George Ellery Hale, Mount Wilson, and the Griffith Observatory

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George E. Hale. Mount Wilson Observatory, c. 1905

George Ellery Hale was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 29, 1868. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, his father built a small fortune manufacturing and installing passenger elevators, which meant there was money to support Hale’s early interest in science. At fourteen, Hale built his first telescope. Soon afterwards, his father purchased a second-hand Alvan Clarke & Sons 4-inch refractor, which they mounted on the roof of the family home. To continue his education, Hale moved to Massachusetts, and spent four years studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While living in Cambridge, he connected with Edward Pickering and began a short tenure as a volunteer assistant at the Harvard College Observatory where he invented and then tested the spectroheliograph. Over the course of his career, Hale installed the world’s largest telescope on four occasions, outpacing his own accomplishments each time.

Benjamin D. Wilson, c. 1850.

Four years before Hale’s birth, while most of the country was still embroiled in a bloody civil war, a man named Benjamin Wilson built a trail to the summit of a mountain in the Sierra Madre range of southern California. The trail was quickly abandoned when the lumber he hoped to find for his ranch in the valley below failed to impress. A decade later, the town of Pasadena was founded at the base of what then became, Mount Wilson. The newer residents refurbished the old trail up the side of the mountain, but the difficult 9-mile journey remained hazardous. Hale was working at the H.C.O. when E.F. Spence pledged $50,000 to the University of Southern California towards the construction of a 40-inch refracting telescope and Mount Wilson began to attract attention as a possible site for a future observatory.

President Marion Bovard of USC contacted Edward Pickering for advice, and recommended Mount Wilson as a suitable site for a combined Harvard-Spence station. William Pickering, the Director’s brother, led a Harvard expedition, which included famed optician Alvan Clark, to test the observing conditions on the peak in January 1889. The report was decidedly positive, and within months, Harvard had installed a 13-inch refactor near the summit of Mount Wilson, but conditions proved harsh. The winter of 1889-90 was one of the severest on record in southern California, with frequent flooding in the valley and heavy snow on the mountain. Living conditions were crude, and the station was isolated from the surrounding community. The prevalence of rattlesnakes was of particular concern, as were ongoing disputes over Harvard’s lease with the local landowner. When the relationship with USC broke down, Pickering decided to abandon the Mount Wilson site within 18 months of its founding. As the economy of the region suffered and support for the proposed Spence Observatory disappeared, the mountain was left to hikers. Only a small observatory on nearby Echo Mountain, built by Professor Thaddeus Lowe of the Union Army Ballooning Corp fame, remained.

Harvard Station on Mount Wilson.
Image courtesy of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In the 1890s, after Harvard’s failed Mount Wilson experiment, George Ellery Hale left the H.C.O. and returned to the Midwest. He made a name for himself as the founding Director of the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, then outfitted with the Alvan Clark & Sons 40-inch refractor originally designed for Mount Wilson. In 1897, it was the largest telescope in the world. The year before, Hale’s father purchased a 60-inch optical disk with designs towards the construction of a larger refracting telescope, but he died before the funds for mounting could be secured. Hale felt strongly that the future of stellar spectroscopy was dependent on larger refractors that could process more light, but the expense of such an undertaking was considerable. The glass lay in storage in the Yerkes Observatory basement for years while Hale tried to find a new donor to complete the telescope. He sent inquires to potential patrons across the county. Recipients included one Colonel Griffith J. Griffith of Los Angeles, California, but for a time, Hale’s efforts were effectively in vain.

In 1902, Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Institution of Washington to fund original research across all scientific fields. Hale accepted an invitation to serve on the Advisory Committee on Astronomy alongside his former mentor, Edward Pickering and Samuel Pierpont Langley, the founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the third Secretary of the institution. Simon Newcomb and Lewis Boss rounded out the group. Committee interests returned to the proposed establishment of a solar observatory in the Southwest United States, and Mount Wilson received the highest recommendation. Hale was the most vocal advocate. Without waiting for an official decision, he moved his family to Pasadena on December 20, 1903. The following spring, he signed a 99-year lease with the Mount Wilson Toll Road Company for 40 acres on the mountaintop. By the terms of their agreement, the property was rent-free, but he spent $27,000 of his own money financing the project. When the $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Institution became official, Hale finished the 60-inch mirror and installed the world’s first permanently mounted solar telescope. Within four years of the Mount Wilson Observatory’s founding, it housed four large telescopes and an unparalleled collection of solar and stellar instruments.

60-inch Refractor, Steel Dome. c. 1909.
Griffith J. Griffith, c. 1900.

Griffith J. Griffith, a wealthy mining speculator, purchased a large tract of land forty miles north of Mount Wilson near Los Angeles in 1882. He preferred the title “Colonel” Griffith, though by all accounts he was never officially commissioned as an officer and it’s unclear whether he ever served in the military at all. On December 16, 1896, he donated 3,015 acres of land to the City of Los Angeles to create a public park comparable, to his mind, to the “Great Parks” of Europe. After a visit at Hale’s invitation to Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904, Griffith developed a more focused desire to use his park to facilitate public access to science, more specifically astronomy. He eventually promised an additional $100,000 to the city for a public observatory to be built on the top of Mount Hollywood in 1912. The Los Angeles City Council put Griffith in charge of a three-person committee to oversee the project, but almost immediately, his plans were bogged down by bureaucracy and repeatedly delayed. Griffith died on July 6, 1919 with the project still stuck in its early stages.

Progress slowed even further to a relative stand-still for another decade until the severe economic downturn at the end of the 1920s presented a new window of opportunity. In the spring of 1930, while the country was mired in financial failure, the Griffith Trust was relatively stable but the cost of materials was exceedingly low and the labor vastly out-supplied demand. The governing board which controlled Griffith’s estate capitalized on the opportunity. They enlisted George Ellery Hale to lead the project, as he was preeminent in the field, and thanks to his work at Mount Wilson, relatively local. Edward Kurth, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, joined the team, as did Russell Porter, the founder of the Springfield Telescope Makers and a leading figure in public astronomy. The lower prices of the Great Depression meant builders could use top market materials for the design that were both more attractive and durable, which was especially important in a region prone to seismic activity.

The most visible remnant of the Great Depression is the “Astronomer’s Monument” standing at the entrance to the observatory. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was the first federal art program developed under President Roosevelt’s New Deal to promote relief and recovery from the Great Depression. Organized in 1933, the PWAP was an experiment in federal arts patronage aimed at creating meaningful employment opportunities for artists. The “Astronomer’s Monument” on the grounds of the Griffith Observatory is one of the most important pieces commissioned and completed under the program. Archibald Garner designed the concrete sculpture, depicting six famous astronomers standing around the base of a tower: Hipparchus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and William Herschel. Garner worked with five other artists, each of them sculpting for one astronomer, including George Stanley who designed the famous “Oscar” statuette. The monument was dedicated on November 25, 1934, six months before the Griffith Observatory opened to the public. When the Griffith Observatory formally opened on May 14, 1935, the Griffith Trust transferred ownership to the City of Los Angeles, and in its first five days of operations, more than 13,000 visitors arrived. The Department of Recreation and Parks has managed the facility ever since.

Astronomer’s Monument

Adams, W.S. “The Founding of the Mount Wilson Observatory.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vol. 66, no. 393, p. 267.

Adams, W.S. “Address at the Dedication of the Astronomers’ Monument at the Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, November 25, 1934.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vol. 47, no. 275, p. 11.

Cook, Anthony. “Creating Griffith Observatory.” American Astronomical Meeting Abstracts, v. 221, Jan. 2013.…221.9001C.

Hansen, Christopher, Melanie Wang, and Anthony Cook. “A History of the Griffith Observatory.” Accessed July 30, 2020.

Simmons, Mike. “Bringing Astronomy to an Isolated Mountaintop.” Mount Wilson Observatory, March 21, 2017.