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Space Case: Introducing The Alliance Of Historical Observatories

A new organization is working to generate public support for some of the country’s most important scientific institutions.

Space Case: Introducing The Alliance Of Historical Observatories
Mount Wilson Observatory's 100-inch reflector telescope dome as seen from the 150-foot solar tower/ University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf6-03388], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Before the dawning of the space age, observatories across the US worked diligently to gather all the information required to make space exploration possible in the first place. As technology advanced, a number of these valuable observatories fell behind in funding, and as a result, some of the country’s most important scientific institutions have been all but forgotten. In an effort to remedy that, a new organization called the Alliance of Historical Observatories is working to preserve and promote the importance of early observatories, with hopes that these valuable institutions will be able to sustain the recognition they so richly deserve.

In June, Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles hosted the fledgling group’s inaugural meeting inside the dome of Mount Wilson’s historic 100-inch telescope, a scientific marvel built between 1913-1916 that was the world’s largest telescope at the time. On hand at the first meeting of the Alliance of Historical Observatories were representatives from half a dozen observatories across the country, including the Yerkes Observatory, Lowell Observatory, Lick Observatory, Griffith Observatory, Palomar Observatory, and the Vatican Observatory in Arizona.

“The idea is to form a loose alliance that will explore ways in which we can support each other through shared promotion, lobbying, and other means to ensure that the remarkable legacy of these observatories is preserved for future generations, to inspire and educate the next generation of scientists,” wrote Sam Hale, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Mount Wilson Institute, in a letter published in the Mount Wilson’s quarterly newsletter, Reflections.

Sam Hale is the grandson of Mount Wilson’s founder, George Ellery Hale, who established Mount Wilson in 1904. In many ways, Mount Wilson was the perfect venue to host the premier meeting of the Alliance of Historical Observatories. Not only does it contain the 100-inch telescope, but it’s also home to another historic feature, the 60-inch telescope (completed in 1908), as well as the Snow solar telescope (1905), the 60 foot solar tower (1908), the 150 foot solar tower (1912), and Georgia State University’s CHARA array, which continues to conduct important scientific research today.

Space Case: Introducing The Alliance Of Historical Observatories
Astronomer George Ellery Hale on California’s Mount Wilson/ University of Chicago Photographic Archive [apf6-00264], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

“While many (including Mount Wilson) are still doing cutting edge astronomical research, they are all in need of public support to maintain their facilities and to extend public outreach programs for education,” Hale said. “Each Observatory represented is unique in its own history and level of public support. Some, like Griffith Observatory are well funded by private and government support, but others are not. For instance, Yerkes Observatory near Chicago (also founded by my grandfather George Ellery Hale) has recently been shuttered by the University of Chicago, and is searching for a way to reopen its doors. In many ways it is in the same situation Mount Wilson Observatory was in back in 1985 when the Carnegie Institute of Washington withdrew its support in order to devote its limited financial resources to building the next generation of big telescopes in Chile. Because the public cares about history, science, and education we are thriving and so will Yerkes.”

To attract public support, Mount Wilson Observatory hosts several monthly events, including Saturday evening talks as well as Sunday afternoon concerts in the dome. For $25 a pop, members of the public can even look through one of the observatory’s historic telescopes following the Saturday evening lectures. But as is often the case with aging scientific institutions, historic observatories like Mount Wilson can always do with more public support, and the Alliance of Historical Observatories is hoping to bring it in.

“We had a very productive meeting to explore ways in which we can help promote each other’s long-term success,” said Hale. “Each observatory will benefit from this interconnection. My grandfather foresaw the need to network on a grand scale, both nationally and internationally, to achieve his goals, and so shall we.”

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