Thesis ID: CBB473742725

Making a Factory Observatory: Mount Wilson, Regional Development, and the Environment in Southern California, 1900–1930 (2023)


This dissertation tells the story of the founding and development of Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO) during the early twentieth century. Located in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Los Angeles in Southern California, this astronomical observatory was founded in 1904 by astrophysicist George Ellery Hale with financial funding from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. I consider MWO as a factory of science: an observatory that efficiently produced a variety of astronomical knowledge. Hale was the factory manager who led the effort to locate a suitable site for the factory observatory, secured patrons, built the infrastructure, hired scientific workers, and expanded his enterprise by marketing his scientific resources and products. In doing so, I extend the focus from prominent astronomers and instruments typically associated with MWO to include the role of sociocultural and natural environments in shaping scientific practices. I argue that MWO was not a scientific inevitability but a regional contingency that reflected Southern California’s sociocultural and natural environment. Emphasizing Hale’s management style, which he had honed from a young age, I show that the site survey and regional patrons played a vital role in securing the Carnegie Institution’s patronage to establish the factory observatory. The trail widening up Mount Wilson served as establishing infrastructure, an example of tangible regional investment, and a case of how white settlers used marginalized immigrant labor to accelerate the development of Southern California. By examining how astronomers, telescope operators, and human computers created scientific products, I highlight the nuanced gender dynamics of the scientific workers and how spatial layouts enforced existing sociocultural norms. I explore how the factory observatory expanded and gained prominence in the scientific community through the astronomers’ use of unique scientific resources at the observatory, such as the Snow Solar Telescope and the 60-inch reflector telescope. By taking such a view, I connect Hale and MWO with the industrialization of the United States during the nineteenth century, the growth of Chicago and Southern California during that time, the role of sociocultural biases and assumptions, and the utility and limitation of the natural environment posed.

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Authors & Contributors
Osterbrock, Donald E.
DeVorkin, David H.
Fiolhais, Carlos
Gao, Wen-jie
Krupp, Ed C.
Leonardo, Antonio Jose F.
Journal for the History of Astronomy
Acta Historica Astronomiae
Actes d’Història de la Ciència i de la Tècnica
History of Science
Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage
Journal of Dialectics of Nature
Cambridge University Press
Texas A&M University
Università degli Studi di Torino
University of Arizona Press
Griffith Observatory
Astronomical observatories
Stars; stellar astronomy
Public understanding of science
Hale, George Ellery
Shapley, Harlow
Bailey, Solon Irving
Bowen, Ira Sprague
Costa Lobo, Francisco Miranda da
Curtis, Heber Doust
Time Periods
20th century, early
20th century
19th century
20th century, late
United States
California (U.S.)
Pasadena (California)
Paris (France)
Mount Wilson Observatory
Carnegie Institution of Washington
Jesuits (Society of Jesus)
Palomar Observatory
Royal Observatory Greenwich
Observatoire de Paris

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