By Linda Copman, with assistance from Peggi Kamisato, Observatory
William Myron Keck’s life embodies the American dream of a
rags-to-riches, meteoric success story. W. M. Keck was born
in western Pennsylvania in 1880. His father left home to work
in the nation’s oil fields, leaving young Bill to support his
mother. He landed a job selling sandwiches on the Baltimore & Ohio
Railroad. In 1900, at the age of 20, Bill disembarked the train
in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to get a closer look at a new oil
well. He never got back on the train.
|Photo: Painting the Keck II Dome (white
over the dark primer) in October 1994. Photo courtesy
of Keck Observatory archives.
Bill became a wildcat oil driller who traveled around the country
looking for new strikes. He moved to California, where he soon
set up his own drilling company. According to a 1985 Keck Foundation
biography of W. M. Keck, he was a “true entrepreneur”:
“Keck built his company into the largest drilling contractor
in the world through such bold techniques as ‘guaranteeing’ oil
wells and predicting their size. If Bill struck oil, he was
paid many times his normal fee. If the well was dry, he didn’t
get a cent.”
|Image: Portrait of W. M. Keck presented
by the Keck Foundation to the W. M. Keck Observatory,
now on display in the Observatory Headquarters in Waimea,
In 1921 W. M. Keck founded the Superior Oil Company, which
grew into the world’s largest independent producer of oil and
gas. In 1984, Superior Oil merged into the Mobil Oil Corporation.
Keck’s oil successes were based on his willingness to take
huge risks, coupled with his use of innovative technology which
relied on the latest scientific advances to increase his company’s
chances of success. Keck was the first to pioneer use of a
seismograph to locate underground hydrocarbons, the first to
utilize directional (or slant) drilling techniques, the first
to develop offshore drilling platforms in Louisiana, and the
first to use rotary drilling tools in place of pile-driving
type tools. These innovations directly led to the discovery
of many productive oil wells, which greatly increased the profits
of Keck’s company.
W. M. Keck established the Keck Foundation in 1954, and his
will established trusts to benefit the Foundation, as well
as the University of Southern California, Stanford University,
Pomona College, and Occidental College. According to W. M.
Keck’s 1985 Keck Foundation biography:
“During his lifetime he made considerable philanthropic
contributions in the belief that individuals rather than
government should take the lead in charitable giving.”
Howard B. Keck was the second of W. M. Keck’s six children.
Howard later served as President of the Keck Foundation, and
it was Howard who was responsible for the unprecedented $70
million gift to Caltech in 1985, which financed design and
construction of the Keck I Telescope. Like his father, Howard
B. Keck was willing to take a risk, with the prospect of a “home
run” on the horizon. The ten-meter Keck Telescope would be
four times more powerful than its predecessor. According to
the Keck Foundation’s January 3, 1985 news release which announced
the grant, Howard B. Keck had great expectations for the new
telescope, which would utilize the latest technological breakthroughs
in its design and construction. According to the Foundation
news release, these are Howard’s words when he announced the
|Photo: Howard B. Keck, W. M. Keck's son
and Chairperson of the Keck Foundation at the time of
the W. M. Keck Observatory funding. Photo courtesy of
Keck Observatory archives.
“This proposed grant is historic in both its
size and purpose. The Keck Ten-Meter Telescope will enable
us to see much farther than we can see today and help to
discover how the universe began. . . . Astronomers expect the
Ten-Meter Telescope to be at the forefront of optical astronomy
for many decades into the 21st century.”
Howard B. Keck took a huge risk when he committed nearly a
fourth of the Foundation’s assets to fund this monumental project
(both the Keck I and Keck II Telescopes). Twenty+ years later,
in hindsight, it is easy to weigh the outcome of Howard Keck’s
bold gamble. The legacy of discovery being forged by the W.
M. Keck Observatory continues to astound the scientists who
have the privilege of working here, as well as the rest of
the citizens of our global community.
|Photo: Howard B. Keck (left), Chairman and President of the W. M. Keck Foundation, and Dr. Marvin L. Goldberger (right), President, California Institute of Technology, view a model of the Keck Ten-Meter Telescope. Image and caption from the Keck Foundation press packet for the January 3, 1985 announcement of the Keck Observatory grant.
“What attracted the Keck Foundation to this
particular project is that the Foundation has been interested
in making a significant gift to further the interests of
science and the interests of mankind and mankind’s learning
of why we exist, and this project satisfies that particular
interest of the Foundation.” - Mr. Julian von Kalinowski,
Director of the Keck Foundation at the time of the 1985
gift to Caltech
In November 1990 the first nine mirror segments were assembled
into the telescope structure and tested. The initial images
from Keck I’s first light were equivalent to the images being
obtained by the Palomar Observatory - and this was prior to
the installation of the remaining 27 mirror segments. After
the successful demonstration of the segmented mirror concept,
the Keck Foundation committed to fund a second ten-meter telescope
adjacent to Keck I. In April 1991, the Keck Foundation announced
a second grant of roughly $59 million to fund eighty percent
of the cost of constructing the Keck II Telescope.
|Photo: Keck I Telescope construction photo
showing the dome arch girders. Photo courtesy of Keck
“The twin telescopes ‘will answer many questions
about the universe in which we live’ and ‘enrich every
single human being.’" - Thomas Everhart, president
of the California Institute of Technology, AP press release,
April 27, 1991
Today, the Keck telescopes enable scientists to peer back in
time to the dawn of the universe and to measure the expanding
universe. Keck astronomers are studying the black hole at the
center of our galaxy and identifying planets around nearby
stars — one of which is likely to support life. We are learning
to understand the life cycle of our own solar system and of
other suns, some of which are vastly dissimilar to our own.
We are redefining the basic rules, the previously defined boundaries,
and our fundamental understanding of our cosmos based on the
scientific evidence being collected by the Keck Telescopes.
T. J. Keck, a fourth generation Keck, is currently serving
as the Keck Foundation’s liaison to the Observatory Governing
Board. T. J. attends Board meetings and serves in an advisory
capacity to Board members, and he is charged with overseeing
the Foundation’s investment in Keck Observatory.
|Photo: Keck I Telescope nearing completion.
In the foreground is the 36th and final mirror segment
(in crane) being lowered into position as part of the
primary mirror. Dr Jerry Nelson (front left) stands with
some of the technicians and engineers involved with assembling
the Keck I segmented mirror. Photo dated Tuesday, April
14, 1992, courtesy of the Keck Observatory archives.
"The Foundation’s mission is to aid in the
development of preeminent scientific endeavors. We are
interested in taking calculated risks in order to hit home
runs. If we are only hitting singles and doubles then we
are not taking enough risk or operating far enough along
the cutting edge. We consider the Keck Observatory to be
a ‘Home Run’ and continue to support our original investment
with additional investments in next generation systems
like adaptive optics to maintain its status as the world’s
premier ground-based observatory." — T. J. Keck
The Keck Foundation continues to fund what they call “promising
directions,” or “high-impact scientific research with the greatest
potential for major breakthroughs in understanding our world” (The
W. M. Keck Foundation 2006 Annual Report). According to its 2006
Annual Report, the Keck Foundation last year paid over
$47 million to existing grantees and $37 million in new grants,
from their $1.4 billion net asset base (as of December 31,
|Photo: Keck Foundation press conference
to announce funding for the Keck II Telescope. (Left)
Ed Stone, Caltech Vice President, JPL Director, & CARA
(California Association for Research in Astronomy) Chairman.
(Right) William Frazer, CARA Vice chairman. Courtesy
of Keck Observatory archives.
In 2003 the Keck Foundation committed another $2 million to
the adaptive optics system for the Next
Generation Wavefront Controller, to support Keck Observatory’s
continued leadership in astronomical research.
Today, Keck Observatory relies on funding from its partner
institutions to maintain base operations. Significant additional
support for the Keck Observatory is provided by public and
private grants and by individual contributions, which totaled
$10.8 million in 2006.
|Photo: Time lapse photo showing Keck Telescopes,
with Keck II laser guide star illuminating one target
in the cosmos. Photo courtesy of Keck Observatory archives.
“. . . Fortunately, some people with vast fortunes
have wisdom in spending money on projects such as these
telescopes, whose benefits to society extend for years
and touch every person who has ever looked at the stars
and wondered.” — Los Angeles Times editorial, January
Visit www.wmkeck.org to
learn more about the Keck Foundation. Visit www.keckobservatory.org/support to
support the work of Keck Observatory.
Footnote: According to a study announced in the June 15, 2007
issue of Science Magazine, Harbough
et al assessed the neural
activation of reward-related brain areas in response to both
mandatory donations (taxes) and voluntary charitable contributions.
The team discovered that “the sense of well-being in the voluntary
giving condition surpassed that seen when subjects were taxed.” Enjoy
the gift of giving!
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