Discovering Mount Wilson

Chapter 1: George Ellery Hale

Today we proudly launch ‘Discovering Mount Wilson,’ a special series that will showcase some of the most important news, discoveries and events to take place on the mountaintop since its founding in 1904. We begin with the founder himself – George Ellery Hale.

The eldest of three children, George Ellery Hale (1868 – 1938) grew up in Chicago, the son of a wealthy family in the elevator-manufacturing business. This served as an advantageous place for a curious mind, as Hale developed an early love of science and engineering that would last a lifetime.

Hale built a small shop in their Chicago home that he soon turned into a laboratory and at the age of fourteen built his first telescope. Later, Hale’s father replaced it with a four-inch Clark refractor that they mounted on their roof. Even as a youth, Hale had a passion for observing the Sun. He made his first photograph of the solar spectrum about 1884 at sixteen. In 1888, while he was a student at M.I.T., his father built a spectroscopic laboratory for him. By 1891, the year after Hale graduated from M.I.T., this grew into Kenwood Observatory, built alongside the family home in Chicago. This is where Hale began his life-long career of observing and studying the physics of the Sun.

His greatest legacy is, perhaps, his prodigious work in supporting astronomical observation and gaining funding and resources for the creation of the tools needed for astronomical observing from investors, including millionaire Andrew Carnegie and the even wealthier Rockefeller family.

George Ellery Hale atop Mount Wilson
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

Highlights of Hale’s remarkable career include:

  • Creation of the spectroheliograph – an ingenious device for imaging the Sun in a specific wavelength of light, that reveals prominences otherwise invisible against the glare of the sun in white light.
  • Championing and securing funding for Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, often referred to as ‘the birthplace of modern astrophysics’ and still home to the world’s largest refractor telescope.
  • Creation of The Astrophysical Journal, the first journal specifically devoted to astrophysics. This important publication remains a leader in the field.
  • Building Mount Wilson Observatory’s first observing instrument, the Snow Solar Telescope, which gauged the cooler temperature of sunspots and was used to make the first hydrogen-alpha images of the Sun.
  • Oversight on the building of the 60-foot solar tower telescope in 1908, which discovered the magnetic field in sunspots, and the 150-foot solar tower telescope in 1917, which discovered the Sun’s global magnetic field.
  • Further adding to the tools at Mount Wilson with the building of the 60-inch telescope, the largest operational telescope in the world from 1908-1917. It allowed Harlow Shapley to “discover” the Milky Way by quantitatively determining its true finite size and shape.
  • Driving the construction of Mount Wilson’s 100-inch telescope, which was the largest operational telescope in the world from 1917-1949. It was on this telescope that Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way is only one of millions of galaxies in an expanding universe.
  • Founding the famed Palomar Observatory and the 200-inch telescope which bears his name. Sadly, Hale did not live to see its completion.
  • Extensive work outside the field of astronomy and astrophysics, helping shape the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) into one of the world’s foremost research universities. Hale also supported the founding of the Pasadena Civic Center and the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington D.C.
  • Championing Pasadena’s Huntington Library and Art Gallery as not only collections of artifacts and artworks, but also as a vital center for the study of humanities and art, just as Mount Wilson Observatory was for science.
George Ellery Hale with Spectrograph
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.

George Ellery Hale’s contributions stretch well beyond Mount Wilson and we’re proud to celebrate his legacy. Please check back on June 22 for the next installment of ‘Discovering Mount Wilson.’

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