Yerkes Observatory Photographs Now Online

Sherburne W. Burnham and the Yerkes Refractor Telescope

Yerkes Observatory, splendidly situated on Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, was formally dedicated in 1897. The celebration, which marked the opening, was held the week of October 18 through 22. In the observatory’s dedication program, the preliminary event listed is a conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists, the first held by the group, which was the forerunner of the American Astronomical Society.

During this meeting, prominent astronomers addressed varied topics of interest. Dr. Sherburne W. Burnham, for example, used Yerkes’ new refractor telescope to show the audience a selection of double stars. And Carl Runge, director of the Spectroscopic Laboratory of the Technische Hochschule, traveled from Hanover, Germany to deliver a talk on “Oxygen in the Sun.”

Attendees, many of whom inscribed their names in the observatory’s guest book, assembled on the morning of Thursday, October 21. With the president and trustees of the University of Chicago, the donor Charles Tyson Yerkes, and the newly-appointed staff, they witnessed the director George Ellery Hale, set the formal ceremony of the observatory’s presentation and acceptance in motion.

Though unfinished at time of the dedication, the grounds of the new observatory were laid out by the well-known landscape designer John Charles Olmsted. The design of the beautiful building was envisioned by the architect Henry Ives Cobb. The manufacturer Warner & Swasey constructed the 90-foot observatory dome, under which the components of Yerkes’ 40-inch refractor were installed. The largest of its kind, the telescope had been fitted with lenses, which the renowned instrument maker Alvan Graham Clark, and his assistant, Carl Lundin, had polished and perfected from enormous glass disks cast by the optical works Mantois of Paris.

George Ellery Hale and his staff were the first, but by no means the last of a line of extraordinary men and women who would inform the observatory’s life and purpose. The documents created during these years describe in detail, not only the appearance of celestial objects they observed, but also the rich terrestrial environment in which they worked and lived.

In 2008, many of Yerkes’ records were transferred from the observatory to the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago Library. With the generous support of the John Crerar Foundation, over 2,200 photographs (glass plate negatives, lantern slides, and prints) have been digitized, and are now available at as part of the Library’s Archival Photographic Files Digital Collection, where images of almost everything (and everyone) mentioned above may be found.