Photograph courtesy Yerkes Observatory
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A view of the nebula in Orion as seen from Yerkes observatory.
Photograph courtesy Yerkes Observatory

Found: A Corner of the Cosmos

For the entirety of human history, we have been fascinated by the stars and planets that dot the sky. It’s only recently that we have been able to get close to space and begin to understand its amazing properties. When I first saw this 1919 picture of nebulae in the Pleiades, I was surprised to see such an old photograph of distant stars. To think that an image like this was published just a year shy of the end of the First World War and over 40 years before the first man stepped foot in outer space seems almost beyond comprehension.

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A photograph from Yerkes Observatory depicts nebulae in the Pleiades.

The image was taken at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Yerkes has the largest refracting telescope—all glass lenses, no mirrors—in the world. It also has been the home for numerous astronomical discoveries and a place of research for famous individuals such as Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein (pictured below). Yerkes was founded in 1897, and the main telescope is still in use today. The telescope has produced over 150,000 photographic plates, some of which are included in the August 1919 National Geographic magazine story.

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Albert Einstein and the staff of Yerkes Observatory

The original article, entitled “Exploring the Glories of the Firmament,” by William Joseph Showalter, takes its readers on a tour of the solar system with “first person” accounts from various stars and planets. This, from Neptune:

“If you please, sir, I long flattered myself with the thought that I was an uncle that you Earth-ites never knew you had. I am an elder brother of Mother Earth, though for ages and ages she and her children never suspected my existence.

But back in the ‘forties’ of the nineteenth century my brother Uranus overtook me in our Marathon around the sun. Though our track is a billion miles wide and he has the rail, yet whenever he passes me I fret him so much that he gets a case of ‘nerves.’”

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The Whirlpool Nebula (galaxy) as seen from Yerkes Observatory

Although the language of the writer is reminiscent of a different time, much of what he expresses still rings true today:

“It is interesting to have a look at our own earth in its relation to the worlds that people the sky. When a mighty storm sweeps over the ocean, when a great war devastates a continent, when a Katmai [volcano] blows off her head, when an earthquake destroys a populous city, men stand overwhelmed and awed at the spectacle!

But how little and insignificant are such forces, measured by the majestic might of the earth as it sweeps on its course around the sun!”

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The 40-inch telescope at the Yerkes Observatory

Whether it’s the dreamy-looking black-and-white photographic plates of distant stars or images of the artfully constructed telescope, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe. Places like Yerkes bring us closer to worlds beyond our own imaginations.

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Yerkes observatory observes a distant comet.

More than three decades after the debut of “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” Carl Sagan’s stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Produced by Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s original creative collaborators and hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series will explore how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time.

Cosmos is a 13-part series that premieres tonight at 10/9c on the National Geographic Channel.

View more photographs from our archives on the National Geographic Found Tumblr.