Stargazing with Einstein

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), circa 1919. Photo by Suse Byk. Published in Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung on December 14, 1919.

The Crocker-Lick Solar Eclipse Expeditions

In the aftermath of the global “war to end all wars.” the splashy New York Times headline, “Lights All Askew in the Heavens…Einstein Theory Triumphs” captured the attention and imagination of the public. Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity had been verified experimentally with the findings of Arthur Eddington’s 1919 solar eclipse measurements. Just as Einstein predicted, the intense gravity of the Sun warped space and bent starlight enough to shift the positions of the stars in the sky. The definitions of time, space, matter and energy and how they dynamically interact had been reworked. The Times of London announced “Revolution in Science. New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.”

The great German physicist called for the help of astronomers to test his theory of relativity back in 1911, four years before his completed General Theory of Relativity was published. Albert Einstein predicted that the gravitation of a large mass (e.g. the sun) would bend light rays passing near it. He suggested that a way to measure this prediction would be to observe the positions of stars near the sun during an eclipse, when the sky is relatively dark, and compare these measurements to the positions of the same stars later in the night sky.

Under The New York Times headline was the subtitle, “Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations.” This was certainly proven true. There were a great many doubters grappling with Einstein’s groundbreaking, universe warping theories. The data of British astronomer Eddington was not the best and Science demanded corroboration of these stellar results. The article concluded with a warning by Einstein that there were not more than twelve persons in the whole world who would understand his theories.

There is a broader story to the solar eclipse photographic findings and Einstein’s world changing discoveries. First the technology and techniques had to be developed in astrophotography. Milestones in the long journey to proving the relativity theory began in California in the late 1880s with some brilliant astronomers on a mountaintop observatory, a powerful camera lens and a visionary hailing from Sacramento, Col. Charles Frederick Crocker. It would conclude in a remote town in western Australia with the visionary’s brother, financier William Henry Crocker, and a tenacious American astronomer named William Campbell.

Crocker Telescope and Dome

Col. Charles Frederick Crocker. Special Collections UC Santa Cruz.

Vice President of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the dynamic Col. Charles Frederick Crocker, “C.F.,” was also a Regent for the University of California, a 33rd degree Mason, an early member of the Bohemian Club and the President of the California Academy of Sciences. Edward S. Holden, inaugural director of the new Lick Observatory, located on top of Mt. Hamilton, just east of San Jose, convinced C.F. to provide funding for equipment and for solar research.

Using the 6-inch Crocker astrographic camera/telescope, which was housed in the Crocker dome at the obseratory, staff astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard established his reputation as an extraordinarily gifted astrophotographer. He began taking photographs of comets, clusters, nebulae (including galaxies), and the Milky Way soon after the opening of the facilities in 1888.

This telescope was constructed using the 6-inch “Willard” lens made by Charles Usner and refigured by Dr. John A. Brashear. It was bought second-hand, originally used by a commercial portrait photographer in San Francisco. Images captured with the Willard photographic lens and the Crocker telescope are considered benchmarks in the history of astrophotography. The stunning results of this instrument and Barnard’s brilliance fill the entire content of a volume published in 1913 called Photographs of the Milky Way and Comets which include 129 images printed from “collotype” glass plates. (Barnard’s legacy at Lick would also include making the first photographic discovery of a comet and discovering Amalthea, the fifth moon of Jupiter).

Crocker telescope with Willard lens and the first Crocker dome built in 1891. Lick Observatory Records Special Collections UC Santa Cruz


Left: Photo of Comet Brooks taken by E. E. Barnard on October 21, 1893. Center: Solar Eclipse lantern slide 07 Jan 1, 1889 Bartlett Springs by E.E. Barnard. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University. C.F. Crocker would finance an eclipse expedition that same year in Cayenne, French Guiana. Right: Scutum Star Cloud taken by E.E. Barnard on Jun 29, 1892.


John M. Schaeberle’s 40-foot camera on Hokkaido Island in Japan, 1896, Lick Observatory Records Special Collections UC Santa Cruz

In 1889, Col. Fred began financing scientific expeditions — from Cayenne, French Guiana to Hokkaido Island, Japan to Jeur, India — which observed and measured solar eclipses for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Lick Observatory. When C.F. died young of Bright’s disease in 1897, brother William, following in the Colonel’s footsteps, would financially back twelve solar eclipse expeditions to points all over the globe, including Spain, Sumatra, Egypt and Labrador. William would finance the monumental expedition that would furnish the compelling data that Eddington’s findings lacked  (as well as those collected from a dozen or so other expeditions) in Wallal, Australia in 1922.

William Henry Crocker. Photo credit Wells Fargo Archives. Wells Fargo purchased William’s Crocker Bank in 1986.

Time Magazine would describe banker William Henry Crocker as “a second-generation tycoon… ultraconservative, correct, distant, cosmopolitan, a Republican National Committeeman. Traditional even in his recreations, he is an ardent golfer.” Will was also a 33rd degree Mason, a much loved member of the Bohemian Club, a Regent at the University of California and the president of the Crocker National Bank of San Francisco. A New York Supreme Court Judge referred to him as, “One of the fifty men who rule the nation.”

Will once told a reporter that he saw a great meteor as a boy and vowed to one day become an astronomer. Banking derailed this ambition, but not his passion for science. Crocker had graduated from Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1882. Other graduates of the prestigious school include chemist Francis Irénée du Pont and aviator William Boeing. Crocker would spend the second half of his life investing in the minds of some of the most brilliant scientists and inventors of the 20th century. Col. Fred would also pass the baton to a third brother, George, who funded Commander Robert Peary’s biggest expedition to date to reach the North Pole in 1905. All three brothers were inspired by their larger than life father Charles aka “Bull” and Uncle Edwin “Judge” Crocker, builders of the world’s first Transcontinental Railroad.

Brovary 1914

In 1911, Albert Einstein communicated with the astronomer Erwin Finlay-Freundlich, of the Berlin Observatory, about the possibility of verifying experimentally this light-bending effect. Freundlich agreed with Einstein that light bending could possibly be measured using the existing photographic plates taken during previous total solar eclipses. In September 1911, Freundlich wrote to Charles Dillon Perrine, who had obtained many of these plates while working at Lick Observatory.

Perrine replied that, because of the small fields and short exposures, and the fact that the Sun was not in the center of those photographic plates, he didn’t think that they were useful. Freundlich then wrote to William Wallace Campbell, director of the Lick Observatory, asking for copies of the Perrine eclipse plates. Dr. Campbell was a pioneer of astronomical spectroscopy, which involves the study of visible light and wavelengths, which is used to derive many properties of distant stars and galaxies. Campbell informed Freundlich in early 1912, that the Lick Observatory actually had eclipse plates taken by Perrine during the total solar eclipses observed in Sumatra (1901), Spain (1905) and Flint Island (1908), explicitly mentioning several hundred star images recorded in the Flint Island plates. Campbell sent a selection of copies of those eclipse plates to Freundlich, but he could not obtain any conclusion about light bending from those Lick images, just as Perrine had anticipated.

William Wallace Campbell, 1886, five years before beginning work at the Lick Observatory, Lick Observatory Records Special Collections UC Santa Cruz

For the total solar eclipse of October 1912, Perrine organized an expedition of the Córdoba Observatory to Brazil that was met with heavy clouds and rain. Light bending verification had to be postponed for further opportunities, the next one being the total solar eclipse of August 21, 1914, visible in the extreme north of America, as well as in some parts of Europe and Asia.

Dr. Campbell would take his crew to Imperial Russia to join up with Freundlich’s German expedition. The eclipse camp would be set up at the town of Brovary in what is now northern Ukraine. Campbell attached a condition to his collaboration with Freundlich that his results and a full paper on the subject would be published as a Lick Observatory Bulletin. Campbell attended the International Solar Union meeting in Bonn in August 1913, and the meeting of the Astronomical Gesellschaft in Hamburg. During this trip he had an opportunity to visit the Berlin Observatory, and to devise a plan of attack for the coming eclipse observations with Freundlich.

There was a slight hitch in the plans of the traveling astronomers. On July 28, 1914, the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, ignited rapid military responses leading to the Great War in Europe. On August 2, 1914 Campbell got the news that Germany had declared war against Russia. The older members of the Berlin party were deported immediately; Freundlich and his younger colleagues were held as prisoners of war, and later exchanged for Russians caught in Germany when hostilities broke out. Russian authorities allowed the California party to observe the eclipse. Unfortunately clouds as well as the moon eclipsed the sun. Mrs. Campbell’s diary notes for the day summed up the expedition: “Total failure. Thick gray cloud at eclipse time and lovely clear sunshine afterwards.”

World War I precipitated a hasty departure from Russia for the Lick party. They left their instruments at the Pulkovo Observatory, near Saint Petersburg. The Bolsheviks seized state power in western Russia and put a business boycott in force there. Nothing could be moved.

Goldendale 1918

The next attempt at tackling the Einstein problem was during the eclipse of June 8, 1918 (the last one to cross the U.S. from coast to coast until August 21, 2017). Campbell positioned himself in Goldendale, Washington. The boycott ended in April 1918 but the equipment from Russia didn’t arrive in time forcing the team to use auxiliary, borrowed and improvised equipment, some loaned from the Department of Physics at Berkeley. The exhibition would be on a more modest scale.

Expedition leaders along with support staff and friends from the local area standing in front of the “Einstein-vulcan telescope.” William H. Crocker is eighth from the left, his wife Ethel tenth from the left. Courtesy Lick Observatory Records Special Collections UC Santa Cruz.

The night before the eclipse, clouds rolled in. But at the crucial moment — there was a break in the clouds. Campbell described the drama: “The clouds uncovered the Sun and its immediate surroundings less than a minute before totally became complete, and the clouds again covered the Sun less than one minute after the total phase had passed.” Ethel Crocker, the wife of Regent W.H. Crocker witnessed the surprise clearing as a religious experience: “It was a miracle that little lake of blue sky in the center of which was the phenomenon we had all gathered to see — God is very good to people that believe in his power to perform miracles.”

The Goldendale plates suffered from poor definition of the star images, which came largely from movement of the telescope mounting during exposure. Doubling and tailing of the stellar images occurred casting doubts about the success of the venture. But the job of measuring the plates would move forward. Assistant Heber Doust Curtis meticulously measured the plates as well as some taken at the eclipse in 1900 in Georgia.

After painstakingly checking and double checking his calculations, Curtis concluded that the results of both sets of measures were negative. He then gave a talk for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific meeting in Pasadena and announced that, “there was no deflection of the light ray produced when the ray passes through a strong gravitational field, and that the Einstein effect is non-existent.”

Campbell vs. Eddington

News came that the British intended to send two expeditions to observe and photograph the May 29, 1919 solar eclipse, and that they would concentrate on the Einstein problem. In February of that year, two teams of astronomers led by Frank Dyson of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and Arthur Eddington of Cambridge University set out for Sobral, Brazil, and Príncipe (an island off the coast of Africa), respectively.

The skewing of the stars that Einstein predicted in his General Relativity paper was approximate yet precise — an angular deflection of roughly 1.75 arcseconds using his formula     

Eddington claimed to be one of the few people on earth (the dozen superscientists) that Einstein predicted could at that time understand his theory and realize its significance. He lectured on relativity at a meeting at the British Association back in 1916. He was excited, perhaps a bit starry-eyed, by a possible revolution in science. This then gave a new urgency to the project Dr. Campbell had been engaged in for over five years. He wanted to be the first to announce definite results.

Campbell got word that Eddington was disappointed over his results at the recent 6 minute and 51 second eclipse. The clouds obscured nearly all stars on every single photograph. Out of 16 photographs secured only the last six showed any stars on them. Significant measurements were obtained for only a few stars — five at Principe and seven at Sobral. Eddington himself would later recommend more testing.

Dr. Campbell sailed into London to address the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society. He carried with him the Heber Curtis results of the expedition from the year before and, in his back pocket, the rumors of Eddington’s complications. Before the international gathering of gentlemen scientists, in the hallowed halls that contain original works by Copernicus, Schwabe and Cassini — even a piece of an apple tree from Sir Isaac Newton’s garden, Campbell announced that Einstein was wrong.

Campbell’s telegram commanding that publishing Lick’s Einstein denouncement be delayed

The session then took a dramatic turn with the reading of a cable from Eddington. It said that his preliminary findings showed just the opposite. The British astronomer said Einstein’s predictions were right but the final results wouldn’t be ready for a couple of months. Campbell sent an urgent telegram to his colleagues in America who were about to release their negative report on the eclipse photos, “Delay publishing Einstein results.”

Both of the great scientists may have jumped the gun a bit when announcing their conclusions using less then stellar data.

Sir Isaac Newton, President of Royal Society, 1703–1727. Newton was one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal Society, elected in 1672. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689.

Four months later on November 6, 1919, Eddington traveled from Cambridge to London to address a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society having finalized his photographic findings on Einstein’s theory. He began the meeting pointing to a painting of once President Isaac Newton of the Royal Society and said, “Forgive us Sir Isaac Newton, your universe has been overturned.” After careful analysis of the findings, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society gave their own announcement that there was “no doubt that they confirm Einstein’s prediction. A very definite result has been obtained that light is deflected in accordance with Einstein’s law of gravitation.”

Newton’s view of gravity didn’t work for some things, like Mercury’s peculiar orbit around the sun. The orbits of planets shift over time, and Mercury’s orbit shifted faster than Newton predicted. Einstein offered a different view of gravity, one that made sense of Mercury. In his model, instead of exerting an attractive force, each object curves the fabric of space and time around them, forming a sort of well that other objects — and even beams of light — fall into.

The public learned that everything they know about the universe was wrong. No one foresaw the gravity that Einstein’s obscure theory of gravity would have on regular folks or imagined how engaged and fascinated the public would be. Einstein’s personal world fame was launched. But despite this adulation, there was a split decision. The scientific community demanded that the results be repeated before a final decision could be made. Another expedition had to be mounted.

Wallal, 1922

When the British lackluster findings eclipsed Campbell’s own ambiguous results in 1919, it became a matter of prestige to prosecute the research to a definite conclusion. He wanted to set things right once and for all. The path of the next eclipse, in 1922, could not have been further from California. It swept from the east coast of Africa over the Indian Ocean before crossing northwest Australia. Dr. Campbell chose Wallal, a sheep and telegraph station situated along Ninety Mile Beach, on the northwestern shores of the Australia. The options for the expedition were Christmas Island, the Maldives, or other rural locations in Australia.

Donkey team hauling equipment or supplies up the beach from a schooner–probably the Gwendoline during the 1922 Solar Eclipse Expedition, Wallal. Courtesy State Library of Western Australia.

The most difficult part of this expedition was the journey to the island continent. The party sailed roughly 7,500 miles from San Francisco to Sydney. From there, they crossed Australia by train to reach Perth, then traveled north by ship for 10 days to reach the town of Broome, where they picked up further personnel. From there whaleboats full of precious equipment had to navigate the 26-foot sand bank before being carried across the surf and loaded into donkey wagons. With the help of the local indigenous Nyangumarta people, the expedition gear was then transported to the Wallal campsite.

Wallal is in a uniquely remote position. To the east is the Great Sandy Desert, an arid landmass larger than the whole of New Zealand. Beyond that lies the Australian outback, a vast area of bush land that stretches across the country. To the west is the Indian Ocean, which brings in cyclones for five months of the year.

Seven separate attempts were made to measure the light-bending effect around the eclipsed sun of 1922 including the Spencer Jones expedition, sent by Greenwich Observatory, which was the British sequel to the 1919 expeditions. They went to Christmas Island. Erwin Finlay-Freundlich of the Berlin Observatory and the 1914 Russian fiasco expedition headed a German-Dutch team who also camped at Christmas Island. They were both plagued by bad weather.

In perfect conditions, on the afternoon of September 21, 1922, the sky darkened. Months of preparation — and years of attempts — had led Campbell to these 5 minutes and 19 seconds of the Sun’s corona burning around a dark moon. Four powerful cameras, designed by Dr. Campbell and constructed especially for the eclipse were used with glass plates, 17 inches square and a quarter of an inch thick each weighing 7 pounds. There were 12 of these exposed during the period of total eclipse to record the faint stars surrounding the eclipsed sun.

The same number of plates were exposed with the same instruments to the same group of stars in the night sky back in May from Tahiti by Lick astronomer Robert Trumpler who would join Campbell in Wallal. In Australia, Campbell and Trumpler were able to gather enough data and conduct the measurements.

There was overwhelming press interest and speculation in the outcome. On April 12, 1923, Campbell publicly confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity, with measurements from over 100 stars. Campbell’s Wallal observations agreed with Einstein’s calculations and his formula as closely as the most ardent proponent of his groundbreaking theory could hope for.

Left: Dr Trumpler holding one of the Einstein plates showing solar corona orientated as in the sky, 1922 Wallal Solar Eclipse Expedition Courtesy State Library of Western Australia. Right: One of the Wallal photos that proves Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Courtesy Lick Observatory Records Special Collections UC Santa Cruz.


Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in 1931

Einstein, the goofy, ill-kempt physicist became the face of Science and one of the most beloved figures in history. He was a superstar. Charlie Chaplin met him in 1931 and accompanied him to a movie premiere in Hollywood. As the crowds cheered themselves hoarse upon seeing these two icons arm in arm, Chaplin turned and said, “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.”

In 1922, during the peak of his international stardom and while Campbell and Trumpler were measuring the twelve Wallal plates, Einstein was on a world tour. He lingered longest in Japan, Palestine and Spain. His chief aspiration during this journey was to restore his morphing image and control the strange narrative that his fame was propagating. He commented, “the wider public, and politics, have long since taken control of my theory, and my person, and have tried somehow to adapt both to their own purposes.” As above so below; Einstein’s starlight had become skewed.

Einstein learned during his travels that he was to receive the Nobel Prize in physics. The Nobel committee rejected him in 1919, 1920 and 1921. During the selection process in 1921, the Nobel Committee for Physics decided that none of the year’s nominations met the criteria as outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel. He received the 1921 prize in 1922 not for his theories of relativity which were still not fully understood and embraced (Campbell wouldn’t publish his results until 1923), but for his paper on the photoelectric effect, which became the foundation work for quantum mechanics and which unlocks the secrets of the atom.

When Professor Campbell returned from Australia, he was met at the dock by a delegation of regents from the University of California insisting that Campbell accept the presidency of the University. He did accept and served as president from 1923 to 1930.

Crocker and Campbell remained pals. On the night of Sept. 11, 1929, they would take Winston Churchill to the Lick Observatory to show him the rings of Saturn 800 million miles away through the world’s second largest refracting telescope. The future prime minister and powerful orator was speechless, but later described Saturn as, “a perfectly modeled globe, instinct with rotundity, with a clear-cut life buoy around its middle, all glowing with serene radiance.” Campbell ultimately became the President of the National Academy of Sciences, authored or coauthored over 350 scholarly articles, books, essays, and lectures and had an asteroid, a crater on Mars, and a crater on the Moon named after him.

Crocker and Campbell took Winston Churchill to the Lick Observatory to view the rings of Saturn. Left: Lick Observatory at Mount Hamilton by Ansel Adams. Sweeney/Rubin Ansel Adams Fiat Lux Collection [1987.0027.6.UC.9.11] UCR/California Museum of Photography. University of California, Riverside. Ansel Adams was related to Col. C.F. Crocker’s wife Jennie; his children were Ansel’s cousins. Right: Lick Observatory from East. Snow view — Feb. 23. 1944. History San Jose Research Library

The Seer

William H. Crocker, the visionary behind the greatest visionaries of the 20th century

William H. Crocker would go on to collaborate with another legendary Nobel Prize winning scientist and an inventor. In the 30s, William gave Ernest Orlando Lawrence $75,000 out of his own pocket to finance the construction of a 60-inch cyclotron. Advancements made through this larger cyclotron and at the Crocker “Rad Lab” (now the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at U.C. Davis) included the diagnosis, treatment, and control of diseases; the developing of new forms of chemotherapy using radioisotopes; and the discovery and creation of seven new elements, including the atomic fuel plutonium.

Crocker built a laboratory for inventor Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a boy genius pioneer in electronics. At the age of 20, Farnsworth and several dedicated assistants developed the dissector tube, the basis of all current electronic televisions, and successfully transmitted the first all-electronic television image. He was granted a patent on August 25, 1930. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Out of the West, like the realization of a prophet’s dream, has come the greatest wizardry yet of the civilized day — television.”

Farnsworth kept a plaque on his desk that read “MEN AND TREES DIE–IDEAS LIVE ON FOR THE AGES.”

Built in 1948, the small silver Crocker Dome (the 1891 Crocker dome was torn down) is to the left of the large Shane dome under the moon. It houses a specialized telescope for the discovery of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars).  Photo by Laura Hatch

Top photo of the Lick Observatory, “First Light Night” (LH7353) is by Laurie Hatch

To view or order photos of Lick Observatory by Laurie Hatch

Further reading: