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Astronomical Tales

How do you talk a reluctant railroad tycoon into building the largest refracting telescope?

If you have been reading our astrotales you've probably figured out that astronomy, like all the sciences, is often advanced by large sums of money whose donors have even larger egos.

Such was the case for George Hale when he found out that the famous optician Alvin Clarke had two 40" disks ordered by the University of California languishing in his optical lab. If UC didn't want them, perhaps these phenomenal lenses could be ground for the University of Chicago's new observatory that Hale was in charge of building.

Hale has coined the word astro-physics to describe a new class of astronomer who used other fields of physics to make extra-terrestrial discoveries. Hale wanted to build not just a telescope housed in an observatory dome, but an enitre astro-physical complex complete with labs and facilities in which to build new and unique instruments.

Hale finally approached Charles Tyson Yerkes, who had made it known that he was interested in donating money to the University of Chicago. Yerkes was a crass and vainglorious businessman trying to buy his way into high society through philanthropy. Hale knew all about this, and he told Yerkes that a millionaire by the name of Lick was an unknown until he funded a 36" refractor telescope in California. And so Hale's campaign to "lick the Lick" was born with the enticement of a 40" refractor project.

Little did Hale know how difficult Yerkes would be. Yerkes imagined a huge telescope and impressive dome with his name on it. He wasn't particularly interested in paying for other buildings that housed shops to make instruments, much less paying the salaries to those technicians who made the instruments.

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the answer

So Hale spent years trying to convince Yerkes to fund the whole project. After much struggle and exasperation, Yerkes relented after seeing the completed telescope. Yerkes agreed to fund the entire project, and Hale's dream came true — he had the largest refractor in the world set up in a state-of-the-art astro-physical complex.

George Ellery Hale was very pleased with the excellent work that made the Yerkes Observatory the premier astronomical complex in the early part of the 20th century. Near the end of his life Hale is reputed to have opened the doors to the dome, gazed at the magnificent 40" telescope and sighed "Noble instrument, noble instrument!"

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