Monday, March 30, 2015


The Yerkes Observatory, located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, adjacent to Lake Geneva, is very much an anachronism.  It was built at the end of the 19th century at a time when the major telescopes were refractors rather than reflectors, when observatory location was  more driven by convenience (read near metropolitan areas) than by the "seeing" conditions, and when construction may have been driven more by architecture than by technology.

As a youngster I read a good deal of layman astronomy, including the more recent history of astronomy, and the Yerkes observatory had a significant role in that history.  So I had been familiar with some of the early discoveries that came out of that observatory.  But, even though I have lived only about an hour away from the observatory for nearly 40 years, I had never paid it a visit--until last Saturday.  The observatory is open to visitors on Saturdays and offers 45-minute tours that are "free" but for which they request a suggested $5 donation.  The tour was well worth the donation.

I had done a little homework and as a result my visit was pretty much what I expected.  The tour guide was engaging and his remarks were as much or more about the facility's history and architecture as it was about astronomy.

I got to the observatory a little early, and even though the weather was unseasonably cold, it was clear and I got in a few photos of the exterior, including the dome housing the observatory's "famed" 40-inch refractor.

This photo is a bit weird, as it looks like the dome is a stand-alone structure, but it is really simply attached (on the other side) to one end of the main building.   Here are a few shots that reflect the ornate quality of the facility's architectural detail.

On the interior there is a modest octagonal reception area that has been fairly well maintained, but is, nevertheless, uninspiring.

It includes a bust of Yerkes, a Chicago philanthropist (as well as a convicted felon), who provided major funding for the facility.

During the tour, the guide pointed out and explained much of the symbolism embedded in the architectural detail, including satyrs, caricatures, astrological signs, and backward swastikas.  Here are a few examples.

The tour did include a visit to the dome for the 40-inch refractor.

This shot doesn't really do justice to the dimensions of the dome and telescope, other than the spiral staircase on the left.  Oh, and there is a spiderman (that I think was life-size--whatever that means) located at the top of the image just to the right of center.

Sadly, the 40-inch refractor is no longer used for active astronomical research, for a number of reasons:  Larger reflectors are easier to build and have much greater light gathering power.  Plus serious astronomy is now done at much higher altitudes and much further from metropolitan light pollution, which is inescapable at Yerkes.  Even so, it was great finally to see this monument to astronomical history.

John M. Phillips

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