Monday, September 26, 2011

Arcturus, Clocks, and Elgin

One of the best stories I came across while creating my Android app involved the star Arcturus.  Arcturus is a binary star system in the constellation Bootes, and is the 4th brightest star in the night sky.

The story was this:

In 1933, Chicago hosted the World's Fair.  Astronomers at the time had recently calculated that Arcturus was about 40 light years away.  So light just arriving from the star had begun its journey 40 years prior, in 1893, which happened to be the last time Chicago hosted the World's Fair.  So organizers decided to open the 1933 Fair by using light from Arcturus to turn on the fairground's lights on opening night.

Here's how it worked:  four telescopes around the country were outfitted with a photoelectric cell, which converts light to electricity.  These cells were a new invention, and were being promoted at the Fair.  On opening night, the four telescopes were trained on Arcturus, whose light entered the telescope, got converted to electricity, and sent via telegraph to Chicago where, with much fanfare, it tripped a switch that illuminated the fairgrounds.  

Four telescopes were used in case one site was cloudy.  The four telescope locations were:
  • Harvard University
  • Allegheny Observatory at Pittsburgh
  • Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin
  • University of Illinois
Apparently the event was such a hit with the public that organizers decided to repeat it each night, with the Elgin Observatory taking over Arcturus-observing duties.  Elgin, by the way, is a town about 30 minutes south of where we live.

At this point, I thought three things:  1) "That's a really cool story", 2) "Hey, Yerkes Observatory! We've been there!", and 3) "Elgin has an observatory?"

A bit of googling revealed that Elgin does have an observatory, although it's not open to the public.  I also discovered the Elgin Historical Museum, and learned that Elgin once had a large watch factory.

I found all of this very interesting, so Wendy and I went to the Museum a few weeks ago:

It was much bigger and nicer than we were expecting.  And there was much more to Elgin's history that we didn't know.  Here's a bit of what we learned:
  • During the late 1800's, Elgin was the center of the country's dairy industry.  The price of butter across the country was set each day in Elgin.  Also, sticks of butter used to be short and squat (and might still be on the West Coast?).  Elgin introduced the long, skinny sticks of butter that are the norm today.  These are supposedly "better", but we didn't see any explanation as to why that is.
  • For the first half of the 20th century, Elgin had a huge watch-making factory, which dominated the world's watch-making industry.  Elgin watches were sold in nearly every jewelry store in the country, and the phrase "Elgin watches" was a common one and was synonymous with high-quality watches.
  • At the beginning of the 1900's there were a number of train wrecks caused by engineers having inaccurate watches.  President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a new standard of accuracy for watches, so the Elgin watch factory built the Elgin Observatory which allowed watch-makers to track time more accurately using the stars.
  • During WWII, the watch factory switched to manufacturing high precision aircraft parts.  Unfortunately, after the war, it had fallen too far behind the rest of the watch industry, and combined with changing consumer tastes, it didn't survive.  The factory was eventually torn down, although the Observatory was spared.
  • There are a lot of Elgin watches on display at the Museum.
After a few hours at the museum, we drove by the Observatory and snapped a picture:

This was much more than I expected to learn from writing an app!

1 comment:

Cory said...

re: Also, sticks of butter used to be short and squat (and might still be on the West Coast?)

As far as I've been able to tell, our butter is the long skinny sticks. If there is square and squat butter at Whole Foods grocery store, I'd be somewhat surprised.