The Mount Wilson Observatory lies a short distance north east of Pasadena, California at an altitude of 5,704 feet above the sea in the range of mountains known as The Sierra Madre. The idea for the observatory was conceived in the early years of the twentieth century by Dr. George Ellery Hale, a uniquely brilliant and visionary astronomer, then Director of the Yerkes Observatory in Racine, Wisconsin.
Frustrated by the limitations of solar observation provided by the often overcast and perpetually hazy Wisconsin skies, Dr. Hale was intent on establishing an observatory at a location with as nearly ideal climatic and atmospheric conditions as could be had within reasonable distance of a city where instruments could be made and supplies secured.
Following the recommendation of Dr. W. J. Hussey of the Lick Observatory, Dr. Hale soon realized the stellar as well as solar observation potential of Mount Wilson, and by 1908 the 60 inch reflector, the largest actively used telescope in existence, was routinely probing the interstellar depths of the California night sky.
Beginning in 1905 the Observatory regularly published the results of its research through a series of papers in a number of scientific journals including The Astrophysical Journal, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Taken together, these papers constitute the massive Contributions from the Mount Wilson Observatory - a venerable collection of information which contains a large percentage of the major astrophysical discoveries of the first half of this century.
Almost immediately certain of the observatory's findings began to trickle down to the lay public through the popular press. The extraordinary mechanical methods used with the large instruments as well as the concrete results obtained by the astronomers became of general interest. Through the teens and especially after the completion of the extraordinary 100 inch telescope in 1918, the trickle of information approached a stream. And through the 1920's and into the 30's, fueled by the astonishing discoveries made by Hale, Hubble, Michelson, and their contemporaries, the flow of public interest became a torrent. By the beginning of the third decade of this century some 20,000 people annually visited the observatory and tens of thousands of others followed the astronomers' progress from afar.
As early as 1911, the astronomers at Mount Wilson began receiving letters from people all around the world, people from all walks of life, educated as well as uneducated. Many of the letters were simple expressions of appreciation and awe for the work that the astronomers were accomplishing. There was, however, another class of letter. These letters were communications to the astronomers by individuals who felt, often with a great degree of earnestness, that they were in possession of understandings or information that should be shared with the astronomers.
The information contained in this class of letter was typically of astronomical or cosmological concern. These individuals had gleaned the information they wished to communicate either by experimentation, observation or intuition and invariably felt a strong sense of urgency in their need to communicate their observations to the observers at Mount Wilson.
Such letters continue to arrive even today. There was, however, a swell in the letters received between the two World Wars. During these years the letters were most often written to Milton Humason, Seth B. Nicholson , and Edison Pettit, all prominent astronomers of the time, as well as Walter Adams who had assumed the role of Director of the Observatory from George Ellery Hale in 1921. Inf the 1940's the letters were collected and organized by Joe Hickox, chief solar observer. Since that time the letters have been passed from solar observer to solar observer, finally falling into the hands of Larry Webster , who most generously arranged for this exhibition.
For extensive additional information on the history of Mount Wilson Observatory please see:
Letter From Alice May Williams
Letter From Edward
Letter From W. Charles Lamb
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