Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, operated by the University of Chicago, was dedicated on this date in 1897. It is still the largest refracting telescope used for scientific research.
It was named for Charles Yerkes, a successful investment banker and convicted felon who was definitely in the mood to improve his public image when astronomer George Ellery Hale approached him for the money. Yerkes was only planning to pay for the telescope, but Hale talked him into paying for the whole set-up.
Hale was a brilliant astronomer, discoverer of numerous solar phenomena and a wizard fundraiser. In 1904, he got the Rockefeller Foundation to fund Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena. Mt. Wilson, operated by UCLA, has a fabulous webcam.
In the ’20s, Hale contemplated an even larger telescope and found Andrew Carnegie willing to write the checks. He didn’t live to see it, but the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, operated by Cal Tech, opened in 1949 with its Hale telescope setting records.
Four times in his life, George Ellery Hale built the world’s largest telescope. He helped get Cal Tech started, encouraged Edwin Hubble and Harlow Shapely in their significant work and he continued his own research on solar phenomena.
And he did all these things while suffering from a mental illness that was apparently a very severe bipolar disorder. His many ‘nervous breakdowns’ are well-documented, but it is probably an exaggeration to say he was schizophrenic or delusional, as some biographers assert.
There is a popular legend – Wikipedia may have to be corrected on this – that he heard voices, particularly that of an elf. This post on Physics Forum sounds much more plausible:
‘…it is a complete myth that he thought he was visited by an elf who spoke to him. This statement first appeared in an otherwise excellent biography of Hale, ”Explorer of the Universe” (1966), by Helen Wright, who misinterpreted one letter Hale wrote to Hugh F. Newall, an astronomer friend in England. In reality, Hale’s ”demon” (the word he actually used) was a metaphor, referring either to his conscience or to his depressed mood (like Winston Churchill’s ”black dog”), and certainly not an apparition.’
* * *
Today is the day that Frenchwomen got the vote – surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1945.
Also, it’s the day we marched on the Pentagon in 1967, offered flowers to the soldiers lined up in front and thought we were changing the world.