07 Sep Discovering Mount Wilson Chapter 13: The Solar Observatory
Image caption: On his first visit to Mount Wilson, Hale experienced gloomy skies, fog and low clouds at the base of the mountain. Halfway up to the peak, blue sky and brilliant sunshine burst through the clouds leaving Hale ecstatic over the excellent conditions. A present-day look shows an example of the cloud break he must have experienced (with Mount Harvard also above the clouds, on the adjacent peak),
Due to our readers’ enthusiasm, we continue ‘Discovering Mount Wilson’ with some bonus background! Chapter 13 celebrates the Carnegie Institution’s agreement to fund Mount Wilson Solar Observatory in January 1905, bringing founder George Ellery Hale one step closer to fulfilling his dream.
In 1902, Hale learned that Andrew Carnegie had established the Carnegie Institution of Washington to support original research in all scientific fields. When Hale was asked to serve on the Advisory Committee on Astronomy of the new Institution, he saw an opportunity to further his views as to how the Carnegie money should be spent.
At first Carnegie made only small grants, but soon a committee was formed to study the establishment of a southern solar observatory. Several sites in the southwest United States, including Flagstaff, Palomar Mountain, and Mount Lowe were investigated, but Mount Wilson received the highest recommendation.
On June 25, 1903, Hale visited Mount Wilson himself with W.W. Campbell, Director of Lick Observatory (Hamilton, CA). The day started with gloomy skies, fog and low clouds and Hale was discouraged until halfway up the mountain. There, blue sky and brilliant sunshine burst through the clouds leaving Hale ecstatic over the excellent conditions. This was the place where he decided he must build his observatory.
Confident that the Carnegie Institution would now fund the Solar Observatory, Hale signed a 99-year lease with the Mount Wilson Toll Road Company, acquired from the United States Land Office, for 40 acres on the mountaintop. With a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Institution, the Snow solar telescope was brought from Yerkes Observatory (WI), soon to become the first permanently mounted telescope on Mt. Wilson, the world’s most sensitive solar telescope, and the world’s first astrophysical solar telescope.
Without the financial support of Carnegie it is unlikely that there would have been a Mount Wilson Observatory as we know it today. The 99-year lease was renewed in 2004. The initial grant of $150,000 (1905) to build out the mountain – with inflation — adjusts to about $4,380,000 in 2020-21 dollars. The Carnegie Institution still holds the lease, which is now from the U.S. Forest Service. However, the Mt. Wilson Institute operates Mt. Wilson Observatory, with the approval & cooperation of both the Carnegie Institution, and the Forest Service.