Morehead History

Part 1 – The Origins

Scenes from Morehead's history

“A scientist himself, he recognized that the American people must understand science.”

These were the words the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel used in 1949 to describe John Motley Morehead III and his motivation for giving his alma mater the first planetarium on a university campus. Morehead – who had discovered acetylene gas and a new process for the manufacture of calcium carbide – felt a great degree of debt to the University of North Carolina, for his successes in life were so closely tied to his education in Chapel Hill. Consequently, Morehead met with University President Frank Porter Graham in 1938 to find a gift that could express his gratitude to the University and that could open the minds of young North Carolinians to science.

Morehead cornerstone laying
John Motley Morehead III helps lay the Planetarium’s cornerstone in 1947. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
 After the philanthropist began to speak about possibly building a planetarium, the University arranged for him to meet with Harvard University astronomer Harlow Shapley. During a visit to campus a few years earlier, Shapley had declared North Carolinians to be “the most astronomically ignorant people in all America.” When Shapley restated his view during their meeting, Morehead pronounced Shapley an “ignoramus” and demanded, “Amend your statement, Dr. Shapley, to read, ‘Of all people in America, North Carolinians are the most ignorant of astronomical matters’ and we’ll build a planetarium.”  The Harvard astronomer amended his statement, and the rest is history.

John Motley Morehead III

John Motley Morehead III

John Motley Morehead III (1870-1965) graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1891. During his lifetime, he was most widely known as a successful businessman and chemist due to his role in the founding of the Union Carbide Corporation.

Morehead was also politically active as mayor of Rye, New York and U.S. ambassador to Sweden.

In addition to his commercial and political successes, he became a well-known philanthropist and gave generously to his alma mater. His gifts to UNC-Chapel Hill include the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, the Morehead Planetarium and the Morehead Scholarships Program. The Morehead Scholarships are regarded as the University’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarships. (Source: The Morehead Foundation)