RITCHEY, GEORGE WILLIS. 1864-1945.
"This series of telescopes, by revealing to all men, graphically, by means of exquisite photographs, a Universe of which the Earth, the Sun and the Milky Way are but an infinitesimal part, will bring to the world a greater Renaissance, a better Reformation, a broader science, a more inspiring education, a nobler civilization."
In Transactions of the Optical Society, vol 29 p 197, London, 1928.
The substantial archive of pioneering astronomer, photographer, and telescope designer George Willis Ritchey, c.1895-1935, including (all figures approximate):
1. 80 glass plates of celestial phenomena taken as seen from the observatories at Mount Wilson, Yerkes and Lick, and of the Observatory at Mount Wilson and its construction, of which at least 35 are original negatives, the remainder being contact print positives, and enlarged positives and negatives.
2. 283 vintage photographs of celestial phenomena; many of these and the following photographic prints are annotated on the verso by Ritchey.
3. 244 vintage photographs of various observatories and their telescope apparatus.
4. 76 vintage photographs of Ritchey's cellular mirrors.
5. 83 vintage photographs of Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes and celestial phenomena seen through them.
6. A 27-inch cellular mirror, and a 20-inch optical flat, the latter in original crate with Ritchey's annotation.
7. 150 glass slides used by Ritchey in a series of lectures.
8. 371 vintage or near-vintage photographs of mostly terrestrial natural wonders by photographers such as Vroman, Hillers, Mindeleff, and others, intended for reproduction in Ritchey's proposed book Depths of the Universe.
9. Various printed and manuscript items, such as detailed lists of exposures, blueprints, notes on the manufacture, polishing and silvering of the 100-inch mirror, correspondence with sub-contractors and further notes relating to the Ritchey-Chrétien telescope in Washington, DC, notes on the origin of the Moon, lecture notes, and the original French patent for cellular mirror technology.
10. Upwards of 40 books, periodicals, and pamphlets.
A more detailed listing is available on request.
Ritchey's grandfather George, a mechanic, was an Irishman who emigrated to America in 1841 shortly before the potato famine. With his wife and three young sons, he settled in Ohio and bought a mill. By around 1850, Ritchey's father James, the eldest child, was of working age, and the father and son founded a furniture company in Pomeroy, Ohio. Ritchey himself was born on the last day of 1864.
Initially Ritchey followed his father and grandfather into the cabinetmaking business, but soon enrolled at the new University of Cincinnati. There he studied drawing and design for one year, and science for a second. His grandfather had been an amateur astronomer, and George Willis Ritchey likewise worked as an assistant at the Cincinnati Observatory during his college years. Studying the writings of Henry Draper and A.A. Common, he began to produce his own telescope mirrors at home. In 1888, he married and moved to Chicago, teaching in the Manual Training School.
CHICAGO, HALE, AND YERKES
It was in Chicago in 1890 that Ritchey met George Ellery Hale. Hale, a graduate of MIT, was from a wealthy family and had a private observatory at his family's mansion in Kenwood, a suburb of Chicago. Ritchey did occasional machining and optical jobs for Hale. The combination of the new University of Chicago and a donor named Charles T. Yerkes accelerated the careers of Hale and Ritchey, and by 1897 Hale was running the new Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, home of the largest refracting telescope in the world, with a Clark 40-inch lens.
Even while the 40-inch was under construction, Ritchey and Hale felt that a reflecting telescope was the future, and they began work on a 60-inch lens. With the existing 40-inch refractor, and a new 24-inch reflector telescope Ritchey had designed and built, he began to produce ever better photographs of the Moon, faint stars, and nebulae. His images were an improvement upon those taken through the 36-inch refractor at Lick Observatory, and Ritchley impressed the astronomical community when they were unveiled in Washington in 1901.
Around that time, Hale began to develop a new observatory in California, on Mount Wilson near Pasadena. Ritchey came with him, and by 1908 a new telescope with the 60-inch lens was in operation. Once again, the photographic results were dramatically better than anything that had gone before. The next logical step was a 100-inch reflector. Ritchey began to focus on the idea of a cellular mirror, essentially two thin glass discs separated by a waffle pattern of supports cemented together, which would allow air to flow freely and keep the mirror at a constant temperature. Hale vetoed the plan. Ritchey was increasingly in conflict with Hale and his efforts at Mount Wilson were marginalized before the 100-inch Hooker telescope saw first light in September 1917. Ritchey continued to develop his cellular mirror experiments and carry out further work on a new type of telescope today known as a Ritchey-Chrétien. Henri Chrétien was a visiting French astronomer at Mount Wilson who had worked closely with Ritchey. Hale felt that Ritchey's technical path was ill-suited to his own primary goal for Mount Wilson, stellar spectroscopy, where only the center of the field of a telescope mirror needed to be so sharp in focus. In 1919, Ritchey was fired and left Mount Wilson.
In 1924, Ritchey arrived at the Paris Observatory, through the efforts of his former colleague Chrétien. Throughout the 1920s, Ritchey, with help from Chrétien, experimented with cellular mirrors and together they went on to construct the first Ritchey-Chrétien telescope. The telescope was of limited success, a result of the light pollution that was inevitable given its location.
FINAL YEARS AND LEGACY
In 1930, Ritchey came back to the United States and went on to design and build a 40-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. That telescope yielded mediocre results, but when it was moved to a light pollution-free site in northern Arizona in the late 1950safter Ritchey's deaththe results were spectacular. In common with other visionaries who suffered setbacks during their lives, Ritchey has been vindicated by history: the Hubble Space Telescope is a reflector of Ritchey-Chrétien design, and the primary mirror is cellular, consisting of inch-thick top and bottom plates sandwiching a honeycomb lattice.
Ritchey is arguably the greatest astronomical photographer in history, and is one of the most significant telescope designers. At his core, he was a photographer, and he saw the telescope as a lens through which to take ever better celestial photographs. Through his efforts in improving the design and construction of telescopes and observatories, and advancing the chemistry of astronomical photography, Ritchey left a legacy that continues today.
Hargreaves, F.J. Obituary of Ritchey in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol 107, p 36. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1947.
Osterbrock, D. E. "The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and George Willis Ritchey's Great Telescopes of the Future," in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol 87, no 1, p 51. Toronto: RASC, February, 1993.
Estimate on request