George Ellery Hale (1868-1938)

George Ellery Hale was born in Chicago on 29 June 1868. A single child heir to his family's considerable fortune, Hale developed an interest in astronomy at a young age. In this he benefited from the continuing moral and financial support of his father, who over the years of his childhood and teenage years purchased him telescopes and spectrometers of increasing power. By 1891 Hale was effectively equipped with his own private solar astronomical laboratory. This unusual opportunity was not lost on Hale, who went on to become one of the foremost astronomer in the U.S. In 1890 he graduated from the Massachusset Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in Physics, at which time his scientific reputation was already well established. Although he never completed a doctorate, in 1892 he was appointed professor of Astronomy at the University of Chicago (without salary for the first three years, however), and launched in a life long campaign to fund and build ever better astronomical observatories. Overworked and suffering from recurrent episodes of depression, Hale resigned as director of Mt. Wilson Observatory in 1923, and retired from the active scientific research scene in the following years, arguably at the height of his career. He died on 21 February 1938 in Pasadena, California.

Even though Hale capitalized heavily on his family's wealth and various connections in the mid-west's financial circles, his talents and energy as an organizer and fund raiser on behalf of various astronomical projects remains extraordinary (and arguably as yet unsurpassed) by any standards. Over the years he organized the founding of three world class astronomical observatories; in the 1890s he secured funding for the establishment of the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory, in nearby William's Bay, Wisconsin. That observatory became fully operational in 1897, and harbored for a time the largest telescope in the world. He then secured funds for the establishment of a solar observatory on Mt. Wilson in California, of which he became director in 1904, and which long remained the best solar observatory in the world, in addition to hosting for a time the world's largest night time telescope. Though he did not live to see the project taken to completion in 1948, Hale was the main force behind the construction of the 5 meter telescope on Mt. Palomar, which remained for over three decades the the world's largest optical telescope. He was also instrumental in the founding of the American Astronomical Society in 1899, and later in turning the then relatively unknown Throop Polytechnical Institute in Pasadena, into what is now the California Institute of Technology.

In 1895 Hale co-founded (and edited for nearly 30 years) The Astrophysical Journal. This was originally envisioned as an international forum for the publication of astronomically relevant papers in the field of spectroscopy, but the journal rapidly expanded its scope to become (and remains to this day) the world's leading research Journal in the field of Astrophysics.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Hale and his collaborators were constantly innovating and pushing the limit of astronomical and spectroscopic instrumentation. They effectively invented specialized solar tower telescopes, and pioneered the field of spectropolarimetry. Hale's most acclaimed scientific work was his demonstration that sunspots are the seat of strong magnetic fields, and that their polarity reveals striking spatial and temporal regularities that betray the presence of a well-organized, large-scale magnetic field in the solar interior. Nearly a century after Schwabe's discovery of the 11 year sunspot cycle, Hale's work on sunspots finally put solar cycle studies on a truly physical footing.


Wright, H. 1966, Explorer of the Universe. A Biography of George Ellery Hale, E.P. Dutton and Co.,

Hufbauer, K. 1991, Solar Science since Galileo, The Johns Hopkins University Press,

Porter, R. 1994, The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, second ed., Oxford University Press.


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