Swing for the Stars

Lowell Observatory has a long history of recreation enthusiasts among its staff members. Percival Lowell was an avid outdoorsman and was fond of mountain climbing, hiking, and skiing. He could often be found exploring the natural wonders of northern Arizona.

Astronomers A.E. Douglass, E.C. Slipher, and V.M. Slipher played tennis. Douglass even made a drawing of a tennis racket he invented in 1894.

In later decades, Observatory staff began playing summer volleyball games, a tradition that continues to this day. Group walks in the forest behind Lowell’s property have become a popular weekly activity, and a mountain biking group called the Redshifters has made a few forays onto the trails of Mars Hill.

Finally, let’s not forget Lowell’s softball team, the Infrared Sox. Though now defunct, they were city league champs in 2004!

The Sound of Music

By Lauren Amundson

Last week we received a request from a researcher to scan some letters from Percival Lowell to the Regina Music Box Company. In the first letter from December 16, 1902, Lowell ordered a Regina Corona No. 35 music box for his home in Flagstaff. He included a list of the songs he wanted according to their catalog number.

In a follow-up letter on December 20, Lowell sent instructions for shipping the music box.

I had never heard of a Regina Corona music box. My husband collects antique Edison and Victrola phonograph and record players, so I showed him the letters. He found some YouTube videos and we discovered that the songs are played on 15.5-inch metal discs.

We also located a disc catalog so we know which tunes Lowell ordered!

We don’t know what became of the music box. Perhaps it was sold or given away at some point. Try to imagine Lowell sitting in his house listening to beautiful music before a night of observing Mars with the Clark Telescope!

Book Repair: A Pressing Matter

By Lauren Amundson and Jeff Pickens

In August, we were fortunate enough to have one of our longtime donors, Barbara Robinson, spend a week doing book repair for us. It was a fascinating process to watch and learn about. Barbara has been doing book restoration for 30 years. Before her arrival, we ordered supplies including bookcloth, PVA glue, “super” binding material, and a book press. She set up a workspace in the Putnam Collection Center, selected books from our collections that needed some TLC, and got to work.

The process for repairing a book involves several steps. The first is to remove the original cover.

The next step is to create inner book pages using grained book paper.

Barbara then creates and joins the new cover. She uses book cloth for this process.

Now it’s time to assemble the book into its cover.

Barbara then puts the finished book in the book press to dry. This takes about 24 hours.

And voilà! Excluding the final book press step, it takes about one hour to repair a book.

For a more detailed step-by-step process and additional photos, check out this pdf guide to book repair and restoration.

A.E. in AZ

By Lauren Amundson

Our newest virtual exhibit is Traversing the Arizona Territory: A.E. Douglass’ 1894 Expedition to Establish Lowell Observatory. We used ArcGIS StoryMaps to trace Douglass’ trip from Tombstone to Flagstaff as he conducted site tests for Percival Lowell’s observatory. Douglass traveled by train and stagecoach through the Arizona Territory. He started in Tombstone and then visited Tucson, Tempe, Prescott, and Flagstaff. Along the way, he sent letters, telegrams, and postcards to Lowell with updates about the weather, observing conditions, geography, and local features.

Map of the Arizona Territory used by Douglass on his trip

The exhibit features a wealth of primary sources from our collections. Letters, photographs, maps, and drawings illustrate the story of Douglass’ expedition, beginning with the instructions he received from astronomer William Pickering the week before his departure from Massachusetts. The roughly two-month trip resulted in Lowell choosing Flagstaff on April 16, 1894 with the simple phrase “Flagstaff it is.”

Just the Artifacts, Ma’am

By Lauren Amundson

In addition to books, scientific journals, manuscripts, and photographs, our collections include several hundred 3D artifacts. They encompass a wide range of objects, from volt meters and lenses to plate holders and prisms. Lowell Observatory astronomers used the instruments and tools for their research, and now the items provide a fascinating glimpse at the history of astronomy and science.

Many of the objects are cataloged, identified, photographed, and housed in our Putnam Collection Center. However, hundreds more are still stored in the basement and attic of the Slipher Building, waiting to be properly curated. A digital collection of the artifacts is available at https://collectionslowellobservatory.omeka.net/items/browse?collection=4

It’s All Relative

By Lauren Amundson

On January 14, 1931, V.M. Slipher sent a letter to Albert Einstein inviting him and his wife to visit Flagstaff and Lowell Observatory. Slipher, the observatory’s director, mentioned that Einstein would likely be interested in seeing the Grand Canyon on his trip to Arizona. He offered to take the world-renowned physicist to see the Painted Desert or Meteor Crater, both within 100 miles of Flagstaff.

A return letter from Einstein dated January 25 and written in German expressed regret that he was unable to make the trip to Flagstaff.

Einstein and his wife did make it to the Grand Canyon on their return trip across the U.S. from Pasadena. There’s a famous photo of him at Hopi House, and legendary Grand Canyon photographer Emery Kolb made an image of Einstein and his party at the South Rim.

Sixteen years later, as the world was still recovering from World War II, Lowell Observatory received another letter from Einstein. He outlined the need to educate the citizens of the world about the “simple facts of atomic energy and their implications for society” and requested assistance in raising $1,000,000 (about $11,794,350 in today’s dollars) for this task. We don’t know if Lowell Observatory responded, as there are no further letters between the two in the archives.

Percival Lowell’s Big Red Car

By Lauren Amundson

On August 24, 1911, a red seven-passenger touring car arrived at Lowell Observatory. Percival Lowell had ordered the Model Y Big Six from the Stevens-Duryea company in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. According to astronomer Carl Lampland’s diary, the car immediately had problems. On September 2nd, they had “car trouble half way up [Mars] hill.” Two days later, a Mr. Clark arrived by train from Los Angeles to repair the car. He must have known what he was doing, because Lampland noted the next day that several members of the staff received lessons on driving the car.

The Stevens-Duryea made its inaugural trip a few days later. Percival Lowell, astronomer E.C. Slipher, Judge Edward Doe, and Stanley Sykes drove to Arizona’s White Mountains. Over the next five years Lowell, his wife Constance, and friends and visitors took it on excursions throughout northern Arizona. Lowell’s widow and observatory staff members continued to use the car after Lowell’s death in 1916, including trips to the Hopi Mesas and Baja California.

It was last registered in 1927 and put into storage in a garage at the observatory. In 1938, Mrs. Lowell sold the Stevens-Duryea to her friend T. Paul Dalzell of Santa Barbara, CA. It passed through several more owners until Warwick Eastwood purchased it in 1970 and beautifully restored it. In 1989, the High Country Caravan of Arizona Big Car Tour visited Flagstaff. Eastwood and his twin brother Douglas were part of the tour, and Warwick was in charge of the official International Stevens-Duryea Registry. Douglas and his wife visited Flagstaff’s Pioneer Museum on the last day of the trip, where they saw the original 1915 registration card for Percival Lowell’s car on display. They made note of the number and took it back to Warwick, asking him to see if Lowell’s car was on the Registry. Warwick looked at the number and realized, to his surprise, that it was the same one on his car! He and Douglas went back to the Pioneer Museum to double-check the number and sure enough, it matched. The Eastwoods returned to Lowell Observatory the next day with the car for a photo shoot and home movie screening of the Stevens-Duryea being driven on Mars Hill for the last time in 1938.

Former Lowell Observatory Sole Trustee Bill Putnam purchased the car from Eastwood in 1999 and returned it to Mars Hill. It’s now on display in the lobby of our Putnam Collection Center, where thousands of visitors see it every year, and the original registration card is safely preserved in our archives. Putnam wrote a book in 2002 titled Percival Lowell’s Big Red Car, detailing the history of the Stevens-Duryea company and the story of the car we now fondly call Big Red.

Cabin Fever

By Kevin Schindler and Lauren Amundson

On November 17 and 18, 2020, a piece of Lowell Observatory history disappeared without much fanfare. A building known variously as the Burnham Cabin, the Skiff Residence, and the Cottage was demolished by the Lowell grounds crew. It had fallen into disrepair and become a safety hazard, and it was time to say goodbye. Despite its small size, the building has an interesting history.

In 1924, Percival Lowell’s widow, Constance, decided to build a house for janitor/handyman JW Bailey. She ordered a four-room, pre-cut house from Pacific Ready-Cut Homes. The house was erected near the northeast corner of the Administration (Slipher) Building and about twenty feet from the garage for the observatory’s Stevens Duryea touring car (this garage is long gone; the house was enlarged in 1983 and astronomer Brian Skiff now lives here). Material for a garage came with the house, and Mrs. Lowell decided to use it not as a garage, but as a lunch room for shop men Stanley Sykes and EC Mills.

As a Lunch Room

Mrs. Lowell directed the building to be erected just south of the old shop. Later, the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center (ACIC) was in this space. While the ACIC extension, added in 1965, remains as the Business Office Building (BOB), that original ACIC office/shop, to the west of the BOB, no longer stands. The shop men didn’t often use the house as a lunch room because it was too much trouble to heat it in the winter.

As a Residence

Plumbing was added to the structure in the 1930s and it then became a residence, initially for groundskeeper Mr. Wier.

In the mid-1940s, Charles Kent and his family lived there for several years while he went to NAU and worked part-time at Lowell as janitor/groundskeeper. Another room and a larger bathroom were added during the Kents’ stay.

The next residents were Nora Byrd and her daughter. Byrd was the observatory’s secretary, and she also worked as a legal secretary for local attorney CB Wilson.

Former Lowell Director Art Hoag and his family lived in the cabin for several months in 1955. Hoag had moved to Flagstaff as the first director of the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station. The Hoags lived in this house while their new home in the Bow and Arrow subdivision was being finished.

Kent Ford and his family moved in next. Ford worked with Vera Rubin in developing the Carnegie Image Tube spectrograph with the 24-inch Morgan Reflector (then housed in the Chalet). They later used the spectrograph on Lowell’s Perkins Telescope and the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak to discover dark matter.

In 1958, Robert Burnham came to Lowell to work on the Proper Motion Survey and later moved into the house. He lived there until the program ended in 1980.

After Burnham left, Tobias Kreidl lived there from 1980-1986. Brian Skiff moved in in 1989 and was the last person to live in the residence. He moved out in 2014.

It was common to see a variety of wildlife grazing, playing, and resting near the cottage, including deer, birds, and squirrels.

Lucky supervises the demolition

Mars and Spiritualism: How Psychics Attempted to Contact Mars

By Dr. Emily Simpson

Percival Lowell’s theories of Mars and its canals inspired the imagination and ingenuity of countless individuals of his time and beyond.  But how “beyond” his theories reached could be a matter altogether outside the scope of planetary astronomy.  Inspired by Lowell’s descriptions of advanced Martian civilizations, a number of his readers set out to devise ways to contact Mars.  The period when Lowell produced his most popular works, at the turn of the twentieth century, was also a peak time for spiritualism and psychical research.  The science of spiritualism, not thought of as a pseudoscience or a fringe subject at the time, seemed to be destined to explain the unexplainable and achieve the seemingly impossible here on Earth.  Perhaps, some thought, spiritualist methods and psychic talents could be used to unlock the secrets of the solar system as well. 

One of the most detailed cases of a spiritual medium who set her second sight on the Red Planet was a Swiss psychic who went by the name Hélène Smith.  We receive most of our information about Smith from psychologist and psychical researcher Theodore Flournoy.  Flournoy first met Smith when he attended one of her séances.  He became intrigued by the abilities that she claimed and by her exceptional beauty.  Flournoy attended many more of the young woman’s séances and psychic sittings.  As her career as a medium developed, Smith began going into psychic trances and travelling telepathically to Mars.  There she met many Martians, observed their daily lives, and, as she claimed, became fluent in the universal Martian language.  Flournoy was skeptical of Smith’s journeys as well as her skills as a medium.  But a great number of his readers took his account, published in From India to the Planet Mars (1899), at face value.  Many believed that the young woman could in fact travel to Mars in her mind and talk with its inhabitants. 

Automatic writing in Martian language produced be Hélène Smith during a séance, published in Theodore Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars

In 1909, another spiritual medium named Princess D’Antuni claimed to have a similar ability to contact Martians through psychic trance.  Without spiritualism, according to D’Antuni, science would never obtain a full understanding of Mars.  As she described to the Los Angeles Times, standard scientific instruments were “of no practical use” when it came to communicating with other planets.  Instead, psychic methods were “the best and safest option.”  D’Antuni’s latter point, at least, rings true.  The activities of these two mediums, and those like them, were quite safe compared to many of the other attempts made to contact Mars.  The same year, 1909, American astronomer David Peck Todd attempted communication with Mars by taking flight in a hot air balloon loaded with telegraphic equipment.  He did not communicate with Martians either and likely had a lot worse time than he would have at a Martian séance.

Martian city visited by Hélène Smith, published in Theodore Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars

Robert Burnham and His Celestial Handbook

By Kevin Schindler

The appeal of astronomy is both intellectual and aesthetic; it combines the thrill of exploration and discovery, the fun of sight-seeing, and the sheer pleasure of firsthand acquaintance with incredibly wonderful and beautiful things… So wrote longtime Flagstaff resident Robert Burnham, Jr., the author of one of the most prized astronomy books of our time. Burnham’s story is one of passion, persistence, and, ultimately, tragedy.

Robert Burham, Jr. was born in Chicago on June 16, 1931. His family moved to Arizona in 1940, settling in Prescott. At an early age Robert began a lifelong pursuit of studying the universe, collecting rare coins, amassing bookshelves full of rocks and minerals, and peering at the sky through telescopes—all while reading as much as he could on each subject.

Burnham and his sister. Courtesy Donna Courtney
Burnham in high school. Courtesy Donna Courtney

He graduated from Prescott High School in 1949 and two years later enlisted in the Air Force. After his four-year-tour finished, he returned home to Prescott and eventually took a job as a shipping clerk, though he continued his passion of studying the universe. It was at about this time that he began thinking about compiling an astronomy book like no other, one that comprehensively covered the science and mythology of all 88 constellations.

And so went Burnham’s life for several years—uninspiring job during the day, probing the depths of nature from Earth to outer space at night. And then one night in 1957 his life took a decided turn when he spotted a fuzzy patch of light through his telescope. This was a comet, and up to this day no one else had ever seen it before. He was not alone in detecting it, as two other observers independently discovered this new celestial nomad. News traveled fast and Burnham soon became a celebrity of sorts, lauded as the self-trained amateur astronomer from Prescott. None other than Senator Barry Goldwater visited Burnham and even gave the young man a family telescope that dated back to the 1800s.

Not long after, Burnham found himself in conversation with astronomer Henry Giclas of Lowell Observatory. Giclas had begun a program to study the movement of stars over time, a so-called proper motion survey, and hired Burnham to work on it. Soon he also moved into a cabin onsite. Burnham would spend the next 21 years living in that same cabin at Lowell Observatory, a short stroll from telescopes he could only dream of as a kid. No longer would he have to spend many of his waking hours at a hum drum job; he could now devote virtually all his waking hours to studying the universe. When not fulfilling his regular job duties of photographing the night sky and examining the resulting images, he jumped headfirst into his long-planned “Celestial Handbook.”

Burnham and Norm Thomas, 1964. Courtesy Thomas E. Vandekerkhove
Burnham at the 13-inch Pluto Discovery Telescope.

With the patience of Job, Burnham marched through the constellations and self-published his magnum opus in loose-leaf folders that the kids of Lowell staffers helped assemble. Eventually, with the vision of substantial royalty payments in mind, Burnham sold the rights to Dover. Little did he know that his life had reached its apex and soon would begin to spiral downward.

The proper motion survey ended in 1979 and Burnham was out of a job. After 21 years, he no longer enjoyed regular access to research telescopes, no longer had a home, no longer had a regular income. To many people this would have been a challenge but one they could conquer. To Burnham, this was almost a death sentence. As eloquent as Burnham was on paper, he was equally awkward in person. Exceptionally introverted—former Lowell Observatory Director Bob Millis calls Burnham the most shy person he ever met—Burnham was not one to go out into the world and start over. Without the regularity of his beloved work and the stability of his adopted lifetsyle, he was lost.

Burnham lived with his sister for a short time and then disappeared, with neither family nor friends knowing his whereabouts. A few years later, the son of one of Burnham’s closest Lowell colleagues was walking through Balboa Park in San Diego when he noticed a skinny, bearded man. As he drew near, he realized the man was Burnham. He learned that Burnham lived in bleak housing nearby, having never seen the riches he expected from the handbook royalties and making a minimal living by selling paintings of cats in the park.

In 1993, at the age of 61 and after suffering from a heart attack and other health maladies, Burnham died. His remains went to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery’s columbarium in San Diego. Burnham was a loner to the end: his name was misspelled on his grave marker and his family didn’t even find out he died until two years later.

While Burnham’s tragic life ended in obscurity, his beloved handbook lives on and is a staple in the library of thousands of astronomers, professional and amateur alike. Burnham chronicler Tony Ortega has called Burnham’s 2138-page handbook a real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide – “part travel guide, part history text, part encyclopedia, it’s like a handheld natural-history museum of the universe.”

In recent years, efforts have been made to honor Burnham. Amateur astronomers in Phoenix led an effort to create a plaque for him, and Lowell Observatory is now developing a new display highlighting his life and work. As part of this year’s National Astronomy Day, Lowell hosted a virtual discussion about the triumph and tragedy of Burnham with special guests Ortega, Burnham’s niece Donna Courtney, and renowned sky expert Brian Skiff. You can find it on our YouTube channel. In addition, here are some Burnham documents from the Lowell Observatory Archives.