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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On October 21, 1897 the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin was dedicated in a 4-day conference that included the 4th annual gathering of board members of the Astrophysical Journal.  See a list below of the sixty or so people who gave lectures and demonstration, or simply attended.  It is fun to note that many of the attendees slept at the observatory during the conference, sleeping on cots borrowed from the YMCA.  The village of Williams Bay had a boarding house to accommodate
The president of the university and benefactor Charles
Yerkes were also on hand to present and accept recognition.
The Yerkes remains as the largest refracting telescope ever built and the Observatory is still in operation, recognized for its stellar motion research and cartography.  In 1944 it was at Yerkes that Gerald Kuiper discovered an atmosphere over Titan, Saturn's satellite 

The Yerkes observatory captured the Lunar impact crater, Theophilus  with the 40-inch refracting telescope at Yerkes Observatory.  The crater is 14,000 feet deep and 62 miles in diameter.
Early equipment at the observatory included a double-slide plate carrier photographic accessory for the 40-inch refractory telescope.

A 24" reflecting telescope
was used in the south east dome at the Yerkes Observatory in 1897.  The mirror was made by Mr. Ritchey who would in 1905 leave Yerkes and head to the Mt. Wilson observatory with George Hale. 

To the original Bruce spectrograph was added the Rumford spectroheliograph.  George Hale's work with spectrographhelioscopes furthered investigations of the sun and resulted in the first ever photos of red stars (aka Secchi's fourth type).  One of the earliest spectroscopes made for the 40-inch Yerkes telescope, and exhibited at the Columbian Exposition, was built by John Brashear.

40-inch refractor Yerkes telescope, built by Warner and Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio.  It originally appeared in the 1893 Columbian World's Fair Exposition in Chicago, without a lens.  A lens had been cast by Alvan Clark for another observatory but the benefactor backed out, owing Clark $16,000.  That meant the 42-inch casts were available to be cut for another telescope.  George Hale, hired by the University of Chicago to build an observatory for the school, recognized that building a telescope to match the lense would result in the largest telescope in the world - exactly the kind of attention-getting project apt to appeal to a prospective benefactor, Charles T. Yerkes.

Yerkes 40 inch telescope at 1893 Worlds Fair in ChicagoAt the fair, the telescope was installed at the north end of the mail aisle in the north gallery of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building. One of several fires after the fair threatened the telescope but it was saved and installed at the Yerkes observatory in time for the 1897 dedication ceremonies.

For eleven years, 1897 to 1908, it was the world's largest telescope.  Mt. Wilson's 60-inch instrument took that title away in 1908, followed a decade later by a Wilson's 100-inch telescope.

George E. Hale (1868-1938), founder of Yerkes

Observatory was the son of a wealthy Chicago elevator manufacturer, William E. Hale, George Hale was passionate about astronomy.  His passion, backed by his father's money, had good results for astrophysics.

A Chicago native, George Ellery Hale attended MIT, Harvard and the Humboldt University of Berlin, but did not graduate.  Instead he returned to Chicago and persuaded his father to purchase a used 12-inch Alvan Clark telescope and build an observatory in the family's back yard to put it in.  The Hales lived on Drexel Avenue in Chicago's affluent Kenwood neighborhood so an observation dome must have been an unusual sight. 

At his new Kenwood Observatory, Hale continued work he'd begun at MIT on a spectroheliograph with which to photograph the sun.  His success and enthusiasm earned sufficient respect from people working in the field that William Rainey Harper -- first president at the University of Chicago, appointed by John D. Rockefeller who donated the money to start the university in 1890 -- was willing to overlook deficiencies in George's academic accreditation to bring him onto the faculty.  George's father and Harper struck a deal. 

The Hales would donate the equipment at Kenwood to the university in exchange for George being named an associate professor of astrophysics, and being named director of a yet to be constructed observatory for which the university would raise at least $250,000.  Hale and Harper persuaded Charles T. Herkes to put up $300,000 by flattering him with the prospect of having his name on the facility with the world's largest telescope, then leaking word to the press about the large donation, making it difficult for Yerkes to back out without earning bad publicity.  Yerkes was in the midst of acquiring access contracts for an elaborate railway project (see below) and it was a bad time for negative publicity so the University got the necessary funds.  As a faculty member, George Hale had just one job: build an observatory for the University of Chicago.

For Hale, Yerkes was a stepping stone to gain access to even higher capacity instruments.  In 1905, his job at Yerkes done, he left U of C to join Carnegie Institute where a 60-inch refractory telescope was in progress at the Pasadena-based Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory.

Charles T. Yerkes
Had the Yerkes project been delayed, it might not have been built.  Three years after the dedication ceremony, its patron, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905), left Chicago in a huff after losing a battle with the Chicago city council and mayor, Carter Harrison Jr.  Yerkes had acquired and consolidated numerous elevated railway companies to build an elevated railway loop around Chicago's downtown commercial area (The Loop), dramatically expanding the city's mass transit capacity.  He then bribed state legislators to pass a law giving municipalities the right to grant long-term franchises. His franchise application was rejected by the Chicago city council, however, when alderman heard that for the next 50 years, Yerkes was to get a commission on every fare sold that traveled on the Loop. 
Yerkes also donated an electric water fountain to Chicago that was featured during the Columbian exposition.

American author,  Theodore Dreiser, based a series of novels on Yerkes, called the Cowperwood trilogy.  During his years in Chicago, Yerkes became an avid art collector.  Not all of his selections were as well researched as they might have been.  For example, one painting that Yerke attributed to Hans the Younger, English Tudor King Henry VIII's favorite painter, was dated 1575 -- thirty two years after the artist's death.  Shown below: The Fool, attributed by Yerkes to Hans Holbein the elder

The historic meeting between George Hale, William Harper and Charles Yerkes that resulted in Yerkes agreeing to fund the observatory took place October 4, 1892.

Dedication of the Yerkes Observatory in October, 1897 was made part of a 4-day conference that included the 4th annual gathering of board members of the Astrophysical Journal.  Following is a list of attendees and session topics. 

  • "Application of Diffraction Phenomena to Astronomical and Astrophysical Measurements"
  • "Electric Radiation," "Source of Characteristic Spectrum of the Metallic Arc"
  • "Effect of Pressure on Wave length"
  • "Spectra of Stars on Secchi's Third Type"
  • "Researches in Stellar Spectrography"
  • "Oxygen in the Sun"
  • "Great Nebula of Orion"
  • "Jovian Phenomena"
  • "The System of Beta Lyrae"
  • "The Teaching of Theoretical Astronomy in America"
  • "Jacobi's Investigations in Theoretical Astronomy"

The 40-inch telescope played an important role in the conference with display of chromosphere and prominences, the reversal of the H and K lines in prominences and faculae and the duplication of the D3 line.  There were also demonstrations showing the grinding of a five-ft speculum and an exhibition on testing mirror, parallel plates, and attendees were able to look in on the progress of other Yerkes equipment under development, including a 24-inch heliostat and coelostat, an equatorial mounting for a 24-inch reflector telescope, a spectroheliograph for the 40-inch telescope and a ruling machine for optical gratings, as well as how-to's on making a perfect straight edge and grinding a perfect screw.

Delivering addresses and In attendance:

  • Dr. John Brashear
  • F. L. O. Wadsworth (Yerkes astrophysicist professor)
  • Dr. G. F. Hull (Colby University professor of physics)
  • Dr. Henry Crew (Northwestern University physics professor)
  • Dr. Henri Deslandres (Paris observatory astrophysicist)
  • Dr. W. J. Humphreys (University of Virginia)
  • James E. Keeler (Allegheny Observatory professor)
  • H. C. Lord (Emerson McMillin Observatory Ohio State University professor)
  • Carl Runge (director Spectroscopic Laboratory, Technische Hochschule, Hanover)
  • Ormond Stone (director Leander McCormick Observatory University of Virginia)
  • George C. Comstock (Washburn Observatory University of Wisconsin)
  • C. L. Doolittle (Flower Observatory University of Pennsylvania)
  • Father Hedrick (Georgetown College Observatory)
  • H. S. Pritchett (Washington University observatory director)
  • Dr. Charles L. Poor (assoc. professor astronomy John Hopkins university)
  • J. K. Rees (Columbia University Observatory director)
  • E. E. Barnard (Yerkes astronomy professor)
  • Father Hagen (Georgetown Observatory)
  • G. W. Hough, Dearborn Observatory)
  • G. W. Myers (University of Illinois Observatory)
  • Simon Newcom, E. C. Pickering (Harvard Observatory)
  • D. Kurt Laves (University of Chicago)
  • Mary Whitney (Vassar Observatory)
  • J. A. Parkhurst (Marengo, IL)
  • O. H. Basquin (Evanston, IL)
  • Miss Cunningham (Swarthmore Observatory)
  • A. S. Flint (Washburn Observatory)
  • F. R. Moulton (University of Chicago)
  • A. A. Michelson (physics professor University of Chicago)
  • Miss Furness (Vassar)
  • E. F. Nichols (Colgate University)
  • Professor Upton (Ladd Observatory Brown University)
  • Professor Van Vlack (mathematics and astronomy professor, Wesleyan University)
  • Professor Malcome McNeil (Lake Forest University)
  • Edwin F. Sawyer (brighton, Mass)
  • F. H. Scares (University of California)
  • Father Searle (Catholic University at Washington)
  • G. M. Hobbs (Ryerson Laboratory University of Chicago)
  • Dr. S. D. Townley (Detroit Observatory, University of Michigan)
  • William Harness (professor US Naval Observatory and superintendent of Nautical Almanac)
  • W. W. Payne (professor director Goodsell Observatory)
  • E. B. Frost (director Shattuck Observatory Dartmouth)
  • Professor Snyder (Philadelphia Observatory)
  • Professor Stockwell (Cleveland)
  • Professor McLeod (McGill University of Montreal)
  • Rev. A. W. Quimby (Berwyn, PA)
  • Reginald Fessenden (professor physics Western University Pennsylvania)
  • E. L. Nichols (physics professor Cornell)
  • Professor Leavenworth (director University of Minnesota Observatory)
  • Professor Paul (US naval observatory of Washington)
  • Professor Pupin (physics Columbia University)
  • C. A. Becon (director Smith Observatory at Beloit College)
  • William H. Collins (director Haverford College Observatory)
  • Charles Rockwell (Tarrytown, NY)
  • Dr. Tatnall (physics professor University of Pennsylvania)
  • Mr. Brooks (director Geneva, NY observatory)
  • Frank W. Very (Ladd Observatory, Brown)
  • E. D. Eaton (Beloit College)
  • Winslow Upton (Brown University)
  • N. E. Bennett (Wilmington College)
  • C. K. Adams (University of Wisconsin)
  • W. P. Lackland (Illinois Wesleyan University)
  • General Schofield (Wisconsin)
  • Charlie Schaefer (State University of Iowa)

Set of 6 fridge magnets featuring the early years of Yerkes Observatory.

Additional reading

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