This past weekend, we visited Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, near where we each vacationed as children, long before we knew each other. This University of Chicago observatory was funded by Charles Tyson Yerkes, but the 40-inch refracting telescope and the building that houses it are the result of George Ellery Hale’s first grand vision to build the largest telescope in the world. If you haven’t read our posts about Hale that emerged from our visit to Palomar Observatory, you might want to browse that series after this post.
Richard and Dan were the docents on Saturday, and they ran extra tours, back to back for several hours because hundreds of people opted for a trip to the observatory after a round of golf or before an afternoon on the lake during this beautiful holiday weekend. In fact, we were impressed by the level of interest in the observatory and the range of ages of visitors, which reminded us that people think space is cool.
Yerkes Observatory was dedicated in October 1897. The telescope was designed especially to use the spectroheliograph, an instrument Hale had invented himself to study gases in the Sun. He used this instrument to detect carbon in an outer layer of the Sun even before the observatory was officially dedicated. Some of the glass plates from observations of days of yore are now displayed as window panes. Gerard Kuiper, who would go on in his career to discover atmosphere on Titan as well as moons circling outer planets, started his work as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory.
Though Hale went on to best this once-largest telescope and though subsequent advances, including the Hubble Space Telescope, now reveal parts of the universe farther than this 40-incher can see, Yerkes Observatory remains an active research center. Researchers here are building the HAWC—High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera—for NASA’s SOFIA project, a Boeing 747 modified to be an airborne observatory. The observatory hosts several educational outreach programs too, in which students can visit the grounds for observations or can operate smaller telescopes by remote control over the internet to conduct observations.
Even if you’re not particularly interested in space, Yerkes Observatory is an architectural marvel, boasting gothic images of satyrs that might be Yerkes himself and three domes. Take a look here at Yerkes Observatory through Lofty Ambitions’ eyes.