Monday, July 5, 2010
One of our favorite walks in the Valley Center years was high atop Palomar Mountain. We’d pick apples or toss snowballs, depending on the time of year.
When we prepared ourselves for the Mt. Whitney climb, one of our conditioning programs included climbing the mile high mountain along the unpaved Nate Harrison Road. A spectacular view route, it ended at the Palomar Observatory, a landmark that in those days, meant home. Those starry nights in the country were unparalleled, especially from the mountaintop. Near the massive dome structure, we read signs that complained of the encroachment of light from expanding suburbia on the valley below, diminishing the images recorded under that dome through the colossal telescope with a two hundred inch mirror set at the long end of the moveable steel structure.
The building, I noticed on the plaque, was dedicated the year I was born. That made the structure well over fifty years old when we would walk around its perimeter. We were reading then about the Hubble Telescope and saw some of the images captured by the spectacular spacecraft, which had become the orbiting instrument that made those clunky earthbound facilities, like this aging observatory out in the middle of nowhere, obsolete. Or so I thought.
But I was missing some history. I did not grasp how our mountain had been the focal point of such monumental triumph. George Ellery Hale inspired a nation in the grips of depression with his vision of a telescope that would dwarf the current conception of the cosmos. That staggering two hundred inch mirror first hit the headlines in the roaring twenties. It was a technological leap that stumped the best minds in the world – scientific, industrial, manufacturing, engineering. Hale’s proposal to build the telescope has been compared to Kennedy’s bold declaration that the USA would put a man on the Moon and bring him home “before the decade is out.” It has also been said that Hale did for the twentieth century’s conception of the Universe what Columbus did for the fifteenth century’s concept of the Earth. Hale’s was a lifetime of dreams and accomplishments, step by step. Palomar was his crowning achievement. And it happened right there on the top of our mountain.
It started when he was a boy in Chicago. His wealthy father gave him a crude telescope. He studied the heavens. His insatiable curiosity led to an undergraduate degree at MIT and on to Harvard College and Berlin. He persuaded his father to build an observatory attached to their Chicago home. Inspiration came from the Chicago World’s Fair. He learned optics and how to train the grand scope on a star or planet in motion. The complicated mechanism led to bigger things. And all this before the turn of the century – 1894.
Young Hale not only was a master of design, but also selling that design to wealthy benefactors. He knew how to inspire and then empower donors, tapping in to the enormous ego that matched enormous net worth. He convinced Chicago financier Charles T. Yerkes to fund his first expanded observatory and “largest telescope ever built,” a sixty-inch refractor, along the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The “Yerkes Observatory” expanded scientific understanding of the heavens in exponential ways. Success spurred the twenty nine year old Hale to think bigger.
He designed and built the first “refractive” telescope, which would dramatically increase the power of magnification over the traditional optical scopes. He imagined, along with his colleagues, a mind bending one hundred inch mirror, polished to incomparable tolerances. His enthusiasm and energy unleashed creative forces in all the fields that would be involved. He knew that the magnificent structure should be placed in the most likely location that would maximize the brilliance of the heavens with the least likely intrusion of weather. He chose a mile high peak above Pasadena, California. After convincing Andrew Carnegie of the merits of the project, with full funding, construction began atop Mount Wilson of the first one hundred inch mirrored refractor telescope in the world in November of 1917.
Again. Scientists gathered information from the heavens that galvanized the world. Both the scientific community and the general populous eagerly watched for each new “discovery.”
Hale was not even forty years old. He could not stop. He knew the impossible challenges of building the one hundred inch mirror. There was nothing like it in the world. But with the stunning success of the Wilson one hundred, Hale proposed the next challenge: a two hundred inch mirror. And as he imagined that, he selected the prime real estate that would be home to the telescope whose engineering would rival the Queen Mary or the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower: Palomar Mountain.
In Harper’s Magazine, April 1928, he published an article laying out his plan. These were the heady days of unbridled economic growth. The nation cheered. The Rockefeller Foundation committed to funding.
It took more than twenty years to perfect the two hundred inch mirror. The nation watched during the Depression years with the kind of interest they paid to Seabiscuit or Joe Louis. They believed in American ingenuity. They believed in Hale. The pressure, the failures, the near misses, it all nearly crushed him.
In 1948, six months after I was born, the heavy, precision equipment, including the giant mirror, all came up those unstable, unpaved roads and stood fully assembled as thousands arrived for the dedication. Albert Einstein was there, along with politicians, movie stars, business tycoons and the media to consecrate the incredible observatory. But the key man was missing. George Ellery Hale, the dreamer, the inventor, the irrepressible promoter, the fund-raiser, the vision caster died ten years before of a complicated string of illnesses; February 21, 1938.
Why did it take this long for me to develop a love of history? How could I have walked those grounds, up that mountain, around the dome, inside standing in awe of the mechanism commanding that massive instrument with laser beam focus on the heavens, without understanding what had happened there?
May it never happen again.
Copyright 2010 Kenneth E Kemp
 We failed to summit that year by a mile or two. This is a goal that remains on the bucket list.