George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) founded the Observatory in 1904 and directed it until his retirement in 1923. In the photograph above, taken around 1905, he is working in his office in the Monastery, the dormatory for astronomers on the mountain.

Shining Bright Like the Sun

 by Marilyn Morgan


The Sun played an essential role in George Ellery Hale’s life, so much so that when he died on February 21, 1938, newspaper accolades referred to him as the “wizard of the Sun,” “the modern Zoroaster,” and the “priest of the Sun.” Indeed, Hale always seemed happiest when in a sunny clime such as Italy or Southern California, and most content when studying our solar system’s star. Wrote Harold Zirin, “Hale had a wonderful feeling for the Sun,” and “great feeling for the beauty of solar phenomena, writing in terms such as ‘magnificent views of inflow to a spot,’ and ‘beautiful vortex patterns.’”

Hale was destined to become the chief architect of a transformation of American science. He was a master organizer and a “maker of institutions,” as a Pasadena newspaper obituary described him; a fabulous visionary, and a profoundly charismatic and inspirational individual. He was also a highly effective fund-raiser.

The sound-bite description of Hale is that he conceived and developed the world’s largest telescopes four times in succession — Yerkes Observatory (40-inch refractor), Mount Wilson Observatory (60-inch reflector, 100-inch reflector) and Palomar Observatory (200-inch reflector). Such projects involved years-long endeavors on Hale’s part in convincing a series of individuals, foundations, and institutions to fund these magnificent observatories. Largely because of Hale’s efforts, modern American astronomy could thrive, grow, and discover in a wholly unprecedented manner.

As his colleague Walter S. Adams wrote in remembrance, “Dr. Hale has left an impress upon the life of science which will endure for generations to come. In later years, when illness prevented him from carrying on actively the investigations he had most at heart, he conceived the project of the 200-inch telescope [at Palomar Mountain] and secured the necessary financial support, leaving this great instrument as his final gift to the science he had loved so well.”

A young and quite intense G. E. Hale in a formal portrait, probably taken at the University of Chicago when he was in his 20s. University of Chicago Photographic Archive.

Hale in preadolescence became a precocious dabbler in science, making observations with microscopes and telescopes. He persuaded his mother to turn over a room in their house dedicated to his experiments. At age 14, he and his brother installed a lathe in their “shop” and built a small steam engine fed by a boiler capable of generating 1/8 horsepower to operate the lathe. Reportedly this apparatus made the whole house shake when running. At even an early age, boundless energy, enthusiasm, restlessness, and drive characterized Hale’s personality.

While a young teenager, Hale persuaded his father to buy him a small refractor telescope. But George was drawn to spectroscopy and the possibility of applying it to astronomy — he was not so interested in simply measuring the positions of planets and stars. He was interested in astronomy combined with physics: astrophysics.

Hale enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and volunteered to work in astronomical photography with Edward C. Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory. There he developed the first form of his ingenious spectroheliograph, but, eschewing long hours at the telescope, Hale hired Ferdinand Ellerman as an assistant. Ellerman was a multitalented individual who would later be recruited to join Hale in California at Mount Wilson.

Two days after graduation from MIT in 1890, Hale married Evelina Conklin, and on their honeymoon journey they ventured west. The trip included a visit to Lick Observatory, which captivated Hale’s imagination with the then-largest telescope in the world — a 36-inch refractor.

At age 24, Hale agreed to become an associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago, while keeping an eye on what he really wanted — getting the use of a big telescope. He soon persuaded Charles T. Yerkes, the streetcar magnate, to donate funds for the 40-inch Yerkes telescope. Yerkes Observatory was dedicated in 1897, with Hale as its first director.

By 1898, Hale recognized that the Yerkes 40-inch refractor was not well suited for the astrophysical research on stars that he wanted to pursue. He wanted a large-aperture reflector, which could feed a large spectrograph, on a clear-sky mountain peak. In 1902, Andrew Carnegie announced a plan to set up an institution to finance research and discovery — Hale’s ears must have perked up at this news.

Mount Wilson

In June 1903, Hale visited Mount Wilson (then called Wilson’s Peak), where he conducted tests of the solar seeing. These tests were so satisfactory that application was made to the Carnegie Institution for a grant to finance an expedition from Yerkes and install the Snow solar telescope then at Yerkes on Mount Wilson. The Mount Wilson Solar Observatory was organized in 1904, with Ellerman, George Ritchey, and Walter Adams forming the nucleus of the staff, and the Snow, transported in pieces to the mountaintop in 60 trips by mule trains, became operational in 1905. Hale enjoyed this period tremendously. Wrote Adams, “The isolation of the mountain top … made a strong appeal to [Hale’s] pioneering spirit and his joy in the discoveries of the ever-changing beauties in nature….”

Hale atop Mount Wilson in 1903, scouting for a site for his observatory. He knew exactly what he wanted, and Mount Wilson’s conditions were perfect. Photo: Carnegie/ Huntington Library

The spectroscopic study of the Sun greatly interested Hale. He used the spectrograph installed on the Snow for analyzing the Sun’s light and the behavior of the spectral lines of the elements in the Sun’s atmosphere. He also invented the spectrohelioscope, a type of spectroscope with an oscillating slit or rotating prism above the slit so as to scan the whole surface of the Sun within a few minutes, and he used it on the Snow to photograph the distribution of the clouds of individual gases over the surface. In 1906, Hale proved that sunspots are regions of reduced solar temperature. Using the 60-foot solar telescope, which became operational in 1908, Hale showed that sunspots are the centers of strong magnetic fields — the first detection of a magnetic field beyond Earth. To study Zeeman splitting in detail, where a spectral line is split into components in the presence of a magnetic field, Hale needed a larger solar tower, and he pursued funding, again from the Carnegie Institution, for construction of the 150-foot solar tower, which became operational in 1912. In 1914, Hale and his colleagues found that sunspots in northern and southern hemispheres reverse polarity every 11 years.

More Light

Hale also persuaded the Carnegie Institution to donate funding for the construction of a 60-inch reflector. The mirror would be designed and built by the optician George W. Ritchey, whom Hale had hired in 1896 to work at Yerkes. Hale appointed Ritchey, a perfectionist by nature, as director of new optical and mechanical labs in Pasadena. A 60-inch glass, provided earlier by Hale’s father at the behest of his son, was moved from Yerkes to Pasadena.

George Ellery Hale using the spectrograph in the 60 foot solar telescope, where, in 1908, he discovered magnetic fields on the Sun, the key to understanding sunspots and solar weather.

The 60-inch saw first light in December 1908, but Hale was already pursuing bigger goals. In 1906, he persuaded J. D. Hooker, a wealthy Los Angeles merchant, to donate $45,000 to cast and grind a 100-inch mirror. In announcing the gift in an article titled “A 100-inch Mirror for the Solar Observatory” in The Astrophysical Journal, Hale confidently wrote: “No provision has yet been made for the mounting and dome. It is not known from what source funds for this purpose will come; but I believe a donor will be found by the time they are needed.” The Saint-Gobain glassworks in France cast a disk 101 inches across and 13 inches thick, the largest plate glass casting ever poured to date, weighing 4-1/2 tons. The disk was annealed for one year, then shipped to the U.S., arriving on December 7, 1908, in Pasadena on the day the 60-inch telescope was set in place.

Hale and Ritchey were appalled to see that the huge disk had sheets of bubbles between the layers, and Ritchey said it would be unlikely that the disk could take a good surface figure. Saint-Gobain agreed to absorb the loss for the rejected disk and to try again, and Hale could only wait anxiously for more news from France. He estimated he would need another $500,000 to build the telescope.

Andrew Carnegie cheerily came to call in March 1910, greeted warmly by Pasadena luminaries and followed about avidly by newspaper reporters. His visit to Mount Wilson was marred by an enveloping fog, preventing Carnegie from looking through the 60-inch telescope to view Halley’s comet. Still, he spoke highly of the Observatory and indicated that more funding would be forthcoming. Said Carnegie: “I’ve had a splendid trip and enjoyed every minute of it.”

Andrew Carnegie and George Ellery Hale posed near the 60-inch telescope on Mount Wilson during Carnegie’s 1910 visit. Afterwards, Carnegie provided more funding for the Observatory, which he termed “the pulpit of the universe.”

But, as Walter S. Adams noted, “In 1910, after six years of active and productive work, the first shadows of physical illness began to fall across Hale’s life.” The pressure of the relentless search for funds was taking a considerable toll on Hale’s health.

In September 1910, a meeting of the International Union for Co-operation in Solar Research was held on Mount Wilson. Wrote Harold Babcock, “to see [the participants] riding mules up the old trail from Sierra Madre to Mount Wilson and sitting in earnest conference there was an experience to be met only once in a lifetime.” Sadly, Hale was too ill by then to attend the meeting but just one day.

Doctors recommended rest and travel. Hale was feted in Europe and visited Saint-Gobain, cheered by the progress there. On his return home, news came that two replacement 100-inch disks had broken during annealing, and a third casting was of doubtful quality. Hale decided to revisit the original disk. Tests showed that the bubbles might not interfere with the formation of an optical surface. Both Hooker and Ritchey protested using the “flawed” disk; Hooker demanded to be released from further obligations if he paid the $45,000, despite more pleas from Hale.

For years, Hale had suffered from blinding headaches and ringing in his ears. Rest and travel were usually prescribed, but did not help. Evelina saw that her husband was worsening and wrote to Walter Adams, “I wish that glass was in the bottom of the ocean.”

Hale in action, conferring with donor Andrew Carnegie on the latter’s visit to Pasadena and Mount Wilson in 1910. Hale is carrying the gold-plated golf club given to Carnegie at a luncheon at the Annandale Country Club. In Hale’s remarks at the luncheon, he said that astronomy “teaches us that we are not the center of the universe. We are merely part of a whole.”

Now a “demon” appeared in Hale’s imagination, berating him for his failures. Hale remarked in a letter that he was having trouble concentrating and that “a little demon stands by my side and … prods me with the suggestion that…all my attention belongs to him.” Hale proposed that “some regular work to do each day” would “get rid of the demon.” There is some thought that Hale did actually hallucinate an elf-like figure, but some have suggested that the “demon” was a figurative way of expressing something that was troubling him. Certainly Hale was going through a very difficult time, which he described as a nervous breakdown.

While traveling in Italy, Hale had read in a newspaper that Carnegie had donated another $10 million to the Carnegie Institution. The article mentioned Carnegie’s special interest in Mount Wilson, and Hale knew this meant that Carnegie had decided to fund the 100‑inch. Hale wired Ritchey to start grinding.

The mirror blank was not completed until the end of 1916. Delays caused by World War I were a hindrance, and the mirror was not delivered to Mount Wilson until July 1917, with first light in November 1917. Improvements in the mountain roads had enabled the transport of the more than 600 tons of material for the dome, and the mirror’s journey involved nearly 200 men to accompany a truck carrying the mirror as it made the 8-hour trip at an average speed of about 1 mile per hour. Over budget and behind schedule, the 100-inch telescope project had another cost: Hale’s health.

In 1923, Hale resigned directorship of Mount Wilson Observatory (the word “Solar” had been dropped when the 100-inch was completed). He engaged his energies in building a private solar observatory in Pasadena, near the border of San Marino. The Hale Solar Laboratory became a refuge for him. It had a pleasant library and a solar spectroheliograph in the basement, and it became a place where he could indulge in his own research in solitude. Yet he continued to pursue his next grand vision — an even larger telescope.

Even More Light

The 200-inch mirror blank at Corning Glass Works, 1936. The pouring for this giant glass disk attracted huge public attention.The radio commentator Lowell Thomas termed the event “the greatest item of interest to the civilized world in 15 years, not excluding the World War.”

In April 1928, Hale wrote an influential article for Harper’s Monthly Magazine entitled “The Possibilities of Large Telescopes,” a carefully and clearly written exposition, in layperson’s terms, of the history of collecting light for astronomical study, the continuing improvements in optics, and an explanation of why telescopes with 200-inch or even 300-inch mirrors could now be built “and used to the great advantage of astronomy.” He wrote: “Starlight is falling on every square mile of the earth’s surface, and the best we can do at present is to gather up and concentrate the rays that strike an area 100 inches in diameter.” Hale’s thoughtful and persuasive proselytizing paid off when the International Education Board (affiliated with the Rockefeller Foundation) provided $6 million to Caltech to build a 200-inch telescope. Hale had not forgotten a previous scouting visit to Palomar Mountain, and this became the chosen site for the new observatory.

Though Hale put the last full measure of his strength toward seeing the 200-inch telescope come to fruition, he died a decade before it was completed in 1948 (and named after him). His failing strength prevented him from ever visiting the site or seeing the work in progress, though, as Adams wrote, each clear day, Hale rejoiced “in one more day for work on Palomar.”

About two days before his death, wrote Ronald Florence, Hale felt well enough to be wheeled outside, where he looked up at the sky and said, “It is a beautiful day. The Sun is shining and they are working on Palomar.”

Hale’s Legacy

The founders of the California Institute of Technology, Arthur Noyes, Robert Millikan, and George Ellery Hale.This elegant portrait hangs today in the Caltech Athenaeum faculty club main dining room.

George Ellery Hale’s legacy is so multifaceted that it is virtually impossible to list all his accomplishments. In 1892 at only age 24, Hale began a journal incorporating astronomy with physics, becoming The Astrophysical Journal; Hale continued as editor until 1934 and the journal thrives to this day. In addition to his own solar research and published findings about the magnetic polarity in sunspots (with colleagues Ferdinand Ellerman, Seth Nicholson, and Alfred Joy), he was for many years foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, founder of the National Research Council, and the recipient of many international and national scientific awards. He invented the spectroheliograph and the spectrohelioscope, and adapted the tower telescope and vertical spectrograph for solar investigation. He appreciated the value of improved instruments for astronomical progress, and he loved fine workmanship.

Hale was the prime mover behind the founding of Caltech and the establishment of the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, and exerted a considerable influence on the intellectual and cultural life of Pasadena. He worked on the first Pasadena City Planning Commission, and guided the master plan for the city’s Civic Center. His bibliography includes nearly 450 titles, from spectroscopic observations of solar prominences to an analysis of the intellectual culture of France, and includes nontechnical books as well as scientific works. In a retrospective published in 1947, Walter Adams wrote: “In looking backward over the earlier years of the history of [Mount Wilson] Observatory, I am impressed by the greatness of the figure of Hale, without whom it is doubtful whether the Observatory, if established at all, could ever have attained its high position in the field of astronomy.”

A Remarkable Life

Following Hale’s death, colleague Harold Babcock wrote these words in memoriam: “Few men have enjoyed a life so rich as Hale’s in those returns that bring the deepest satisfaction. …His life was a rebuke and a refutation to cynicism. In the midst of our irreparable loss, the words of his friend, poet Alfred Noyes, stand out in clear relief:

“….I sing
Of those who caught the pure Promethean fire
One from another, each crying as he went down
To one that waited, crowned with youth and joy, —
Take thou the splendour, carry it out of sight
Into the great new age I must not know
Into the great new realm I must not tread.”



Article by Marilyn Morgan. It first appeared in the March 2013 issue of “Reflections,” the publication of the Mount Wilson Institute, for which she is the Editor.


• Walter S. Adams, “George Ellery Hale,” The Astrophysical Journal, May 1938.

• Walter S. Adams, “Early Days at Mount Wilson,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, October 1947.

• Harold D. Babcock, “George Ellery Hale,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, June 1938.

• Ronald Florence, The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope, Harper 
Collins, 1994.

• Scott Kardel, “Palomar Skies” (blog), February 21, 2008.

• Robin and Todd Mason, “The Journey to Palomar” (PBS film documentary), 
November 2008, widely available on DVD.

• The Hale Scrapbooks (DVD), scans of newspaper clippings of Hale’s career from the early 1890s through the 1950s, shared by Robin and Todd Mason.

• Mount Wilson Observatory website, numerous histories,

• William Sheehan and Donald E. Osterbrock, “Hale’s ‘Little Elf’—The Mental Breakdowns of George Ellery Hale,” Journal for the History of Astronomy, 2000.

• Harold Zirin, “George Ellery Hale,” Solar Physics, 1968.

Photographs are courtesy of the University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special 
Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library; Don Nicholson; Scott Kardel; and the George V. Mccauley Archive, the Rakow Research Library, Corning Museum of Glass.

A wonderful documentary film entitled Journey to Palomar tells the incredible story of this remarkable man’s life.