In 1904, the Mount Wilson Observatory was founded by George Ellery Hale under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In that year, Hale brought the Snow Solar Telescope from Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin to the sunnier and steadier skies of Mount Wilson to continue his studies of the Sun. With a small cadre of Yerkes scientists and engineers accompanying him, Hale started what would become the world’s foremost astronomical research facility. Hale put such importance on studying the Sun, that it was called the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory for the first decade and a half. In 1919, soon after the largest telescope in the world, the 100-inch, went into service photographing the stars and nebulae, the word “Solar” was dropped. Hubble used the 100-inch to make his great discoveries–that we are just one of many galaxies in an ever expanding Universe. This telescope lead directly to our current understanding of our origins, the Big Bang model. The 100-inch turns 100 years old this November.
Founding the new field of astrophysics (referred to at the time as the “New Astronomy”) Hale sought to understand the physical processes that took place in the Sun and other more distant stars. Hale and his colleagues developed new technologies to extract the information encoded in the light from distant astronomical objects. Combined with an earthbound laboratories where cosmic conditions could be duplicated, this small group of pioneering scientists began the long process of deciphering the light from objects that only new, powerful telescopes and instruments could detect, unlocking the secrets of life and death among the stars. Each new answer brought new questions, and each victory brought new challenges.
The scientific process of astronomy begun more than a century ago at Mount Wilson continues today around the world and in space with such instruments as the Hubble Space Telescope, named for one of Mount Wilson’s outstanding astronomers. The articles linked below describe some of the extraordinary difficulties and accomplishments of the early pioneering years of a remote and isolated mountaintop observatory. A timeline retrospective of the Observatory’s first century is available here.
Mike Simmons is a long-time Mount Wilson enthusiast and supporter and more recently a founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders. He has written numerous articles in magazines such as Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. The following are articles written for Reflections published quarterly for the Friends of Mount Wilson Observatory:
- Bringing Astronomy to an Isolated Mountaintop, 1983.
- Entering a New Era in Solar Research, 1983.
- Building the 60-inch Telescope, 1984.
- Building the 100-inch Telescope, 1984.
George Ellery Hale was a prolific writer of books and articles aimed at the educated public in whom he wanted to instill the thrill of modern astronomy. Here are a few of his articles reporting on various aspects of progress at the young Mount Wilson Observatory:
- A 100-inch Mirror for the Solar Observatory from The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 24, p. 214, 1906.
- The Tower Telescope of the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory from The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 27, p. 204, 1908.
- The Pasadena Laboratory of the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory from The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 28, p. 244, 1908.
- The 150-ft Tower Telescope of the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 24, p. 223, 1912.
- The Work of a Modern Observatory from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 27, p. 161, 1915.
- The 100-inch Telescope of the Mount Wilson Observatory from Popular Astronomy, Vol. 27, p. 635, 1919.
Walter S. Adams was brought to Mt. Wilson from Yerkes at the outset of George Ellery Hale’s westward move. Adams subsequently succeeded Hale as MWO Director in 1923. The following are articles written by Adams that deal with Mount Wilson events and people:
- The Founding of the Mount Wilson Observatory from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 66, p. 267, 1954.
- Early Days at Mount Wilson from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 59, p. 213, 1947 and Vol. 59, p. 285, 1947.
- The Past Twenty Years of Physical Astronomy from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 40, p. 213, 1928.
- Francis G. Pease from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 50, p. 119, 1938.
- George Ellery Hale 1868-1938 from The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 87, p. 36, 1938.
- Ferdinand Ellerman from The Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 52, p. 165, 1940.