The Chicago skyline, the elevator and 20th century astronomy

I’m currently in Chicago visiting Stuart on my way back to Europe. Chicago is known for a few things, that the Cubs will never win anything again, that some bloke from Honolulu lived here for a while before moving to D.C. and the skyscrapers. Anyway there is a fascinating connection between Chicago’s skyline and some of the most important astronomical research of the 20th century.

Chicago skyline
The Chicago skyline, but how are some of the older buildings here linked to some of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century?

In the mid-19th century, Chicago was the main trading hub for commodities being produced by the vast new farming lands of the American mid-west. A booming town crammed up against Lake Michigan on one side, it grew rapidly in the years up until 1870. Then the fire started. The exact cause is unknown although many local legends exist. The end result was that most of the city was burnt to the ground and needed to be rebuilt.

The constrained geography and high demand led to a need to build up. While proto-skyscrapers had existed in medieval cities such as Edinburgh, important new technological advances meant that buildings could become taller than ever before. The key invention was the elevator (yes I’m using the American English word since this is about Chicago). While crude elevators had existed since antiquity, new mechanical technology allowed safe, steam-powered contraptions to be commercially available in the 1850s. By 1870, two Chigacoans, C.W. Baldwin and W.E. Hale had developed sooth-running, hydraulic elevators. This invention was perfectly timed for the post-fire construction boom.

William Hale and his “Hale Water Counterbalance Elevator” became rich on the huge skyscrapers being thrown up in Chicago in the late-19th century. This money provided his son George Hale with both capital to pursue his passion for astronomy and with access to the wealthiest industrialists of the time.

George Hale’s talent for astronomy became apparent when he invented the spectroheliograph (a device for looking at particular wavelengths of light in the Sun) while still an undergrad at MIT. He himself made significant discoveries in the fields of solar research, particularly while studying sunspots. However perhaps his greatest impact was as a fundraiser for some of the great American observatories.

Hale’s first telescope was built with money from his father, however in 1897 he solicited a donation from Charles Yerkes to build an observatory bearing his name in Wisconsin. At the time this boasted the world’s largest telescope and still has the world’s largest refracting telescope. During this time Hale’s father donated a 60 inch mirror which was eventually used for the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Hale then used his contacts with the wealthy again to persuade California businessman John D. Hooker to donate $45,000 to build a 100 inch reflector at Mount Wilson. It was using this telescope that Edwin Hubble made his pioneering studies of galaxies and the expansion of the Universe.

It is Hale’s last telescope, finished in 1948 after his death in 1938 that bears his own name. Built using money from the Rockefeller Foundation, this 200 inch telescope on Mount Palomar in California was the largest telescope in the world for 28 years and is still a productive observatory today. Hale was also instrumental in founding the institution that runs this telescope, the California Institute of Technology.

Anyway, I hope the link from pretty buildings in Chicago to major observatories of the 20th century has not been too tenuous. Below are a few links I used for writing this if you want more information on the subject,


One Comment on “The Chicago skyline, the elevator and 20th century astronomy”

  1. […] Bringing astronomy a little closer to home, We Are All in the Gutter’s Niall adds a new facet to Chicago’s iconic skyscrapers by explaining the role the city’s skyline played in 20th Century astronomy. […]

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