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McDonald at 75

May 5, 2014

Spring of 1939 was a nervous time. The Great Depression still gripped much of the world, Japan was marching through China, and Europe was on the brink of all-out war. In the Davis Mountains of West Texas, though, many of those concerns were briefly put aside while scientists and locals celebrated a new beginning: the dedication of McDonald Observatory.

The Observatory was established by a bequest to the University of Texas from William J. McDonald, a banker and lawyer in Paris, Texas. The University didn’t have an astronomy program, though, so it partnered with the University of Chicago to plan and build the place.

Some University officials wanted to build it near Austin. On the other hand, some of the Chicago astronomers preferred sites in Arizona or New Mexico. In the end, they picked a remote mountain northwest of Fort Davis, Texas.

Construction started in 1933 on a dome that would house an 82-inch telescope — the second largest in the world at the time. Problems with the telescope’s main mirror delayed completion until 1939.

And on May 5th of that year — 75 years ago today — astronomers from across the country gathered atop Mount Locke for the dedication. The speeches touched on the problems facing the world, but mostly they talked about the future of the great new telescope in the mountains of West Texas — a future that’s still playing out today.

More about the birth of McDonald Observatory tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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