Monday 24 November 2014

Stars Above Hollywood: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, USA

If ever there was a case of a good thing arising from a bad deed, it's the Griffith Observatory in the hills above Los Angeles.

Both the observatory and Griffith Park, in which it sits, were donated to the city around the turn of the 20th century by the wealthy Griffith J Griffith. 

The Welsh immigrant to the USA had done well as a mining expert, and wanted to give some of his prosperity back to his adopted city.

The park came first, in 1896, but many years would elapse before the observatory could be built. And there was a sensational reason for the delay.

Before proposing the donation to build the observatory, Griffith had spent two years in jail for the attempted murder in 1903 of his wife. 

It was a particularly gruesome and sordid attack (you can read more here) which soiled his reputation and made the city unwilling to accept the gift. 

A stalemate was created, and only broken when Griffith died in 1919 and left the cash as a bequest.

So the Griffith Observatory was built, though Griffith would never see it. It was completed in 1935, at the height of the art deco era.

It's a marvellous building. Approaching it on Thursday afternoon, I was struck by its beautiful lines. Both inside and outside, it resembled something from the panels of a Flash Gordon comic book:

Beneath the decorative domed ceiling in the centre of the building, there was a large Foucault's pendulum swinging back and forth. 

Every seven minutes its arc would change sufficiently to knock over another metal rod standing in a series on the edge of the circle, thus proving the fact of the Earth's rotation:

Below the original building were exhibitions in more recently constructed levels - including an impressive area devoted to the planets:

There was plenty to see outside, the Observatory's terraces providing a great view over the city below:

Back inside though, the highlight of the visit for me was the demonstration of a Tesla Coil, a device which was developed to transmit electricity through the air. 

Nowadays it's a scientific amusement - and a spectacular one. When activated, great arcs of electric current curve through the air around the device, thus powering the neon letters in front:

I even caught one of the demonstrations on video. Here it is - click and stand back:

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of United Airlines and the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Bureau.

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