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In Search of Better Skies: Harvard in Peru I

J. Donald Fernie

Like many an old codger before me, I'm rather given these days to reflecting on the changes that have transpired over the years of my career. Naturally, I quite often come to the standard old-codger conclusion that things have pretty much gone to the dogs, but one thing that is now indisputably better is the life of the observational astronomer. When I was a graduate student in the mid-1950s, one almost always had to carry out observations with whatever local telescope was available in whatever climate one's location offered, usually far from the best. National or consortium facilities at carefully chosen first-rate sites were mostly yet to come. When they did, they resulted in a generation of astronomers in what seemed almost perpetual flight between home and observing sites. Today we are returning to a world of stay-at-homes, but now sitting in front of their computers using the Internet to control a telescope and data acquisition half a world away, if not in outer space.

Nevertheless, the idea of creating field stations at desirable locations where data could be obtained and sent to home base for analysis goes back a long way. It received particular impetus in the late 19th century when photography entered astronomy. Photographs could be taken relatively quickly at the distant site and then returned home for leisurely analysis by experts. Take the case of the Harvard College Observatory.

It began with the death of Uriah Boyden in 1879 at the age of 74. Boyden had been a practical Boston engineer/inventor of some repute, and probably surprised everyone when he left nearly a quarter of a million dollars to whatever astronomical institution could convince his trustees that it would build an astronomical observatory on a mountain "at such an elevation as to be free, so far as practicable, from the impediments to accurate observations which occur in the observatories now existing, owing to atmospheric influences." Boyden had been mildly eccentric, but his heirs saw this as eccentricity run rampant, especially since it consumed almost his entire fortune.

A legal battle of considerable proportions ensued, but eventually the will was declared valid. Among those who took note was Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, who had for some time had an interest in the idea of a field station. In fact, he wanted two: one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern, so the entire sky would be available for Harvard's research. There were further years of delay while the trustees consulted endlessly, but eventually, in 1887, Pickering won the Boyden Fund for Harvard.

Pickering decided on Southern California for the northern station, and word soon reached him that there was already local enthusiasm for establishing an observatory outside Pasadena on what was then called Wilson's Peak. The local enthusiasm came about because Northern Californians had recently acquired the Lick Observatory a little south of San Francisco. James Lick had been a millionaire who had been persuaded, with some difficulty, to build the observatory as a monument to himself instead of a pyramid rivaling that of Cheops in downtown San Francisco. He is buried in the concrete pier of one of the observatory's telescopes.) The Lick Observatory was run by the University of California at San Francisco and boasted a 36-inch refracting telescope—the world's largest. The Pasadena enthusiasts aimed for a 40-inch refractor on Wilson's Peak to be run by the University of Southern California.

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