The Scoundrel and the Scientist

by Pamela Hodgson

(This article originally appeared in Chicago History, the magazine of the Chicago Historical Society, in the Fall-Winter 1990-1991 issue. Check out the magazine for some fascinating illustrations. I've added some explanatory material and asides in the form of hyperlinks; the article itself remains as it originally appeared. This article and the associated linked material are copyright 1990, 1998 by Pamela Hodgson. All rights reserved.)

Within days of opening its doors in 1892, the University of Chicago began planning an observatory to house the world's largest refracting telescope and an array of scientific instruments that would rival any in the world. The university dedicated the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, five years later in October of 1897. The man behind the new telescope was George Ellery Hale, the first member of the University of Chicago's astrophysics faculty. His founding of the Yerkes Observatory revolutionized astronomy in America and brought the nation, which until then lagged behind Europe, to the forefront of astrophysics.

In 1860 a new instrument, the spectroscope, transformed the field of astronomy, ushering in the new science of astrophysics. Astrophysics "seeks to ascertain the nature of the heavenly bodies, rather than their positions or motions in space," James Keeler, director of the Allegheny Observatory, wrote of the new science. It seeks to determine, "what they are, rather than where they are." The spectroscope uses a system of prisms to separate sunlight or starlight into its component spectral lines. A similar system had already been used in the laboratory to observe the spectra produced by burning various substances. Scientists reasonsed that by comparing these laboratory spectra with solar spectra, the chemical composition of the sun could be determined. As late as 1860, the nature of the sun was still a mystery. In the 1820s, well-known astronomers suggested that the sun was a planet like our own, complete with inhabitants whom we could not see because of solar cloud cover.

George Hale was born in 1868 in Hyde Park, the son of William Ellery Hale, who made his fortune manufacturing hydraulic elevators. The young Hale pursued a broad range of interests, everything from music and literature to chemistry and physics. He became interested in astronomy and built his own telescope at age fourteen. Impressed with his son's enthusiasm, William bought George a small (though excellent) telescope made by the Clarks of Massachusetts, the country's preeminent lensmakers.

George read avidly of the spectroscopic work of solar astronomers J. Norman Lockyer of England, Jules-Cesar Janssen of France, Charles Augustus Young of the United States, and others and became determined to photograph a spectrum. He succeeded in 1884, when he was just sixteen. Two years later, in 1886, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a physics major. Accustomed to working on his own research, he was bored with his courses, and he volunteered as an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory, under the supervision of E.C. Pickering. Each summer he came home to Chicago and continued his observational work. His special interest was solar prominences, the jets of material spiking out from the sun's surface. In 1888, halfway through his college education, his father built him a spectroscopic laboratory, fully equipped for comparing solar spectra with laboratory spectra.

Just before his senior year at MIT, Hale came up with an idea while riding a Chicago trolley car. He envisioned the spectroheliograph, an instrument that would permit him to photograph the solar prominences in full daylight, without benefit of an eclipse to block out the sun's light. He took the idea back to the Harvard Observatory, where he proved its feasibility and incorporated the results into his thesis. The spectroheliograph consisted of a spectroscopic camera combined with a telescope. Hale fitted a photographic plate across the eyepiece of a telescope with a clockwork device to move the apparatus at the same pace that the sun crosses the sky. By focusing his spectroscope on the part of the spectrum that is most distinct in solar prominences, Hale's photographic plate would collect a spectral image of this solar phenomenon. By age twenty-one, Hale had earned an international reputation.

In the meantime, Hale's father had agreed to fund a new telescope for the observatory in the family's backyard at 4545 South Drexel Boulevard. This was no amateur telescope. It was to have a twelve-inch objective lens crafted by John Brashear (a friend of Hale's from Pittsburgh who hoped to build the world's largest telescope) and a mounting made by Warner and Swasey. Hale filed papers to incorporate the new telescope and spectroscopic lab as the Kenwood Observatory and held a dedication. More than one hundred people, including several well-known American astronomers, attended, and the event was reported in several scientific journals. With his own observatory to continue his research, Hale decided to postpone graduate school.

The Kenwood Observatory and its proprietor had not escaped the notice of William Rainey Harper, president of the new University of Chicago, who sought bright scholars to build a first-rate faculty. In May of 1890, Harper formally offered Hale a faculty position. Hale might have accepted the position immediately had the terms been more attractive. In addition to wanting Hale on the faculty, Harper expected the Kenwood Observatory to be annexed to the university, and he suggested that Hale's father might fund two faculty positions as well. He proposed that the observatory be renamed after the Hales in return. Miffed, George Hale wrote to Harper: "If I am not competent to obtain a place on my own merits at present, it will probably be best for me to wait until I shall have gained experience by future study."

New terms were negotiated two years later. Hale was excited to learn that Albert Michelson, the physicist whose work on the nature of light would later earn him a Nobel Prize, had joined the university. Michelson had urged Harper to do everything possible to recruit Hale. On July 1, 1892, Hale agreed to join the University of Chicago as an associate professor of "astral physics," as his appointment misstated. His father agreed that after the new professor's first year, if George chose to remain with the university, he would donate the movable apparatus of the Kenwood Observatory, valued at $25,000, provided the university raise another $225,000 in the ensuing year to build an observatory. Hale revealed his true motive in accepting the faculty position in a letter to a colleague later that July: "I would not consider the thing for a moment were it not for the prospect of some day getting the use of a big telescope to carry out some of my pet schemes." The opportunity came before the summer was out.

Hale spoke in August to the American Association for the Advancement of Science about the Kenwood spectroheliograph. After his talk, Alvan G. Clark, maker of the lens for Hale's four-inch telescope, described two forty-two-inch lens blanks he had in his shop. The University of Southern California had intended to build a telescope on Mount Wilson, near Pasadena, to surpass the Lick Observatory's thirty-six-inch aperture telescope. They had ordered the two glass blanks for the objective lens, planning to pay for them through the sale of some land given to the university. The objective lens is the key component of a telescope; it magnifies stars and stellar bodies. The lens blanks--the circles of glass shaped and joined to form the lens--were ground to a precise curvature and polished smooth. At a scale of forty-two inches, minor imperfections will show up as major flaws when the lens is in use. Because of their size, the blanks had been made with great difficulty by Mantois in Paris; he shipped them to the Clark shop in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the bottom dropped out of the land boom in California, and the land that was to fund the telescope became worthless. Mantois was owed sixteen thousand dollars, and Clark had two blanks and no telescope.

Hale wanted the blanks for his proposed observatory. He estimated the cost of the lenses, mounting, and an observatory structure at about $300,000. On his father's advice, he sought the support of many Chicago industrialists but had no success. One of the industrialists recommended that he see Charles T. Yerkes. Yerkes, builder of the Chicago public transportation system, was well established in Chicago by this time, having arrived some years earlier. Despite his success, his coarse personality and his suspicious business deals kept him from being fully accepted into Chicago society. Hale knew Yerkes's reputation and possibly had met him through his father. Harper had already attempted to persuade Yerkes to fund a biology building for the new university, but he did not convince Yerkes. Harper told Hale to write to Yerkes; in a letter Hale described his plan to create "the largest telescope and the largest and best equipped observatory in the world."

The forty-two-inch blanks would make a telescope with a forty-inch aperture, allowing two inches for the housing, Hale explained. This telescope would be four inches larger in diameter than the Lick telescope, which meant a 25% increase in the instrument's light-gathering capacity. Theoretically, it would magnify objects to 4,000 times their size (though in practice atmospheric effects make magnification greater than 1,000 times impractical, as Hale knew). The light-gathering power would be 35,000 times that of a human eye, and detailed features of the moon and stars would be discernible for the first time.

Hale appealed to Yerkes's vanity. "And the donor could have no more enduring monument," he wrote. "It is certain that Mr. Lick's name would not have been nearly so widely known today were it not for the famous observatory established as a result of his munificence." That was all it took. At a meeting on October 2, 1892, with Hale and Harper, Yerkes agreed to fund the observatory, on the condition that they guarantee it would be the largest in the world.

In the University of Chicago Weekly of October 22, 1892, Hale crowed that "no definite limit has as yet been assigned to the expenditure contemplated, but the generosity of the donor is fully expressed by his desire that the completed observatory shall be second to none." Their exact agreement was outlined in a letter from Yerkes to Harper, dated December 5, 1892:

It is with much satisfaction I learned from you that a lens for a large telescope could be purchased immediately, and I informed you I would purchase the lense and have it finished; that I would also pay for the frame and mountings of the telescope, so that the two together would make a perfect telescope to be the largest in the world . . . . Since then I have felt it proper that the telescope should have a home, to be paid for by me; and I have concluded to add to my gift an observatory necessary to contain the instrument.

Immediately after the October meeting, Harper contacted the president of the University of Southern California, which still held the option on the lens blanks. The Californians did not answer, as they were busy hunting for another donor. They had suggested to Clark that he might begin work shortly on the lens for Mount Wilson. After several weeks of waiting, Hale and Harper wired the university to withdraw their offer for the blanks. Abruptly their offer of purchase was accepted.

While Clark went to work on grinding the lens blanks, Hale designed the mounting and the instrumentation. The mounting was to be constructed by Warner & Swasey of Cleveland, who had made the Kenwood Observatory's twelve-inch telescope; the other instruments would be built by John Brashear. The building would be designed by the University of Chicago's architect, Henry Ives Cobb.

A prime consideration was location. Virtually all major university observatories were on or adjacent to their campuses. Harvard had a small observatory in the country of Peru, but their main observatory was in Cambridge. The only exception was the Lick Observatory, whose Mount Hamilton location was miles from the University of California campus; Lick, however, was begun before its affiliation with the university. Despite the success of the Kenwood Observatory, Hale considered Hyde Park completely unsuitable for his new observatory because of urban pollution and artificial light, both of which would impede the telescope's view.

Word of the project had leaked out days after the Yerkes meeting. Numerous donors offered land for the observatory site. Locations included the Pasadena site originally intended for the University of Southern California telescope, Morgan Park (then still a suburb of Chicago), Highland Park, Elgin, Rockford, Peoria, Kankakee, Dixon, and a spot on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. To evaluate the sites, Hale polled leading astronomers across the nation for their views on the ideal location for an observatory, making no mention to them of the specific sites that had been offered.

For the project, Hale envisioned interaction between the observatory staff and the leaders and scholars in physics and chemistry, as well as collaboration in their laboratories, where physical and chemical experiments would complement the work of the observatory. This interdisciplinary approach had become common in England, where Norman Lockyer had collaborated with chemist Edward Frankland in his lab to identify the spectral lines he observed in the sun. Lockyer's work led to the discovery of helium. Hale intended to emulate the European methods, and he concluded that the observatory could be no more than one hundred miles from the university.

Urban areas in general, or anywhere cities might expand, were out of the question. Hale also ruled out locations near factories or locations where manufacturing was likely to develop. Smoke from the factories or chimney smoke from homes might obscure the telescope's view, and electric lights could also be a problem. Another major consideration was vibration. The fine resolving power of the telescope would be wasted if passing trains shook the telescope. Still, proximity to a railroad was essential for access to the university. Several respondents to Hale's questions pointed out that to prevent vibrations, the observatory's distance from the railroad would depend on how effectively the ground transmitted the vibration. If the subsoil was sand or gravel, the distance need only be half a mile.

Several of the proposed locations were on the shores of Lake Michigan. The advantage of a lakefront location was an unobstructed horizon, but cloudiness and humidity could hamper the observatory's work. Hale learned from Professor Mark Harrington, chief of the weather bureau, that the average annual cloudiness at three lakefront locations ranged from 51 to 58%. An unnamed point forty-seven miles from the lake averaged only 47%. Based on Harrington's data, Hale and the trustees rejected the lakefront site.

A group of university trustees visited the remaining sites with Hale's comments in hand. The final decision was made in late 1893 in Hale's absence, though he remained in constant contact with Harper throughout the process. The site chosen was fifty-five acres of land on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Away from Lake Michigan's cloudiness, with little appeal for industry, and with a Chicago and North Western Railroad line terminating just over a mile away in Williams Bay, it matched the project's specifications. Businessman John Johnson, Jr., donated the land, valued at $50,000. With the site chosen, Cobb could complete the architectural plans.

Hale submitted the specifications for the project to Charles Yerkes. The total cost was $285,375, just under his original estimate of $300,000. Yerkes exploded in rage. It seemed the generosity of the donor did indeed have limits. Hardly the scientific sophisticate, he envisioned no more than a huge telescope inside a big building with his name on it. He saw no need for spectroscopes and refractometers, and he accused Hale of exploiting his generosity.

Hale's plan was for an astrophysical observatory rather than an astronomical observatory, a distinction Yerkes would never understand. France and Germany had observatories equipped for studying the physics of celestial bodies, and the national observatories of England and Russia were equipped for some astrophysical work. North America had no such facilities. The major astronomical observatories, Lick and Harvard, had little of the spectroscopic and related laboratory equipment necessary. The nation's best spectroscopic lab, located at Johns Hopkins University, had no observatory. What Hale intended to build was unique in the United States, and it would bring astrophysical research in this country into line with that of Europe.

To accomplish his ambitious plan, Hale included a large spectroscope and spectroheliograph for the forty-inch telescope, two smaller telescopes (one the former Kenwood instrument, as his father had agreed) and accompanying instruments, the best micrometers available for detailed measurements of the position and size of the planets and stars, and a fully equipped spectroscopic laboratory. The plan for the building incorporated ideas gathered from visits to major observatories in the United States and in Europe, especially the Astrophysical Observatory at Potsdam in Germany, which Hale knew well.

No doubt Yerkes's reluctance to foot the bill had something to do with the losses he suffered in the depression and stock market panic of 1893. He told Hale to use Rockefeller's millions for the observatory, but Rockefeller's millions were busy funding lecture halls and dormitories at the University of Chicago, as Harper tried to explain to him. Harper reported that it took two hours to calm Yerkes down. The instrument maker Brashear also visited Yerkes to explain the instruments he was building. Brashear told Hale afterward that "if you or some good spectroscopist like you does not have something to do with this work, I confess I have no heart to make it for such a man as Yerkes, because he has absolutely no interest in its scientific value." Hale approached other donors to fund the laboratory, but while still unwilling to give more money, Yerkes was adamant that no one else's name should be on any part of the observatory.

Work on the mounting for the telescope, an expense Yerkes did not question, as already well under way. It was finished in time to dominate the Manufactures Building at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The sixty-two-foot tube and its supporting structure, the first ever to use an electric motor to move it, weighed almost twenty tons. As a complement to the exposition, Hale organized an international meeting of astronomers in Chicago. His intent was to concentrate on the "new astronomy," or astrophysics. Scientists were drawn from all over the world by the topic as well as by the chance to see the mounting for the telescope, famous well before its completion. Hale's plans were nearly ruined when fire ravaged the Manufactures Building. Harper wrote to Hale that horses and men dragged the giant tube clear of the flames. Hours later, careful inspection revealed the telescope to be unscathed.

When the fire occurred, Hale had been in Europe doing graduate work with physicists Max Planck and Hermann von Helmholtz in their laboratories and at the Astrophysical Observatory at Potsdam, the model for many of his plans. At Potsdam, he worked with H.C. Vogel and J.C. Scheiner, who had just pioneered the use of dry photographic plates for photographing spectra. These photographs were the first accurate enough to measure Doppler shifts (Doppler shifts are apparent changes in wavelengths of light as the result of a moving light source) and, therefore, the speeds at which stars move away from Earth.

Cobb, the university's architect, sent Hale his drawings for the observatory building. Included were spectroscopic labs, photographic labs and darkrooms, and instrument and optical shops. Precision instruments were mounted on piers anchored in concrete, so as not to be affected by vibrations in the building. The main dome, with a moveable floor that would rise to meet the eyepiece of the telescope, and the two smaller domes with electrically operated shutters, formed a Latin cross. Cobb noted that Yerkes bought the first Rodin sculpture to come to America, and he hoped his Romanesque exterior and elegant interior designs would impress the millionaire where the instruments had not.

Hale disliked being so far from the action and returned to Chicago without completing his Ph.D. Instead, he oversaw the construction of the building and the testing of the lens in Cambridgeport in October of 1895. The lens was as magnificent as had been promised. He wrote to Yerkes, trying again to instill in him his own awe and to open the donor's pocketbook. Yerkes said he would consider the matter.

Charles Yerkes's reluctance notwithstanding, the project moved forward. By autumn of 1896 the building was sufficiently complete for Hale and some of his staff--including the newly recruited astronomer E.E. Barnard, who would stay at the Yerkes Observatory for the remainder of his career--to move into their offices. By the end of the year, the Kenwood dome and its twelve-inch telescope were in place.

While Hale and Harper were building the Yerkes Observatory, Yerkes was building a million-dollar mansion for himself in New York. Harper wrote to Yerkes in spring of 1897, just before the lens was to be delivered. Yerkes shot back:

On the same date I received your letter I also read of a meeting of the Civic Federation, at which you were present. It was a notable gathering of the great and good few who represent the great and good part of our city, and I see by the names that these people are the ones who uphold all the charities of our city, who are always fairly throwing away their wealth so that others may be benefitted thereby, who are building up the great institutions of the city in a most daring and reckless manner, while such people as myself, according to the theory of your friends, are doing their best to pull to pieces and destroy what little honor and integrity is left in your community.

No check was enclosed.

Hale wrote to Yerkes a month later when the new lens arrived. Special trains were chartered for the journey from Cambridgeport to Williams Bay. Alvan G. Clark accompanied the lense despite his failing health (he died within weeks of the installation) and supervised the installation. Barnard tested the instrument, and he discovered a new star almost immediately. Hale wrote to Yerkes to report this. Yerkes wrote back, ordering that no one but those supervising the installation and testing be allowed near the telescope. The Manufactures Building fire and the near tragedy had made its impression on the patron.

Despite all efforts to protect the instrument, disaster struck at 6:43 a.m. on May 29. A cable snapped, and the movable floor crashed to the ground. No one was in the building when it happened. Hale and his staff raced to the scene. Looking through the telescope to see if it was damaged, they found that a network of fine lines crossed the aperture. A workman sent to inspect the delicate instrument found that the lines were made by a spider web in the tube. The lens was unharmed. Nonetheless the damage to the floor was a major setback. The rising floor and movable dome were out of commission until September. Hale used the time to plan the dedication of the observatory for the fall. Four days of scientific meetings were planned, culminating in the dedication ceremony. The visitors then would board chartered trains to Chicago for additional events to be held on the university's campus.

The dedication on October 21, 1897, attended by 750 invited guests, was covered by newspapers across the nation. Even the Times of London felt compelled to comment, worrying that the new university had built a telescope it could not afford to maintain. The dedication began with a procession of the university faculty, visiting astronomers, and the trustees. Harper and Yerkes entered together at the tail of the procession. The Chicago Tribune carried excerpts from the speeches, later published in their entirety in the Astrophysical Journal.

Yerkes formally presented the observatory to the university: "The science of astronomy, while being the oldest extant, has been, we may say, the most neglected. It is in no way commercial, and that may be one of the chief reasons." And, he went on, "The devotee of astronomy has as his only reward the satisfaction which comes to him in the glory of the work which he does, and the results which he accomplishes." At last, Yerkes had acknowledged what Hale had been trying to make him understand for five years. Martin A. Ryerson, the president of the Board of Trustees, accepted the gift of the observatory for the university, noting, "I am convinced that we are here at the inception of a great work which will justify itself by the practical value of its results as well as the ideal nature of its aims." Finally, Harper addressed the crowd: "In every department of science there is opportunity today for the development of what might be called the sensational . . . . The work of not a few observatories and of not a few astronomers has been seriously injured by the desire to do and say that which will attract public attention. The Yerkes Observatory will strenuously oppose every tendency of their character." With that mandate, the Yerkes Observatory undertook its work, with George Ellery Hale at the helm.

Hale did not remain in Williams Bay long--bigger and better telescopes beckoned. Even before the dedication, he persuaded his father to fund the mirror for a sixty-inch reflecting telescope. (Building a refracting telescope larger than the forty-inch instrument housed in the Yerkes Observatory was not possible because the weight of the glass would deform the lens.) A reflecting telescope is less precise, but it collects more light and can be larger. He wrote to Harper that such a telescope would permit examination of stars "on so large a scale as to permit the study of their chemical composition, the temperature and pressure in their atmospheres, and their motions with [a] high degree of precision." The University of Chicago was not ready for another project of this scale. Hale remained at the Yerkes Observatory long enough to host the first meeting of the American Astronomical and Astrophysical Society in 1899. By 1904 he was in California, where he arranged funding for the sixty-inch telescope, which was built on Mount Wilson; it was the largest reflecting telescope in the world. Shortly thereafter he added a one-hundred-inch reflector in Pasadena. Together these instruments were renamed the Hale Observatories after his death in 1938. With the one-hundred-inch telescope, Edwin Hubble would settle the debate in 1923 regarding the existence of other galaxies.

The Yerkes telescope focused the eyes of the astronomy community on the United States for the first time. Hale departed, but E.E. Barnard remained and completed a photographic survey of the entire Milky Way galaxy, a survey that is still of use today. The smaller refractors have been replaced by two Cassegrain-mounted reflectors (a Cassegrain-mounted telescope has its eyepiece at the base; a Newtonian-mounted telescope has its eyepiece on its side). The forty-inch telescope is still the largest refractor in the world, and the Yerkes Observatory is still the primary observatory of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago.