With L.A.'s night sky shrouded in a veil of smog and light pollution, Southern California might seem an unlikely place for star-gazing scientists to congregate. But before population growth and industrialization transformed the night sky into a dull glow, Southern California's generally cloudless climate attracted some of the world's finest astronomers.
The region's most prominent observatory, in Griffith Park, has always been more of an educational facility rather than an active center for scientific research. Perched above Los Angeles in the Hollywood Hills, the Griffith Observatory opened on May 14, 1935 and was originally envisioned by mining baron Griffith J. Griffith, who became interested in astronomy after peering through the telescope of an observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains.
It was at that facility -- the Mount Wilson Observatory -- that many of Southern California's great astronomical discoveries were made. Plans for an observatory on the summit overlooking Pasadena dated to the 1880s, when businessman E. F. Spence, USC president Marion F. Bovard, and a team of Harvard scientists conducted the first observations from the peak with a 13-inch telescope. They were satisfied with their results; at 5,715 feet above sea level, Mount Wilson peeks through the inversion layer, leaving fog and airborne pollution below and calm, steady air above. Although the proposal gained wide approval among astronomers nationwide, financial troubles plagued the plan and forced USC and Harvard to shelve it in 1892.