George Ellory Hale was the sickly (and only) child of a wealthy Chicago elevator magnate. At an early age Hale showed an affinity for science and quickly began thinking of astronomy in much deeper terms than the mere cataloging and plotting of stars (which was the direction of the discipline when he began his career). In 1889, as he was traveling on a Chicago streetcar, Hale had an epiphany about how to build a machine to photograph and analyze the sun. He thereafter invented the spectroheliograph, which revolutionized stellar physics, and he operated the first spectroheliograph from his private observatory in his parents’ backyard. Hale was a master of studying light in order to understand the physical characteristics and chemical composition of stars, which made him one of the first (if not the first) people to be officially called an astrophysicist.
Because of his obsession with starlight, Hale was also obsessed with building telescopes. His dual ties to the world of academic astronomy (he studied at MIT) and the world of business wealth gave him a unique ability to put together observatories and institutions. Throughout the course of his life, Hale was instrumental in building four of the world’s largest telescopes (each telescope substantially outsizing the previous one).
Working as a professor and department head for the University of Chicago, he first spearheaded the creation of the Charles T. Yerkes Observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which featured a 40 inch refracting telescope (the largest refractor ever used for scientific discovery). When his plans outgrew the University of Chicago’s budgetary constraints, Hale joined forces with the Carnegie Institute to build a sixty inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory near Pasadena. In 1908, this telescope, the largest in the world, was operational, but Hale was already building a 100 inch reflecting scope. This larger scope became world famous when Edwin Hubble used it to demonstrate that the universe is expanding. Hale was still not done: he laid plans and institutional groundwork for the 200 inch reflector at Mount Palomar. Although Hale died before the Palomar scope was complete, the final observatory more than fulfilled his vision. The Palomar telescope was the world’s most important observatory between 1948 and 1992.
Because this is a short article I have glossed over the technical, scientific, and administrative hurdles faced by Hale in creating these telescopes, but, suffice to say the challenges were daunting. Each scope was accompanied by breakthroughs in engineering, architecture, and material science.
Hale was not content to merely create 4 of the world’s largest telescopes. He was also one of the founding trustees at California Institute of Technology. Hale’s contacts and savvy were one of the fundamental reasons that Caltech so quickly moved to International prominence (and maintained its status as one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions).
Hale was an indefatigable scientist, administrator, and thinker who accomplished a huge amount in his life. His far-sighted observatories and his pioneering work in astrophysics laid the groundwork for humankind’s most profound discoveries about the actual nature of the universe. However Hale suffered terribly from neurological and psychological problems. He was sometimes incapacitated by headaches, insomnia, and a horrible ringing noise. Throughout his adult life he consulted with an elf or demon which appeared to him when the ringing in his head reached an unbearable pitch. Psychologists and biographers have argued that this visitation was not actually a hallucination but rather a sort of allegorical figure used by Hale to personify his manic-depression. Hale’s writings (and the accounts of those around him) cast doubt upon this interpretation. He spent increasing amounts of time in sanitariums and he was fully institutionalized for the last years of his life. Many biographers add this detail as a sort of embarrassing footnote to an otherwise glorious life of innovation and discovery. Perhaps it should not be a dismissive footnote—Hale’s madness and his greatness went together. Lesser men—or saner ones—could probably not have built huge eyes with which humankind stared into the darkness of deep space.