Last Thursday (10th of November) I gave a talk to Swansea Astronomical Society. This is the 3rd or 4th time I have talked to them, and I was asked by Dr. Steve Wainwright to talk about the early history of the Universty of Chicago‘s Yerkes Observatory.
I worked at Yerkes from 1995 to 2001, during my time there as a post-doctoral researcher I worked with Professor Al Harper on Airborne astronomy, initially on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. In 1997 I started working on the HAWC far-infrared instrument for the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). I feel very privileged to have worked at such an amazing place, so steeped in the history and development of 20th Century astrophysics.
Yerkes Observatory, which was founded by the University of Chicago, was home to the World’s largest telescope when it opened in 1897. This is the famous 40-inch refractor, which is still today the largest refracting (lens) telescope in the World. The Observatory gets its name from Charles Tyson Yerkes, the man who paid for the Observatory and the telescope. Its first Director was George Ellery Hale, a remarkable man who went on to establish Mount Wilson Observatory. I am giving a talk about Hale in a few months, so will write a longer blog about him then.
Hale left Yerkes in 1903 to try to set up Mount Wilson Observatory. Initially he wanted the University of Chicago to establish it as a remote observing station, but they refused. So, he resigned his position and struck out on his own. Mount Wilson became the premier observing site in the World for the best part of 50 years, being home to the 60-inch and then the 100-inch telescopes. It was the 100-inch which Edwin Hubble (who did his PhD at Yerkes in 1919) used to show in 1923 that the Andromeda Nebula was external to our Milky Way galaxy, and in 1929 that the Universe was expanding.
My talk was on the early history of Yerkes, from 1891 to 1903. I stopped at 1903 as this is when Hale left to establish Mount Wilson. I chart the appointment of Hale as Associate Professor of Astro-physics at the University of Chicago by its first President William Rainey Harper, the meetings they had with Yerkes to persuade him to fund the building of the Observatory and its massive telescope, and the trials and tribulations in bringing the dream to fruition.
Here is the first few minutes of my talk – filmed by my daughter Esyllt.
Here is a link to a PDF file of the slides I presented. There are 46 slides in the presentation, but many of them are just photographs from the Observatory’s early days.
I will also try and put them up as a slideshow, but so far I have not had much success in getting this to work on my blog.