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Highlights Archives

'Wisconsin Magazine of History,' Summer 2013


Workers erect the declination axis of Yerkes Observatory's 40-inch refractor telescope

The cover story of the Summer 2013 issue of the "Wisconsin Magazine of History," 'Stargazers: Building the Washburn and Yerkes Observatories, 1870-1900,' details Wisconsin's part in the first "space race." Toward the end of the 19th century, American scientists and philanthropists — Wisconsinites among them — were hurrying not to rocket into space but to see into space and to surpass their European counterparts studying the increasingly popular discipline of astronomy. The business of building telescopes and observatories boomed nationwide during this golden age of American astronomy, and Wisconsin became home to two massive observatories — the Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Yerkes Observatory in Lake Geneva, both built between 1870 and 1900.

Ideal for Astronomical Observations

The cover of the summer 2013 issue of the "Wisconsin Magazine of History"
Author Rachel S. Cordasco explains that Wisconsin in general, and these sites in particular, proved to be ideal for astronomical observations because of Wisconsin's clear unobstructed skies and close proximity to both the University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. The construction of the Washburn Observatory, located on what is now called Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin campus, was initiated through a combination of legislative support and the philanthropy of former representative, Civil War general and governor, Cadwallader C. Washburn. The Yerkes observatory was sponsored by the University of Chicago and Charles Tyson Yerkes, a streetcar magnate looking for positive public relations after serving a sentence in a Philadelphia penitentiary for larceny.

These collaborations between philanthropists and universities ushered in a rewarding time for Wisconsin science. As astrophysicist and professor James Keeler told the dedication ceremony crowd at the Yerkes Observatory in 1897, the construction of these scientific facilities "enable us to better understand the universe of which we form a part, and that they elevate the thoughts and ennoble the minds of men."

Other Stories in the Summer 2013 Issue

This issue also includes: 'Wisconsin's Historic Waterways: Reuben Gold Thwaites' Letters from the Fox, 1887' by Ann Biebel about one-time Wisconsin Historical Society director (1887-1913) Reuben Gold Thwaites' journeys down the Fox River; an image essay capturing the early days of 'Life on the Fox River Locks' by Christine Williams; a feature story on the history of Milwaukee's early Arab community, 'Building a Community Among Early Arab Immigrants in Milwaukee, 1890s-1960s'; and a book excerpt from 'Something for Everyone: Memories of the Lauerman Brothers Department Store,' a Wisconsin Historical Society Press book by Michael Leannah due out in August 2013.

A Benefit of Society Membership

The "Wisconsin Magazine of History" is a benefit of Society membership. Individual issues are available through our online store. Sign up for membership today and start receiving this fine quarterly magazine.

:: Posted June 13, 2013

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