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Telescopes from the Ground Up
Portrait of George Ellery HaleCourtesy The Archives, California Institute of Technology

When George Ellery Hale was 14 years old, he begged his father, a wealthy Chicago businessman, to buy him a telescope so he could watch the rare event of Venus passing between Earth and the Sun. Hale’s parents, pleased with their son’s interest in science, bought him the telescope, and, over the next 16 years, other professional-quality astronomical instruments. After he entered college, they built him his own laboratory, a brick building on their property.

Hale’s parents doted on him. He was often sick, and they had lost two other children to illness as infants. However, their support for his interest in astronomy turned out to be entirely justified. Hale was still in college, studying solar astronomy, when he invented the spectroheliograph, a device to photograph and analyze the Sun. The spectroheliograph would launch the design of telescopes dedicated to solar astronomy.

Hale went on to leave his fingerprints on the great American telescopes of his time. He would make plans to build a large telescope and obtain the financial backing. Then he would gather the people and materials to carry out the plan, and have the telescope built — all while working on ideas for the next, even bigger telescope. Hale was constantly trying to look deeper into the sky. He suffered from frequent depression and headaches, but nothing could keep him from his work on solar astronomy and stellar evolution, or his passion for building big telescopes.

Hale not only contributed to astronomy by building four of the world’s largest telescopes, he also founded an astronomical society, started the Astrophysical Journal, and was the first person to be officially called an astrophysicist.

His final project was the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain. During the last few days of his life, Hale is said to have looked up at the sky and rejoiced, “It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining, and they are working on Palomar.” Hale would not live to see that telescope finished, but today the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain is named for him.

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