Monastery Library.” The monastery was, of course, Hale’s affectionate nickname for Mount Wilson Observatory in the early days, and it stuck. How Huell wound up with the book is a story we don’t know, but he did host an episode of California’s Gold about Mount Wilson.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome
Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Even though this post ends our series, one of the Hale-related things that we’ve been planning to do for that same nine-months still hasn’t happened. Though it’s only about seventy miles from our home, we still haven’t been there to see Hale’s mid-career achievements in person. (We haven’t been to Yerkes Observatory yet either, but that’s a different proposition.) When Midwestern friends and family ask how far away we live from Los Angeles, we often tell them: Only thirty-five miles, but that’s probably two hours of driving—each way. We’ll make it to Mount Wilson eventually, but it will take some planning.

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