Gazing at the stars

It’s amazing what you can find in your own back yard.

The Illinois astronomer George Ellery Hale became famous for developing new and better telescopes and lenses, thus opening the door to greater scientific discoveries and understanding of the universe. While he went down in history as the driving force behind such large observatories as the Yerkes Observatory just over the state line in Wisconsin, he did some of his finest work in the back yard of his family’s home in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood.

As a young child in the 1870s George Hale had a fascination with science. His father, William, was in the process of making a fortune as a manufacturer of the new elevators which were being installed in the tall buildings then being re-built after the Chicago Fire. William Hale was able to feed his son’s hunger for scientific knowledge by keeping him supplied with an endless series of microscopes and telescopes, as well as scientific literature and science fiction from the writers of the day like Jules Verne, Ernest Rutherford and William Huggins.

George was captivated by the ability of the microscope’s lens to magnify the tiniest object into spectacular detail, or the telescope lens’ capacity for making the farthest objects in the night sky visible and able to be studied in all their glory. Spellbound by the stars, he was just as awestruck by the equipment which made them visible and in his teens he set about building his own telescope to study them further.

“I mounted it on the roof of the house,” he recalled later in life. “The astonishing views it afforded of Saturn, the Moon, Jupiter and other objects excited an intense desire to carry on actual research.”

Determined to further his scientific education, Hale attended Chicago’s Allen Academy to study astronomy and physics, but he also made another fateful choice. Not willing to be constrained by the limitations of existing technology, Hale took classes at the Chicago Manual Training School to help hone his building skills – the better to create new and improved machines and the architecture that would support them. There he met the architect Daniel Burnham, then a leader in the rebuilding of the great city, who encouraged him to continue his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

George Ellery Hale
Hale studied at MIT and at the Harvard College Observatory before graduating in 1890 and returning; after a brief stint in Germany; to Illinois to continue his work at the Kenwood Physical Observatory, a scientific research facility at 4545 Drexel Boulevard, otherwise known as his family’s back yard.

Around this time Hale was credited with his first invention, the spectroheliograph, a machine used for taking detailed photographs of the sun. His home-made, back yard laboratory was becoming famous for having higher quality instruments than some of the university observatories in the world.

This caught the eye of William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, who hired Hale as an associate professor of astrophysics and also to run the school’s observatory. But Hale wanted something more than a professor’s job: the university would have to build him his own observatory. It couldn’t be just any observatory, however, Hale wanted it to be the home of the largest telescope with the largest light-gathering capacity in the world.

To finance this project, Harper enlisted the help of industrialist Charles T. Yerkes, and Hale got his wish. Hale had still another idea in mind: his observatory would not be a building with a telescope installed on it, but would instead be one large laboratory built around the telescope, a facility for “all kinds of spectroscopic, bolometric, photographic and other optical work.”

Drawing on his work in architecture as well as astronomy, Hale designed an observatory that would be built around the 40-inch refracting telescope and would include the necessary laboratory space for studying the heavens in all their aspects. To better protect the observatory from the interference of nearby city lights, Hale constructed his facility far to the north of the city, near Williams Bay, Wisconsin. When it opened in 1897 it was indeed the largest telescope in the world.

By that time Hale had expanded his horizons, founding The Astrophysical Journal to standardize the terms of discussion of the heavens. To further mankind’s knowledge of the universe he helped establish the American Astronomical Society and the International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research. Hale chaired a committee of the National Academy of Sciences which met during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

He was also engaged in a quest for an even bigger telescope which could gaze farther into space and do so in greater detail. He created such a machine just after the turn of the century, eclipsing his own creation at Yerkes by putting in place a telescope with a 60-inch reflector at the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory in California, helped along by a $150,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie to “encourage investigation, research and discovery in the broadest and most liberal manner, and the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind.”

Glass for the 100 inch telescope
being hauled to Mt. Wilson
Using his larger telescopes he was able to better understand the structure and the makeup of the sun, thus enabling other researchers to gain a better idea of how to apply physics to their studies of astronomy to make further discoveries possible. Another of these larger telescopes was developed just after World War I when Hale installed a 100-inch reflector telescope at Mount Wilson. Yet again, he had the largest telescope in the world.

Throughout the 1920s Hale and his telescopes continued to make discoveries and scientific advances. His telescopes measured the diameter of some of the largest stars in the universe. He made discoveries about the magnetic properties of sunspots which became known as “Hale’s Law.” Albert Einstein reached out to Hale to see if Hale’s observations would be helpful in his own research on light and gravity.

Retiring from his work at Mount Wilson, Hale founded the Hale Solar Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to continue his research, his curiosity about the universe never fully quenched.

Hale’s discoveries led to his being decorated with some of the scientific community’s most prestigious awards, including medals and prizes from around the world. Discoveries in space were named for him, including an asteroid and features on the surface of Mars and the Moon.

200 inch mirror of the Hale Telescope at
the Caltech Optical Shop, 1945.
George Ellery Hale died in Pasadena in 1938 before work on his final dream project was completed: a 200-inch telescope which would be installed at California’s Palomar Observatory in 1949 and which would remain the world’s largest telescope for more than a quarter century thereafter. By then the facility in which it stood had been renamed the Hale Observatory. The discoveries he made, the observatories he built and the technology he developed continue to this day to help expand humankind’s understanding of the universe.

And it all started in a backyard in Illinois.