McMath, Robert R. (Robert Raynolds), 1891-1962

Alternative names
Birth 1891-05-11
Death 1962-01-02

Biographical notes:

Detroit, Michigan industrialist and director of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory of University of Michigan (located on Lake Angelus near Pontiac, Oakland County, Michigan.)

From the description of Robert R. McMath papers, 1916-1962. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 80631884

From the description of Robert R. McMath papers, 1916-1912. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34423627

The time has vanished when a man such as Isaac Newton could cultivate a knowledge of natural philosophy outside a formal institutional setting while, at the same time, restructuring man's understanding of the cosmos. For one thing, the specialization of knowledge has virtually extinguished the possibility of such an enterprise; for another, scientific investigation has been transformed from a primarily individual matter into one which is administered, financed and conceived within large institutions, such as the University of Michigan. This transformation from, what one author has called, "Little Science" to "Big Science" has been so complete that, in examining the past of history of science, it is apparent that a profound change has occurred in the etymology of the word "science."

Against this background the career of Robert R. McMath acquires both meaning and fascination. For he was probably one of few men to convert a personal hobby (astronomy) into a productive scientific career. McMath's background in engineering is very much reflected through his interests in, what he was fond of calling, "things astronomical." His innovations tend to be technical, rather than conceptual. Celestial photography was the area with which he was most concerned; and, consequently, many of the papers deal with motion picture techniques, the development of new instruments for studying and photographing spectra (e.g. spectrohelio-kinsmatograph, photometer), and necessary adaptations in the telescope. In addition to its value as a source in the history of astronomy, the collection may also be used profitably to study the financial and structural growth of a scientific organization; and, of course, the relationship of the University and the government to scientific endeavor.

Robert R. McMath was born May 11, 1891 in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan in 1913, then worked for his father's company and another firm before entering the army air service in 1917. After the war he became general manager of the Biltmore Forest Estates Company in North Carolina. He then returned to Detroit as assistant manager of the Motors Metal Manufacturing Co. He worked for this company (and the firms that merged from it) for the next forty years in a succession of responsible positions: general manager, president, and chairman of the board.

McMath's passion was astronomy which he shared with his father and with Detroit banker and judge Henry S. Hulbert. He was supportive of the work of astronomers at the University of Michigan and was able to make many gifts to his alma mater. On his property near Lake Angelus in Oakland County, the McMaths (father and son) and Judge Hulbert had been planning and building a telescope. In 1931, the property was deeded to the University of Michigan. Among the equipment designed and built at Lake Angelus were a 70-foot tower telescope, a 24-inch reflecting telescope, and a 50-foot solar tower. From 1939 to 1961, McMath was director of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory; and from 1945 to 1960, he was named professor of solar physics and astronomy at the University of Michigan.

McMath was the recipient of many awards and honors. He was a member of the American Association for Advancement of Science, the American Philosophical Society, the American Astronomical Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society. In addition, he was director of Cranbrook School (1929-1946), and a trustee of the Cranbrook Institute of Science (chairman, 1946-1950). He died January 2, 1962.

From the guide to the Robert R. McMath Papers, 1916-1962, (Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan)


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Ark ID:


  • Astronomy--Michigan
  • Astronomy


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  • Detroit (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Detroit (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Pontiac (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Michigan (as recorded)
  • Detroit (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Pontiac (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Pontiac (Mich.) (as recorded)