Happy birthday to Elizabeth Langdon Williams! Born on February 8, 1879 in Putnam, Connecticut, Williams attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated in 1903 with academic honors and the distinction of being one of the first women ever to do so. In 1905, Percival Lowell hired her as a “computer,” i.e., a person who manually performs calculations, and she began work in his Boston office. Her primary duty was to carry out the calculations associated with work on Lowell’s hypothesized Planet X.
Dava Sobel’s book, The Glass Universe, tells the story of the women who were calculators at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
To learn more about Williams and her contributions to Lowell Observatory and astronomy, check out our Women in Astronomy online exhibit.
From 1939 to 1956, Lowell Observatory astronomer E.C. Slipher carried out three separate astronomical expeditions to the Lamont-Hussey Observatory in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Each of these was specifically designed to make photographic and visual observations of the planet Mars during favorable oppositions. In total, Slipher captured more than 60,000 images on film, including by many accounts the first color picture of Mars. This work resulted in much new insight about the atmospheric and surficial features of the Red Planet, including atmospheric belts, dark markings, polar ice caps, and the supposed canals. If you’d like to know more about these expeditions, here’s an article by Lowell Observatory’s Historian, Kevin Schindler: sliphersouthafrica
The Lowell Observatory Archives houses negatives and photos from Slipher’s trips, many of which document people, buildings, and wildlife in the area.
Two weeks ago, the mount and tube of the Lamont Telescope were re-installed at the Lamont-Hussey Observatory after nearly 45 years. Check out the video here.
In 1917, Percival Lowell’s widow, Constance, ordered a light fixture from the National Fixture Company in Los Angeles. She wanted a light for the Rotunda library in the newly constructed Administration Building (now called the Slipher Building). Not content with any old design, Constance requested that the fixture be made in the shape of Saturn. It took more than a year to manufacture because the company was having trouble finding the proper glass. It finally arrived in the summer of 1918 and still hangs in the Rotunda today.
He may not have had a herd of eight tiny reindeer, but Percival Lowell, dressed here as Santa Claus, didn’t have any trouble finding his way onto the roof of Lowell Observatory’s original library. These images, taken in 1911, show Uncle Percy’s jolly side. Happy Holidays!
What was Percival Lowell doing on Halloween night in 1894? Observing Mars, of course! Lowell’s logbook entry from that night shows his drawings of Mars as seen through an 18-inch Brashear refracting telescope on Mars Hill. The Lowell Observatory Archives has preserved and digitized its collection of observation logbooks that contain original drawings and notes made by the Observatory’s astronomers from 1894 to 1926. Find them here.
October is American Archives Month, and we’ve chosen the theme “Science Fiction in the Archives.” Percival Lowell’s theories about intelligent life and canals on Mars were not widely respected in the scientific community, but the public loved them, and his ideas inspired authors such as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs to write fantastic stories that we now know as science fiction.
What did people in the early 20th century think Martians looked like? This article from 1904 discusses the physical appearance of possible Mars inhabitants, complete with illustrations! It’s from one of three scrapbooks of newspaper clippings in the Lowell Observatory Archives, collected by Percival Lowell from 1894 to 1911.
For more about Lowell’s impact on the science fiction genre, check out these links:
Oral history is an important and insightful way to document the stories of individuals and institutions. We’ve been conducting interviews with current and former Lowell Observatory staff and associates since 2009, and we’re excited to finally make many of the interviews available online.
You don’t need fancy equipment to conduct your own oral history interviews. We use a Roland R-05 WAVE/MP3 recorder and take still images with an iPad or iPhone. You can also use video, but that often requires more expertise and expensive equipment. The Oral History Association provides an excellent list of resources for those who are interested in doing their own interviews at work or with family and friends.
Oral history teaches us to listen, ask questions, and appreciate the new perspectives that people bring to the world around us. Plus, it’s just plain fun!
Meteor Crater is located about 35 miles east of Flagstaff. We know today that it was formed by a meteorite impact roughly 50,000 years ago, but its origin wasn’t confirmed until 1960. Grove Karl Gilbert, the United States Geological Survey’s chief geologist, concluded in 1891 that a volcanic steam explosion had caused the crater. Mining engineer Daniel Barringer explored the crater in the early 1900s and suggested that a meteorite impact had caused the gaping hole in the ground.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Barringer corresponded with Lowell Observatory astronomer C.O. Lampland about his theory and the controversy surrounding it. We recently digitized some of these letters, which are available here.
Lowell Observatory may be best known for Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930, but another piece of Pluto-themed history resides in our collections: an empty bottle of Pluto Water. A popular laxative in the United States in the early twentieth century, Pluto Water came from the French Lick Springs in French Lick, Indiana. Its high mineral salts content made it an effective laxative, and the company’s slogan was “When nature won’t – Pluto will.”
In his book The Pluto Files, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson claims that no American would have suggested the name “Pluto” for the newly discovered planet because they would have associated the word with this product. We have a couple of dozen letters in the Lowell Archives, however, that prove otherwise (you can find a few of them here).
Sometime in the future—perhaps in 30-40 years, perhaps much longer—a spacecraft will go into orbit around Pluto. When that happens, historians at Lowell will open a time capsule stashed inside the Lawrence Lowell (Pluto Discovery) Telescope, revealing Pluto-related artifacts and documents not seen by any human since June of 2018.
The idea of this Pluto time capsule began with New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, who asked several members of the New Horizons team to make predictions about what the first orbiter to Pluto will disclose about that icy world. Stern suggested putting these predictions into a time capsule at Lowell, and we figured, “Why not add other Pluto stuff to the capsule?” We gathered 88 items (one for each year between Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 and the year we sealed the time capsule). We included books, photographs, postage stamps, a Disney Pluto stuffed animal, and even a piece of metal from the shed that used to sit atop the Pluto dome.
The contents are stored inside archival boxes, which are inside a sealed metal time capsule built by Lowell machinist Jeff Gehring. This is bolted to the floor of the Pluto dome, inside a locked cabinet. A plaque on the cabinet door reads:
Pluto Time Capsule
On 8 June 2018, Lowell Observatory staff, Advisory Board members, and guests dedicated the time capsule sealed within this cabinet. It contains predictions by the New Horizons flyby team of what the first orbiter to Pluto will unveil, as well as artifacts and memorabilia associated with Pluto.
To be opened when the first Pluto orbiter reaches its destination.