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The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope Essay (Book Review)


The designing, construction, and execution of the Palomar telescope took around quarter of a century. The telescope was a state-of-art device, which drove technology to the edge. There existed numerous internal strains in the project. The collaboration between science and industry hardly ever went effortlessly (Florence, 2011, pp. 8-15).

Ronald Florence, the author of “The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope” performs an excellent job in bringing forth the drama involved in the project. The drama by Ronald Florence is however not of the kind of Indiana Jones, but of conflicts in personality, the distressing of the resolution to engineering difficulties, and the vigor of the attempt to generate an appropriate mirror blank.

One could even note the concern at the period of the long extensions in the course of waiting for the cooling of the mirror coupled with during its erection at the appropriate shape. Even if this advance could not result to an intellectual account of the project, it is suitable for an excellent reading.

The construction of the Hale Telescope is somewhat a lengthy account. The entire project was filled with difficulties in addition to the existence of some critical setbacks that could have terminated the entire project including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Nevertheless, the Hubble did not turn out to be the only telescope to encounter such initial aches. This situation is as well relevant to the 200-inch (5 meter) Hale Telescope situated at the Palomar Mountain. Ronald Florence generates a perfect book concerning the construction of the 200-inch Palomar telescope that was indeed a perfect machine.

Palomar Telescope

According to Florence, many researches have looked into the construction of the Palomar telescopes with the inclusion of the efforts by David Woodbury. As suggested by Florence, David Woodbury and his publication are in fact a section of the account for he even assisted in obtaining a great form of the project.

Even though there are some current researches on Palomar, “The Perfect Machine” stands as the sole complete and detailed account of the Palomar story. With respect to works by George Ellery, the 5-meter telescope signifies the largest telescope internationally. George Ellery is a solar astrophysicist who had the expertise of obtaining huge sums from rich men.

Additionally, Ellery was in a position to perceive the worth of large telescopes with regard to resolving the puzzles of stellar advancement and cosmology (Florence, 2011, pp. 16-20).

In 1923, Ellery and his comrade engineer, Francis Pease, developed confidence that a much larger telescope would be constructed on condition that they had the necessary monetary requirements.

Certainly, they approximated the total cost to be $ 5 million. Ellery overwhelmed Wickliffe Rose, the manager of Rockefeller Foundation (RF), with the notion of the telescope and by the close of 1928, the finances for the building of the 5-meter telescope were provided.

Ronald Florence opens his book with a synopsis of the “Great Debate” by Shapley-Curtis. The “Great Debate” denotes a crucial instance in the hullabaloo over if nebulae existed in the galaxy or if galaxies were on their own.

Moreover, the author explains the position of cosmology, the significance of large telescopes to the ground, and the setting of Ellery, viz. the initiator of the 200-inch. Luckily, he uses much time in the discourse of the influence of the two main important occasions that had an impact on the application of the telescope: the vast misery and the Second World War (Florence, 2011, pp. 21-25).

The 5-meter project offered jobs during the misery and permitted numerous companies to focus on manpower and the attempts into special study for the project than they could have at an instance when business was in an excellent state.

On the other hand, the impact of the war resulted in the stopping of the building of the telescope by drawing of the labor force as well as resources. The most fascinating sections of the book are illustrations of the people engaged in the construction of the telescope.

The individuals that played a key role in the construction of the telescope include George Ellery who had a frenzied pace that resulted to his downfall (Florence, 2011, pp. 56-75). His endeavor, as a technical industrialist, coupled with his demanding study approach and the course of Mount Wilson Observatory, acted as the correspondent of burning the candle at its two ends and brought about his entire collapse in 1910.

Following the downfall, Ellery could swap short periods of intense labor with instances of severe exhaustion. For George Ellery, the 200-inch telescope acted as his last project as well as the one, which could give him a great reputation. Ellery is best remembered for this telescope.

Additionally, there existed other individuals in the army like Clyde McDowell. Clyde withdrew from the navy and abandoned an opportunity and reputation in a bid to administer the building of the telescope. His form of administration led to the effortless construction of the telescope.

Moreover, McDowell acquired new friends with his perception that the construction of the telescope was the same as the construction of a massive battleship gun tower. McDowell employed retired military Colonel Brett to manage the building site on Palomar.

On his part, Brett managed the site in the same way as an army operation, to the extent of serving a nasty meal each week to permit the employees long for others (Florence, 2011, pp. 89-112). Ronald Florence illustrates the scientists in addition to the engineers as considerably the most impressive characters in the drama.

It is not hard to express sympathy for individuals like McCauley of Corning as well as his impressive attempts to come up with an appropriate piece of Pyrex for use as the telescope mirror. All things appeared to break down for McCauley, starting with a superior obtaining recognition for his efforts to a downpour that threatened to tear down the second Endeavour at a 200-inch (5 meter) mirror blank.

Ronald Florence has as well accomplished a service through shedding light on an individual that has obtained very little recognition, Rein Kroon. Rein was a youthful engineer from the Netherlands who was working for the project initiated by Westinghouse, the constructers of the telescope mounting. Rein managed to resolve many difficult setbacks entailed in the telescope mounting (Florence, 2011, pp. 123-152).

The aforementioned setbacks included the way to make use of the oil-film comportments for mounting, the interior plan for the north “horseshoe” deportment, and plan for the declination deportments. The endeavors of these men as well as others described in the book led to the completion of the 200-inch Hale Telescope that started its operation in 1949.

The Very Large Telescope

During the early 1980s, there existed more than half of a dozen observatories of telescopes accessible to astronomers internationally, La Silla being among them. Arrangements were underway to build stronger and larger telescopes having primary mirrors.

The Keck Foundation (KF) allowed the Californian Institute of Technology (CIT) and the University of California to construct twin 10-m telescopes and situated it on Mauna Kea. This aspect played a key role in the provision of initial light and in particular concerning ground-anchored spectroscopic similar to the Hubble Space Telescope (Florence, 2011, pp. 219-250).

Switzerland and Italy had become part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 1981, thus allowing the building of the 3.5-m fresh expertise Telescope with initial developments in dynamic optics. These developments were vital for the next move; viz. the building of a Very Large Telescope (VLT) that received the approval in 1987 and it was constructed on Cerro Paranal in Chile.

This 8.1-m telescope (Gemini) as well as an 8.3-m Subaru telescope came into being at around the same period. The Very Large Telescope was planned from initial stages as an incorporated structure containing 4 of the 8.2-m telescopes, comprising the likelihood of to merge the light telescopes for optical interferometers, thus paving the way for breathtaking spatial settlement.

The majority of VLT devices were constructed in close partnership with establishments in nearby states. The whole lot of the initial device set was completed at around mid 2007 with the ordering of CRIRES. The Paranal stock comprised the screw adaptive optics network in addition to a fast-reaction method to respond to quick transient occurrences. Later on, the near infrared frequency was incorporated as generation-1.5 device.

The Very Large Telescopes have added to all sections of astronomy encompassing the kind of dark substance and dark energy, the excessive physics of gamma radiation ruptures, as well as the configuration, organization, and development of galaxies and solar system.

The productivity with respect to referenced research papers was almost 500 in 2007, thus making about 2200 since initiation with subsequent yearly augments.

The total of observing applications for European Southern Observatory amenities has nearly tripled in the last decade. The User Portal has approximately 4000 certified clients and the archive holds 74 Terabytes of statistics and improved statistical products (Florence, 2011, pp. 298-325).

Winning strategy

The Very Large Telescopes initiated businesses for Keck telescopes in about 5 years. Nevertheless, the notion of constructing a completely integrated structure having 4 of the 8.2-m telescopes with time and offering a dozen foci for a cautiously planned backup of devices accompanied by 4 of the 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescope proved to be the proper one for the interferometer.

The inclusion of a lasting and sufficiently financed device and expertise were constructed in association with establishments in the neighboring states, with similar participation in labor remunerated by assured keeping of time, and has developed the most improved ground-anchored optical observatory in the universe.

The progression model prohibits guest as well as service style and offers the best observing effectiveness in the world on a position where almost 90 per cent of the nights are unclouded (Florence, 2011, pp. 382-425).

In the society today, the achievements of the Palomar telescope have facilitated technological inspirations, for instance, the European Southern Observatory personnel were motivated to construct, drive, and back the best probable observatory. In this regard, the Very Large Telescope is possibly the natural replacement of the Perfect Machine that was situated at Mount Palomar.

Strength and weakness of the book

Ronald Florence does not just offer a vibrant story of the design and building of Hale telescope, but he also attracts the reader to share his enthrallment for a splendid project in addition to a remarkable technical machine. The book is beyond a well written piece and turns out to be fascinating. Nevertheless, there exist some weaknesses in the book.

At some point, the author wrongly offers praise to the designers of the Palomar telescope for novelty that had been tested long before, like the standard of the support of the principal mirror.

The description of the unmoved ending of the principal mirror seems entirely questionable with regard to the metrology of the moment, being of excessively low resolution to permit any significant confirmation of local redesigning as detailed by the author.

Additionally, the post-1950 era could as well have merited a rather wider and fairer description. Moreover, the introduction of completely new and extensive perceptions, like active optics, under the custody of European designers, and dealers is totally disregarded.

Overall, the vision and the effort concerning the construction of the Palomar telescope spring from each page; it is an almost flawless book regarding an almost perfect machine.


By around 1980s, there hailed observatories of telescopes accessible to astronomers internationally that were perhaps the natural substitution of the Perfect Machine that was positioned at Mount Palomar. Ronald Florence used reasonable time in the study of the story as portrayed by the endnotes that demonstrate his usage of a lot of time in search of primary data from the archives.

Nevertheless, Florence is yet to seize a number of the noteworthy historical concerns concerning the 200-inch telescope and in this regard, intellectual treatment is anticipated of the Palomar Observatory by a historiographer of science and technology.

An excellent intellectual historiographer was perhaps not the intention of Ronald Florence (this is evident in the lack of preface as well as a bibliography; in its place there are works stated at the endnotes). Luckily, an excellently studied and perfectly written story is developed in the book.


Florence, R. (2011). The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

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"The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope." IvyPanda, 24 Sept. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/the-perfect-machine-building-the-palomar-telescope-book-review/.

1. IvyPanda. "The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope." September 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-perfect-machine-building-the-palomar-telescope-book-review/.


IvyPanda. "The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope." September 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-perfect-machine-building-the-palomar-telescope-book-review/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope." September 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-perfect-machine-building-the-palomar-telescope-book-review/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope'. 24 September.

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