Special thanks to Dave Snyder and the University
Lowbrow Astronomers for permission to include this chronology of events.
The National Solar Observatory
has an excellent historical
account of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope which includes a section
devoted to Robert R. McMath.
Two businessmen, Francis C. McMath and his son Robert R. McMath had an
interest in astronomy and acquired a 3" telescope.
Francis McMath, Henry S. Hulbert (a Judge from Wayne County, Michigan),
and William Joseph Hussey (then director of the Detroit
Observatory) arranged to fly a balloon to observe a solar eclipse
in New York, but weather conditions prevented any observations.
A 4" refractor was constructed. It was driven with a spring clock.
Robert designed and built a dome to house the 4" telescope built earlier.
A motor was installed to drive the 4" telescope. That summer, motion
pictures were made of the moon with this new observatory. Then director
of the University of Michigan Astronomy Department, Ralph H. Curtiss,
saw these motion pictures and decided to collaborate with the two McMath's.
The intent was to produce an instrument that would produce celestial motion
pictures. Curtiss died before the project was finished. (Apparently
the idea of celestial motion pictures originated at this time as the concept
was described as "novel").
Hulbert teamed up with the two McMath's. All three were made honorary
curators of astronomical observation at the request of Dr. Curtiss.
McMath, McMath and Hulbert started operations at a new observatory located
on Lake Angelus (near Pontiac Michigan). There was one building
with a 16 foot dome that housed a 10.5" equatorial telescope.
Heber Doust Curtis accepted the position of University of Michigan's Director
of Observatories. He suggested that the observatory be named the
McMath-Hulbert Observatory in recognition of the three founders.
The original intent of the celestial motion pictures was educational,
but it became clear that such pictures had scientific value as well.
With that in mind a motion picture of the sun was produced. This
required a new instrument called a spectroheliokinematograph. This
instrument was attached to the end of the 10.5" refractor. Such
pictures showed solar prominences.
An extensive project was undertaken to produce a telescope drive that
would smoothly track. This eventually involved a partnership with
the Detroit Edison company. Only late in the year was a completely
satisfactory drive produced.
Neil Cook McMath (Robert's brother) joined the effort.
By this time Curtis had shown the pictures taken at the McMath-Hulbert
Observatory to a large number of people including lay audiences and scientists.
The scientific audience was impressed both with the novelty and with the
insights gained from the movies.
A 50 foot tower was constructed designed solely for solar observations.
The Mt. Wilson Observatory gave technical assistance and loaned some equipment
(including a diffraction grating). Funding was provided by the University
and the McGregor Fund. This tower had a spectrograph well that dropped
31 feet into the ground. With this tower it was possible to observe
prominences in three dimensions and to observe the sun's light in both
hydrogen and calcium. The focal length could be any of 50, 40, 20
or 6 feet. The Spectrograph had a focal length of either 15 or 30
feet. In addition to the other equipment, there was a radial velocity
The work of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory gave proof that the light pressure
theory of solar prominences (popular at the time) could not be true.
An auxiliary photoelectric guiding mechanism was constructed.
A technique for measuring motions of solar material along the line of
sight was developed (previously only measurements of motions perpendicular
to the line of sight could be made).
The property on which the three buildings were built was deeded to the
After the death of F. C. McMath, a 24" Cassegrain (a reflector telescope)
was completed, but not made use of until the next year. This telescope
was designed so various instruments could be attached. In honor,
it was named the F. C. McMath Memorial Telescope. This telescope
was later moved to Peach Mountain
were it is now used by the University Lowbrow Astronomers.
A new building known as the McGregor building in memory of Tracy W. McGregor
was constructed (a tower 75 foot high). This instrument allowed
the sun's energy changes to be measured (among other things). There
were 3 spectrographs and a diffraction grating.
The 10.5" telescope was replaced with the new 24" telescope.
A Vacuum Spectrograph was constructed. This was one of the last
big astronomical instruments to be built without government assistance.
The 24" telescope was moved from Lake Angelus to Peach Mountain.
Robert McMath became chairman of AURA, Inc. (an astronomy research organization).
See Portage Lake
Observatory for more information on AURA.
The University ends its support for the McMath-Hulbert Observatory.