Postcard from McDonald Observatory

On top of Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in far West Texas, one of the darkest places in the world, is the McDonald Observatory. Protected under the multiple silver and white domes are large, extremely complicated yet incredibly sensitive instruments that allow mankind to study planets, comets, asteroids, stars and galaxies millions of light years away.

William Johnson McDonald was born on a farm outside the small town of Howland, Texas in 1844. In 1864, when he was 20, he left college and joined the Confederate army. After surviving several battles, he returned after the war ended and graduated in 1867. During this time he developed a deep interest in astronomy, botany, zoology, and geology.

After getting his degree, he supported himself for the next two or three years by teaching school while studying law. He opened a law office in Clarksville in 1881 and became recognized as one of the best civil lawyers of Northeast Texas. He also prospered financially as he served as president of banks that he organized in Clarksville, Paris, and Cooper.

Despite his wealth, he continued to work hard and live modestly. A life-long bachelor, he did not attend social functions and took no part in public affairs. He did, however, make numerous contributions to charity and helped a number of young men get an education. He eventually hired trusted men to operate his banks and traveled to Europe and Mexico, as well as various places in the United States. In 1895 and 1896 he studied botany in summer school at Harvard University.

McDonald never married. He died at his home in Paris, Texas on February 8, 1926, leaving an estate of over a million dollars, the bulk of which he bequeathed to the University of Texas to establish an observatory. His heirs contested the will, and the university eventually made an out-of-court settlement by which it received $800,000.

By 1934, the university used the funds to establish McDonald Observatory. Its 82-inch telescope, the 2nd largest in the world at that time, was used to make many new discoveries, including new moons around Uranus and Neptune in the late 1940's. In the mid-1960's, NASA granted five million dollars to the McDonald Observatory to help build a new reflector telescope with a 107-inch lens which, once again, was one of the largest in the world. In 1997, a 9.2 meter aperture telescope was dedicated. Today, it is still the 5th largest telescope of its kind in the world.

There are numerous programs and tours available for anyone interested, everything from a daytime safe look through a telescope at the sun (about 45 minutes, tickets are $5) through "Star Parties" which include a 1-hour educational program,  constellation touring, telescope viewing, and other presentations (3 - 4 hours, tickets are $12 with a discount for seniors and military). Over 40,000 people attend these events every year and space is limited so be sure to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible.