1893 History of Yerkes Observatory

World's Columbian Exposition
The 40 inch telescope at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893

The mounting and tube for the great telescope of Yerkes Observatory is on display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.


Harper receives a letter from Warner & Swasey asking where the final site will be. Because of the rush to display the mounting and tube at the World's Fair, they need the latitude in order to correctly build the polar axis of the telescope. Hale, who is in Cleveland consulting with Warner & Swasey, also writes to Harper, pressuring him with the need to pick a site.

A committee consisting of President William Rainey Harper and Martin A. Ryerson, President of the Board of Trustees, assisted by Hale as Head of the Astronomy Department, begins to visit sites and carefully consider the offers.

The work of grinding the 40-inch objective is given to Carl A. R. Lundin of Clark & Sons, who begins the actual work on January 14. It will take 2 years, 10 months to complete.

Carl A. R. Lundin
Carl A. R. Lundin
Clark writes to Harper that Mantois, the manufacturer of the lens blanks, is annoyed because he has not received any more payments.

John Johnston, a retired Chicago lawyer and real estate speculator, extends an invitation to the site committee to visit his "Gardeners" house in Lake Geneva. He has a team of horses and will drive them wherever they need to go. He looks forward to showing them the "ideal site" for the new telescope.

Concerns that Geneva Lake will affect observations are discussed with Burnham, an astronomer living in Chicago who had spent a year at the Washburn Observatory in Madison, Wisconsin. Washburn is surrounded by small lakes equaling Geneva Lake in size, and Burnham found they caused no detriment to observations. He further verifies this assessment by observing in Williams Bay at the 53 acre site along the lakefront that is offered by Johnston. Other favorable assets of the Williams Bay site are: a firm gravel ground base; a mile's distance from the train tracks; the unlikelihood of future development by factories; and its potential for remaining a summer resort area.

Using the responses to the survey questions and a strong reliance on Burnham's professional opinion, the committee presents its recommendation to the University Board of Trustees on March 28. The committee states: "Of all the locations offered that one which seems to your committee to possess the greatest number of advantages is Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It is conceded by all concerned that no site thus far suggested combines in itself so many of the requirements, or any of the requirements to so great a degree. The site is high and beautifully located, the atmosphere is clear, without danger from the encroachment of manufactories, railroads, or electric lights."

Original Land Site in Williams Bay, Wisconsin
Original Land in Williams Bay, Wisconsin
The much ballyhooed World's Columbian Exposition opens on the south shore of Lake Michigan along Chicago's Midway Plaisance. On display in the Manufacturers Building is the tube and mounting for the world's largest telescope, a magnet for the curious visitors. Its builders, Warner & Swasey, wasted no time engineering the 40-inch mounting which stands 43 feet high and weighs 50 tons. Above the mounting are the polar axis and the declination axis, both used to turn the telescope. Together they weigh 5 tons. A driving gear at the upper end of the polar axis weighs 20 tons. Finally, the telescope tube, 60 feet long, weighing 6 tons, points expectantly toward the sky.

C. A. R. Lundin begins polishing the 40-inch objective on June 23, at the Clark & Sons factory in Cambridgeport.

Burnham, Barnard, Hale, and his assistant, Ferdinand Ellerman, observe from the Williams Bay site with a 4-inch telescope in order to compare the results obtained in the previous winter.

The 40 inch telescope at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893
Hale sails to Europe with his wife to study in Berlin for a year.

A fire at the Columbian Exposition spreads to the Manufacturer's Building, endangering the telescope tube and mounting. The exhibit is quickly dismantled and all but the five heaviest pieces are removed to safety. Harper concluded, "I left the building still burning at 11:30, but I think we have saved the telescope."

December 9th, Burnham writes to Hale, informing him that the Williams Bay site has finally been chosen. Approximate latitude of the Yerkes Observatory is +42 degrees 34 minutes 15 seconds; longitude is -88 degrees 33 minutes 22 seconds. Science (1897) reports, "The center of motion of the great refractor is about 80 meters above the level of Lake Geneva, which is about 600 meters distant, the elevation above sea-level being about 400 meters. The railway station and post office are over a kilometer distant, at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, on the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, at a distance of 120 kilometers, or two and one-half hours, from Chicago."

A letter from Harper also arrives, telling Hale of the fire in the Manufacturer's Building and of the near disaster. He says he is writing in a hurry, and all he has time to say is that most of the telescope was saved. Hale is frantic to know what happened. With all these distractions from home, he cannot concentrate on his studies, and tells Evelina that he wants to go home.

Hale is not happy in Berlin. He is not fluent in German and grows bored with his work. The living quarters are drabby and the sun rarely shines. A letter from Henry Ives Cobb informs him that Yerkes has lost interest in the observatory and is spending money lavishly on his New York mansion. Yerkes plans to import the first Rodin into the United States. Cobb thinks if some architectural plans of the observatory could be given to Yerkes, he would get his mind on it again, and put some money into the building of the observatory. Hale writes back to Cobb, sending his ideas for the shape and function of the building. He asks Cobb to draw up his designs and send them back so he can work on them further.