According to John Anson Ford, the genesis of Griffith Observatory and its public telescope occurred when Col. Griffith J. Griffith (1850-1919) paid a visit to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, then home of the world’s largest operating telescope, the 60-inch reflector. There he was given the opportunity to view a celestial wonder through the telescope, and was profoundly moved by the experience. “Man’s sense of values ought to be revised,” Ford quotes Griffith as saying. “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would revolutionize the world”.
After consulting many experts on astronomy and public education, (including George Ellery Hale, founder of the Yerkes and Mt. Wilson Observatories), he established a trust fund with the goal of eventually building an Observatory that would contain solar and celestial telescopes, a scientific theater, and a museum (the “Hall of Science”) to illustrate the place of humanity in the vastness of space and time. For celestial viewing, he specified in his will that the telescope was to be “at least 12-inches in diameter” and “complete in all its details” and was to be located “high and above the Hall of Science”.
Following Griffith’s death in 1919, plans for the observatory and Hall of Science were delayed until the Griffith Trust committee determined that its fund had grown sufficiently to carry out Griffith’s will. In 1930 the trust committee appealed for help in realizing Griffith’s plans to Walter Adams, Director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and to George Ellery Hale, who was in the midst of directing the planning of a 200-inch telescope (eventually completed in 1948 as the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain).
Hale’s artist, instrument designer, architectural consultant, and the figurehead of the amateur telescope making movement, Russell W. Porter, chose the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope as being the best available for fulfilling Colonel Griffith’s intentions. The Griffith Trust ordered the telescope from the Carl Zeiss Company of Jena, Germany in 1931. The $14,900 spent on the instrument was the first purchase of material for the observatory.
At the Zeiss factory, the telescope was set up in a special testing room with a sliding roof for its first check out on the stars when the astronomer Walter Baade happened to visit, and he was invited to be the first to look at starlight through the lens. Following this visit, Baade would move to California and gain fame by using the giant telescopes of Mt. Wilson and Palomar Mountain to correctly gauge the distances of the galaxies. A decade after Baade’s visit to Zeiss, the factory at Jena was destroyed by the Allied bombing of World War II.
Workers from Zeiss assembled the telescope in its dome at Griffith Observatory early in 1935. Opening night (May 14, 1935) at Griffith Observatory was cloudy, so the public had to wait for the first clear night, the following May 17, for a chance to look through the eyepiece. Since then the telescope has carried out Griffith’s primary mission of providing views of the night sky to visitors on every clear night that the Observatory is open, amounting to more than 5 million people since the first night.
Thanks to a loan from Meade Instruments, the observatory staff is gaining experience with CCD (Charge-Coupled-Devices) to extend the uses of the Zeiss Telescope.