THE OUARTZ CONNECTION - PENLAND TO PALOMAR - MOUNTAIN TOP TO
by Dorothy Hussey
In 1928 George Hillary Hale (1868-1938) suggested that an observatory be built on the top of Mt. Palomar, elevation 6,126 feet, forty miles northeast of San Diego, California. The Rockefeller Foundation furnished $6,550,000 for the project to be run jointly by the Carneige Institution of Washington, D.C. and the California Institute of Technology of Pasadena, California, as part of the Mt. Wilson-Palomar complex.
A search began for pure quartz (SiO2) for the reflecting mirror. It was determined that the purest quartz was found at Chestnut Flat Mine on Mt. Chestnut near Penland in Yancey County, N.C. It had an elevation similar to that of Mt. Palomar. In 1930 the Carolina Clay Company Of Penland received an order for enough white quartz to fill four fifty-ton railway cars. It was mined and hauled down the steep mountainside in trucks to the Penland depot where it was sorted (cobbed). The wonderful flotation processes for sorting minerals had not yet been developed by the N.C. State Laboratory in Asheville.
The quartz was sent by rail to the Consolidated Feldspar Corporation in Erwin, Tennessee where it was washed, dried and ground. Its next journey was to Corning, on the banks of the Chemung River in southcentral New York, the "crystal city" site of the Corning Glass Company.
A 200 inch round mold was made. The raw materials were melted to a liquid. Two men spent six hours pouring 42,000 pounds of molten glass into the mold, using 750 pound ladles. The disk was made using the pyrex method, a very hard glass which can withstand extreme heat and cold. After it is formed and cooled, pyrex is cooled again until it is almost soft; then it is plunged into ice cold oil and/or chemicals. After many months of cooling, reheating and cooling again, the disk was removed from the mold. It cracked. That first one can now be seen in the exhibition room at Corning, which was opened to the public in 1950.
It was determined that the first disk had needed more time to cool. The second was gradually cooled for one year. Finally, in 1934, a red-letter day for glassmaking, the largest glass object in the world was ready to take its cross-country trip by rail in a special built freight car. It went to the California Institute of Technology to be ground. The war years intervened in its completion.
Finally the ground disk was installed in the telescope named for Hale, whose dream it had been, but who died before it was put into use. The glass weighed 20 tons, was 200 inches across and concave with a hole in the middle for installation. The telescope in which it was placed was the largest in the world, sixty feet, six inches high. It was first used December 21, 1947.
The glass was found to have a slight distortion and was reground. Finally in 1950 it was placed into permanent use, 22 years after its conception. The telescope can see 360,000 times as much as the naked eye. It can see a distance of two billion light years. A light year is about six trillion miles (travels 187,000 miles per second). Let's see now; let's multiply zero times zero times.....zero times.....I've run out of paper. Anyhow, it appears to be dang near as far as from here to Penland.
Among many other uses, this telescope with the mirror originating in Penland has been very important in many scientific endeavors , including navigation and weather. Without astronomy and observations, space travel would never have been possible.
Local minerals also went to the moon in the tiles on the space ship. More later on that. A sharp eye is kept out by Palomar observers for large asteroids or meteors which have escaped their orbit and are headed toward earth. They can be deflected and sent back into their original orbit, and don't land on earth with devastating consequences.
The Penland-Palomar connection gives me great pride in and respect for the abundant mineral resources of our area. Most of alI, I have great respect for the intrepid men who climbed to the top of a mountain in all sorts of inclement weather to dig out material to be sent eventually to the top of another mountain on the other side of the continent to help in the future development of mankind. From a mountain here to a mountain in the west, we are all part of a great chain, of which each and every link is important. Each makes a contribution, no part of which is insignificant. Mine owners, miners, glassmakers, scientists, who produced Penland to Palomar to penultimate: to all who. were involved, I salute you.
Reprinted from Mountain Mineral Monthly, Vol.62 Number 3, March 1993. Used by permission.