Skip navigation

Division of Natural Sciences & MathematicsDepartment of Physics & Astronomy

Observatories

A Brief History of the Meyer-Womble Observatory

Meyer-Womble Observatory

The Denver University Observatories: Historic Chamberlin Observatory (1894, LINK) and Meyer-Womble Observatory atop Mt.Evans (1997, LINK).  The origins of high-altitude physics and astronomy research in Colorado trace back to 1880 with the hiring of Herbert Howe as professor of astronomy at DU. By 1890, he was building the Chamberlin Observatory in south Denver, and attracting the interest of scientists like George E. Hale [Yerkes and Palomar] in telescope sites in the Rockies. Donald Menzel, Howe's student and eventual Harvard Observatory director, later commissioned the Climax solar observatory and the High Altitude Observatory institute now affiliated with NCAR.

Also in the early years of the 20th century, C. Wilson discovered cosmic rays with his homemade cloud chamber. Cosmic rays are charged atoms boiling off the sun and stars, filling space. Those reaching Earth caused small "tracks" to appear in Wilson's cloud chamber. This was occurring in parallel with the development of nuclear theory, and it didn't take long for researchers to notice that more CR tracks were visible at higher altitudes. This caused A. Compton (University of Chicago) to visit Mount Evans in 1930, because a new highway was being completed to the 14,000+ foot summit, allowing easy movement of experimental gear.

The A-frame Building

In 1935, to support expanding CR studies, DU built the summit "A-frame" building, designed and overseen by Burnham Hoyt, architect of Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Denver City and County Building. We like to think of the A-frame as his 'highest' achievement, of course. In 1939, an Italian physicist named Bruno Rossi worked CR studies at Mount Evans and was the first to demonstrate the energy dependence of the half life of the mu meson, thereby providing another piece of proof that Einstein's theory of relativity describes nature [time dilation effects in particular]. Rossi might have received a Nobel prize for this work, except that the political affiliations of Italy were not welcome during World War II soon after. Rossi recounts his experiences in his memoir entitled "Moments in the Life of a Scientist" (Cambridge press 1990, IBSN 0-521-36439-6, QC16.R4956713). Also, in 1940, Denver businessmen built the Summit Hotel atop Mount Evans which thrived as a tourist stop until its fiery demise September 1, 1979.

After World War II, there was an enormous interest in CR research and a consortium of universities including Chicago, MIT, Michigan and others joined forces to work with DU and build the High Altitude Lab facilities near Echo Lake, which is close to the site of a World War II training camp, now a campground. Echo Lab served then as now as a base camp for work there and at higher altitudes on Mount Evans. The activity was documented in a photo story in the November 1948 issue of LIFE magazine. Through the 1950s, Echo lab hosted numerous seasonal researchers at Echo and at the summit, and several international conferences. Work continued into the 1960s until newer "atom smashers" began to eclipse work on the mountains.

Chamberlin Observatory continues to be in use to this day, in support of DU classes and public outreach.

Faculty astronomers: Dr. Robert Stencel, W.H. Womble Professor of Astronomy, Director of DU Observatories; Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, Assistant Professor; Dr. Toshiya Ueta, Assistant Professor.

Additional archival details can be obtained by contacting DU archivist, Stephen Fisher at Penrose Library.  As the cosmic ray work ended, new research began with the construction in 1972 of the first summit telescope, and the 1996 upgrade to the current Mount Evans Meyer-Womble Observatory astronomy facilities.

Revision 8-9-2011, in progress.