1892 History of Yerkes Observatory

Yerkes in 1892
Yerkes Observatory in 1892

By chance the new Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, George Hale, discovers that two optically perfect disks are available. These 42-inch "blanks" could be ground to create a 40-inch refracting telescope, the largest in the world. He and the dynamic president of the university set off to find a donor willing to purchase these disks; build the telescope; and pay for a "suitable observatory" to house the World's Largest Telescope


On July 1, George Ellery Hale, a 24-year-old astronomer working in his own private observatory, receives a letter from William Rainey Harper offering him a job at the new University of Chicago, just a few blocks south of the Hale house and observatory at 4545 Drexel Boulevard in Kenwood. Harper, the University's President, had noticed Hale a year earlier when Hale's Kenwood Observatory was finished, and offered him a job then. Hale was interested until he learned that Harper wanted the observatory more than he wanted Hale. Annoyed and irritated, he turned Harper down. But now Hale has another offer from Harper, essentially the same as the first, and this time he considers it. During the past year, Hale has learned a lot more about Harper's faculty: first-rate researchers have been hired, especially Albert Michelson in Physics, whom Hale admires. Harper's plans to create a graduate research facility appear to be possible.

Hale consults his father, William, who thinks Harper's proposal is a good one. The young man accepts Harper's offer. William Hale writes to Harper the same day, on the 1st, offering to donate the Kenwood Observatory, its 12-inch telescope and other equipment, to the University of Chicago in exchange for:
* his son's position as Associate Professor of "Astro-physics";
* a promise that Harper will raise a minimum of $250,000 within three years to build a larger observatory;
* his son named Director of the new observatory.

Harper takes the offer to the Board of Trustees with glee, and on July 26 the appointment of George Hale as Associate Professor of Astro-Physics (with no salary) and Director of the Observatory (his own) is made.
Hale at 20 yrs. old
George Ellery Hale at 20 yrs. old
Hale takes his wife, Evelina, on a vacation at the Cascade Lake House not far from Saranac in the Adirondacks, to fish for trout and prepare a speech that he will give in Rochester, New York, before the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

William Hale
William Rainey Harper
After the speeches of the AAAS are over, Hale is sitting one evening on the veranda of the Powers Hotel with Eliakim Moore, the mathematician, and Edwin Frost, the Dartmouth astronomer. Nearby sits Alvan G. Clark, the well-known optician from Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, who is telling a story about two disks of glass, 42-inches in diameter, that he has in his shop. These optically perfect disks had been ordered from Mantois of Paris in 1889 for the University of Southern California. One of the USC trustees, Edward F. Spence, had pledged land to pay for the lenses. The trustees had planned to build the Spence Observatory on Mount Wilson near Pasadena, which would then be the largest observatory in the world. But the land bubble burst and Spence's land was worthless. The University defaulted on its payments, still owing Clark $16,000. When Hale hears about the lenses from Clark, he wants them. Cutting short his vacation, Hale fetches Evelina from the Cascade Lake House and hurries back to Chicago to discuss the purchase with Harper.

Edward Emerson Barnard discovers Amalthea, the fifth satellite of Jupiter, on September 9, using the world's largest refracting telescope, the 36-inch at Lick Observatory.

Edward E. Barnard
Alvan G. Clark
On Tuesday, October 4th, Hale and Harper meet with Charles T. Yerkes, a businessman who has made his fortune financing Chicago's electric railway system, in Yerkes' office at 444 North Clark Street. Yerkes was intrigued with Hale's letter requesting this interview. In the meeting Hale tells Yerkes about the disks that will make the largest refracting telescope in the world. Playing to Yerkes' vanity, Hale tells him of the recognition that James Lick earned by building his observatory. Yerkes' name will be remembered for all times if he builds the largest telescope ever. Furthermore, Hale tells him, the mounting and tube can be finished in time to be displayed at the Columbian Exposition that will open in May, 1893.

All of this goes to Yerkes' head and he agrees to buy the disks and the telescope mounting. He likes the idea of putting his name on something that will be "the biggest in the world". "I don't care what the cost, send me the bill!", he announces to the local journalists. The papers claim he will spend a million dollars to "lick the Lick." The wheels of progress start turning and within one week a contract is awarded to Clark & Sons to finish preparing the two disks. Warner & Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio, are chosen to build the mounting and 40-inch telescope tube. Both firms are chosen for their proven excellence in workmanship, and because of the valuable experience gained when designing and constructing the mounting, and grinding and figuring the glass, of the 36-inch refractor at Lick Observatory just four years earlier.

Within a week of the announcement, donors begin offering land and other inducements for the future site of the observatory. Twenty-seven sites are offered. "The offers include tracts of land in or near the towns of Morgan Park, Tracy, Highland Park, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Mt. Pleasant, Western Springs, La Grange, Glen Ellyn, Elmhurst, Elgin, Rockford, Peoria, Aurora, Waukegan, Belvidere, Sycamore, Marengo, Lena, Kankakee, Warren, Oregon, Princeton, Dixon, and Freeport in the state of Illinois; Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and Pasadena in California." (Hale 1897) It is generally agreed that the observatory should be within 100 miles of the University so that its value as a department will not be materially affected. This decision immediately rules out Mount Wilson in California.

Charles T. Yerkes
Charles T. Yerkes
Because of the diversity of the various tracts of land, Hale draws up a series of questions designed to help him estimate the effect of smoke, electric lights, heated air, the jar produced by passing trains, and the neighborhood of a large body of water, upon the performance of the 40-inch telescope. The questions are sent to the following professors:
* Edward E. Barnard at Lick Observatory near San Jose, California;
* Sherburne W. Burnham, double star expert, in Chicago;
* Charles S. Hastings at Yale University;
* George W. Hough at Northwestern University;
* James E. Keeler at Allegheny Observatory near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania;
* Samuel P. Langley at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.;
* Simon Newcomb at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D. C.;
* Edward C. Pickering at Harvard University; and,
* Charles A. Young at Princeton University.

Hale prepares a list of items needed for the astrophysical observatory. He struggles under Harper's admonition to keep the list to the bare essentials. When Hale presents the "bare essentials" to Yerkes, which amounts to $285,375, he explodes in rage, accusing Hale of trying to exploit him.
Harper receives a telegraph from Alvan G. Clark reporting that he has sent $200 to Mantois in Paris in good faith that the disks would be paid for.

On December 5, Yerkes hires Henry Ives Cobb, the architect who is currently designing the buildings on the campus of the University of Chicago, to design his observatory.
Note: An interesting controversy has been discovered regarding the actual date of the meeting of Hale, Harper and Yerkes. The date of Tuesday, October 2, 1892, is cited by Hale's biographer, Helen Wright, in "Explorer of the Universe," as well as by Don Osterbrock, a renowned astrophysicist and historian of astronomy, and by Pamela D. Hodgson, a freelance writer in Chicago, in "Yesterday's City.". John Franch, a biographer of Yerkes, lists the date as October 4, 1892, in "Storming the Gates of Heaven" and "Astronomical Figures." In "Pauper and Prince," Osterbrock states that the meeting occurred. A few days later, J. D. Rockefeller's adviser to the University of Chicago, F. T. Gates, received a telegram announcing the event. The telegram was dated October 7, 1892, which would put the meeting a few days before that. However, in Osterbrock's latest book, "Yerkes Observatory 1892-1950," he records the meeting as October 7, 1892. Thomas Goodspeed, Harper's biographer, notes that the University held its first classes on Saturday, October 1, 1892. Using the date of the opening of the University, and Barnard's discovery of the fifth satellite of Jupiter on Friday, September 9, 1892, as factual, a count forward to Tuesday of the first week of October, the day of the week that all of the above agree upon, puts the meeting on October 4, 1892.