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Aloha, Walter Steiger (1923–2011)

Walter Steiger
Walter Steiger
Photo by Richard Crowe.

Walter Steiger, the father of modern astronomy in Hawai`i, died on February 6 in Hilo. He was born in Proctor, Colorado, and grew up in Texas, Switzerland, and Boston. Service in the army during World War II brought him here. He fell in love with Hawai`i and its people, and decided to make it his permanent home. After being discharged from the Army, he finished his physics degree at MIT, received a master’s from UH, and earned a PhD at the University of Cincinnati.

In 1953, he joined the UH Department of Physics as an assistant professor. Soon, he began to think about the potential of Hawai`i’s high mountains for observing the Sun. Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii had no paved roads and no access to commercial power, but Haleakala on Maui had both. A site survey soon revealed that Haleakala would be an excellent site in terms of sky transparency and the number of clear days per year, conditions that would allow observations of the solar corona.

But building a solar observatory on the mountain would take time, and with the International Geophysical Year (IGY) about to take place in 1957–58, Steiger received a small amount of funding to build a solar observatory at Makapu`u Point on O`ahu. There he installed several experiments in a small concrete building that had been abandoned by the telephone company, including a solar flare patrol telescope that took photographs of the Sun every two minutes on 35-mm film and an indirect flare detector that was especially useful when the telescope was clouded out.

Largely as a result of Steiger’s efforts, the National Science Foundation approved and funded a proposal to build a solar observatory on Haleakala in 1961. In January 1964, the C. E. Kenneth Mees Solar Laboratory was dedicated as part of the Hawai`i Institute of Geophysics, so it was known as the HIG Haleakala Observatory, or HIGHO.

In 1980, Steiger retired from UH Manoa but not from an active scientific life. He subsequently served as a member of the UH Board of Regents (1982–1984), the manager of the Science Center of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu (1980–1986), site manager of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea (1987–1992), and the interim director of what became `Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai`i (2003–2004). Beginning in 1993, he was a lecturer in physics and astronomy at UH Hilo.

For a more detailed history of Steiger’s involvement with Hawai`i astronomy: