AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XL , No. 1, Spring 2008
Examining the F.P. -54 Pirotron tube
Edwin B. Frost, Christian T. Elvey, and Otto Struve examining the F.P.-54 Pirotron tube used to direct light from Arcturus into the photoelectric relay for the opening of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, Yerkes Observatory, circa 1933. Archival Photographic Files, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Yerkes Observatory Records
by Daniel Meyer

The University of Chicago Archives has received more than 500 linear feet of material comprising the historical records of Yerkes Observatory, the astronomical observatory of the University of Chicago, and the papers of several of its leading astronomers. Located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, Yerkes Observatory opened in 1897 as the joint creation of three founders: William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago; Professor George E. Hale, the observatory’s first director; and Charles T. Yerkes, a wealthy Chicago businessman who provided funds for the erection of the observatory building. Yerkes became known in the astronomical community as the home of the last of the great refracting telescopes, a 40-inch instrument first exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and still in operation today with its original mounting and mechanical systems. (For more history, see the AIP History Center’s "Tools of Cosmology" exhibit at

The principal set of Yerkes Observatory records are the administrative files of the Office of the Director extending from the 1890s to the 1960s, a period when Yerkes served as the home of the University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The Director’s files have been consulted by a series of scholars and researchers including the late Donald Osterbrock (Yerkes Observatory 1892-1950: The Birth, Near Death, and Resurrection of a Scientific Research Institution, University of Chicago Press, 1997). The Director’s files and associated Director’s letterbooks document the careers and scientific work of a notable succession of astronomers associated with Yerkes as faculty members or graduate students, including George E.Hale, Edwin B. Frost, John A. Parkhurst, Edward E. Barnard, Edwin Hubble, George Van Biesbroeck, Otto Struve, Bengt Stromgren, S. Chandrasekhar, William W. Morgan, and Gerard P. Kuiper, among many others.

The administrative records of Yerkes include files on the early decades of the Astrophysical Journal, numerous grants and contracts awarded to the observatory, and the work of the optical shop and technical staff. Also preserved are files on the relationship between Yerkes Observatory and the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas, which operated under contract with the University of Chicago from the 1930s to the 1960s. An extended set of professional papers of William W. Morgan (1906-1994) contains correspondence, notebooks, observation logs and cards, and journals. Also received were smaller sets of professional papers of Edwin B. Frost (1866-1935), John A. Parkhurst (1861-1925), and Forest R. Moulton (1872-1952). In addition, the Yerkes observation log books, a set of hundreds of chronologically arranged bound volumes, record the systematic observations of Yerkes astronomers from the 1890s onward.

Among the most significant visual materials in the Yerkes collection are more than 4,800 documentary photographs in a variety of physical formats including negatives, prints, lantern slides, and glass plates. The photographs depict the construction of the main observatory building and the installation of instruments, the work of astronomers and staff, astronomical events including the Sumatra and Catalina Island expeditions, and meetings and visitors at the observatory, among them Albert Einstein. With a grant from the John Crerar Foundation, an initiative has been launched to digitize 2,000 of the Yerkes glass-plate photographs and add them to the University of Chicago Archival Photofiles web site, a digital collection that already contains several hundred images documenting to the founding and history of Yerkes Observatory (

For further information please contact Daniel Meyer, Associate Director and University Archivist, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

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