Archive of Pioneering Astronomer George Willis Ritchey to be Offered at Bonhams

rictchey photo.jpg

New York—An extensive archive of the pioneering astronomer, astro-photographer and telescope designer, George Willis Ritchey will be placed on the auction block as part of the History of Science sale on October 22 at Bonhams in New York.

The archive (est. $450,000-$550,000) is an incredible collection of Ritchey's life work. It includes glass plates of celestial phenomena that were used in Ritchey’s lectures; hundreds of vintage photographs whose subjects vary from natural terrestrial wonders to celestial phenomena to telescopes and observatories; a 27-inch cellular mirror; over 40 books, periodicals, and pamphlets; correspondence with sub-contractors and further notes relating to the famous Ritchey-Chrétien telescope in Washington, DC; notes on the origin of the Moon; lecture notes; and the original French patent for cellular mirror technology. A more detailed list of items is available upon request.

In Chicago in 1890 Ritchey met George Ellery Hale, an MIT graduate and founder of the Palomar, Yerkes, and Mount Wilson Observatories. The largest refracting telescope in the world at the time was a Clark 40-inch lens. With the existing 40-inch refractor, and a new 24-inch reflector telescope Ritchey had designed and built, he began to produce ever better photographs of the Moon, faint stars, and nebulae. Their careers accelerated rapidly and by the late 1800s, they began working on a reflecting telescope, a 60-inch lens, which they believed was the future. The two brilliant minds worked well together, but by the time they got to working on a 100-inch reflector, the relationship had frayed due to several disagreements and conflicts. Ritchey continued to develop his cellular mirror experiments and carry out further work on a new type of telescope today known as a Ritchey-Chrétien. Henri Chrétien was a visiting French astronomer at Mount Wilson who had worked closely with Ritchey.

In 1930, Ritchey came back to the United States and went on to design and build a 40-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. That telescope yielded mediocre results, but when it was moved to a light pollution-free site in northern Arizona in the late 1950s—after Ritchey's death—the results were spectacular. In common with other visionaries who suffered setbacks during their lives, Ritchey has been vindicated by history; the Hubble Space Telescope is a reflector of Ritchey-Chrétien design.

Ritchey was a visionary in the field of astrophysics whose ideas were considered radical for his time. At his core, he was a photographer, and he saw the telescope as a lens through which to take ever better celestial photographs. His influence on astronomical research is profound and this archive is a rich offering of his life’s work.

Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Auction Guide