“In ancient times, the class of people studying the positions of the moon, the rising and setting of certain fixed stars and constellations, and also of the sun, are called the kilo-hoku or astrologers. Their observations of these heavenly bodies might well be called the study of astronomy.”
“The use of astrology anciently, was to predict certain events of fortunes and misfortunes, victory or defeat of a battle, death of king or queen, or any high chief; it also foretells of pestilence, famine, fine or stormy weather and so forth.” (Nupepa Hawaiʻi, April 2, 1909)
Hawaiʻi’s last King, Kalākaua, has been referred to as a Renaissance man. While seeking to revive many elements of Hawaiian culture that were slipping away, the King also promoted the advancement of modern sciences, art and literature … and astronomy.
King Kalākaua has also been described as a monarch with a technical and scientific bent and an insatiable curiosity for modern devices. He became king in 1874. Edison and others were still experimenting with electric lights at that time.
Five years after Kalākaua and Edison met (1881,) Charles Otto Berger, a Honolulu-based insurance executive with mainland connections, organized a demonstration of “electric light” at ʻIolani Palace, on the night of July 26, 1886.
“The first telephone ever used in Honolulu belonged to King Kalākaua. Having been presented to him by the American Bell Telephone Company.” (Daily Bulletin, December 4, 1894) (It followed (1881) the placement of a phone in the White House (1879.))
Kalākaua’s interest in modern astronomy is evidenced by his support for an astronomical expedition to Hawaiʻi in 1874 that came from England to observe a transit of Venus (a passage of Venus in front of the Sun – used to measure an ‘astronomical unit,’ the distance between the Earth and Sun.)
The King allowed the British Royal Society’s expedition a suitable piece of open land for their viewing area; it was not far from Honolulu’s waterfront in a district called Apua (mauka of today’s Waterfront Plaza.)
Kalākaua addressed those astronomers in 1874 stating, “It will afford me unfeigned satisfaction if my kingdom can add its quota toward the successful accomplishment of the most important astronomical observation of the present century and assist, however humbly, the enlightened nations of the earth in these costly enterprises to establish the basis of astronomical distance.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 19, 1874)
(When American astronomer Simon Newcomb combined the 18th century data with those from the 1874/1882 Venus transits, he derived an Earth-sun distance of 149.59 +/- 0.31 million kilometers (about 93-million miles,) very close to the results found with modern space technology in the 20th century.)
Kalākaua later helped astronomy with the Transit of Mercury (November 7, 1881.) “The king, Kalākaua, offered me the free occupancy of the site from which the observations of the Transit of Venus were made in December 1874 …” (Rockwell, Royal Astronomical Society)
Kalākaua reinforced his positive feelings toward modern astronomy – and noted the importance of scientific learning versus the financial aspect of it. On November 22, 1880, King Kalākaua wrote to Captain RS Floyd noting his interest in telescopes and astronomy:
“I must thank you sincerely for the pamphlet you sent me of the ‘Lick Observatory Trust.’ Something of this kind is needed here very much but we have so few people who take interest in scientific matters. Everybody is bent upon making money on sugar and the all might dollar.” (King Kalākaua)
The King then took his trip around the world, “Among our passengers on the voyage to San Francisco was a well-known Englishman, a lecturer on astronomy, returning from Australia.”
“’He discussed with the King the astral theories of the Polynesians, which were, it must be confessed, not as advanced as those held by the present generation of Europeans, but quite as valuable as those of learned men two centuries before, who believed that comets were sent by the Almighty to frighten men into obedience.”
“The King became much interested in these semi-scientific conversations, and at the end of the voyage their effect upon him was shown after a not altogether unexpected fashion.” (Judd; Around the World with the King)
Later, in 1881, during his travels to the US, King Kalākaua visited the Lick Observatory in California and was the first to view through its new 12” telescope (which was temporarily set up for that purpose in the unfinished dome.)
“Then that magnificent type of a man, stalwart fellow with black hair, splendid features and bronzed complexion stood before Mr Lick, and said that he had heard what Mr Lick had done, and that he proposed to do for the state, that he thanked him on behalf of humanity.” (Wright)
“Kalākaua arrived … at a crucial time, as the first important astronomical venture on Mount Hamilton was about to be launched. The 12-inch dome was not yet finished.”
They improvised “by mounting the telescope temporarily on the pier in the open air. The next morning … he again went up the ‘hill.’ He told (Thomas Edward) Fraser (builder of the Lick Observatory) he was delighted with what he saw and wanted a transit at his place.” (Wright)
Hawaiʻi had a chance for a Hale Kilo Hoku (observatory or astronomy building (Pukui)) in 1887. Harvard College Observatory issued a circular, “looking about for a suitable site for a station.”
“It appears that by the will of the late Uriah A Boyden, property the present value of which exceeds $230,000 was left in trust for the purpose of astronomical research, ‘at such an elevation as to be free, so far as practicable from the impediments to accurate observations now existing owing to atmospheric influences.’”
“A location in the southern hemisphere will be preferable for various reasons one of which is that ‘the southern stars invisible in Europe and the United States have been less observed than the northern stars and by the aid of a southern station the investigations undertaken at Cambridge can be extended upon a uniform system to all parts of the sky.” (Harvard)
“There is no doubt Professor Alexander (of the Hawaiian Government) will be able to show that the Hawaiian Islands are fully qualified to fulfill some, if not all, of the required conditions (called for in the Harvard prospectus.)” (Daily Herald, April 13, 1887)
“The response to the Circulars was enthusiastic. (Harvard) received letters recommending mountain sites in the Andes and the Himalayas, and in South Africa, Australia, Japan and Hawaiʻi.” (Harvard College Observatory) Harvard chose ‘Mount Harvard’ in Lima Peru for The Boyden Station of Harvard Observatory.
It wasn’t until nearly a century after Hawaiʻi’s participation in the first Transit of Venus that a high elevation observatory was constructed in Hawaiʻi – in 1964, a NASA-funded 12.5-inch telescope was installed on Puʻu Poliahu to see if Mauna Kea provide the right observation conditions.
Dr. Gerard Kuiper’s team began “seeing” studies. Kuiper concluded that “The mountaintop is probably the best site in the world – I repeat – in the world – from which to study the moon, the planets, and stars.” (Ironwood Observatory Research)
At the close of the decade Mauna Kea saw the construction of a 0.6-meter (24-inch) (1968) and 2.2-meter (88-inch) (1970) telescopes, provided to University of Hawaiʻi by the US Air Force and NASA.
These were followed by NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, 3.0-m, 1979; Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, 3.6-m, 1979; United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, 3.8-m, 1979; Keck I and Keck II, each 10-m, 1992 & 1996; Subaru Telescope, 8.3-m, 1999; Gemini Northern Telescope, 8.1-m, 1999; Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, 10.4-m, 1987; James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, 15-m, 1987; Submillimeter Array. 8x6m, 2002; and Very Long Baseline Array, 25m, 1992.
In 1891, while ill in bed, King Kalākaua recorded a message on a wax-type phonograph in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Kalākaua died in San Francisco a few days later (January 20, 1891.)