Ambrose Swasey

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Ambrose Swasey

Many people celebrate their birthdays under the stars. But when Ambrose Swasey turned 89, he celebrated under a machine his company was building to study the stars — the first telescope for McDonald Observatory.

Swasey was born 175 years ago today, in a small town in New Hampshire. He quickly showed a knack for designing and building things. As a teenager, he went to work in a machine shop, where he met Worcester Warner. They formed their own company, Warner & Swasey, which they soon moved to Cleveland.

The company mainly built machine tools. But both founders were interested in astronomy, so they started building telescopes and their protective domes as well — work that made the company well known.

Warner and Swasey built a big new telescope for Lick Observatory in California, and a bigger one for the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory — still the biggest telescope of its type in the world.

In 1923, Chicago astronomer Otto Struve named an asteroid discovered with the Yerkes telescope in Swasey’s honor. Later, Struve became the Yerkes director. And when Chicago signed a deal with the University of Texas to operate its new McDonald Observatory, Struve became its director as well. He hired Warner & Swasey to build it, including its first big telescope — the second-largest in the world.

The telescope has moved down the rankings since then. But it’s still in service — one of the legacies of Ambrose Swasey.

Script by Damond Benningfield


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