Percival Lowell stepped off the train in Flagstaff, Arizona on May 28, 1894. He had been in communication with his assistant, A.E. Douglass, since early March as Douglass traveled throughout the Arizona Territory looking for the perfect site to build an observatory. Lowell confirmed Flagstaff as the location in mid-April, and Douglass spent the next six weeks preparing for his boss’s arrival.
Once in Flagstaff, Lowell wasted no time beginning his astronomical work. On June 1, he and astronomer W.H. Pickering observed Mars using an 18-inch refractor on loan from lensmaker John Brashear of Pittsburgh and a 12-inch refractor borrowed from Harvard College Observatory.
Lowell’s observation notes from that night, pictured here, were the first of many. He continued his studies of the heavens until the night before he died in 1916. Our digitized collection of historic logbooks is available here.
“That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain as it is uncertain what these beings may be.”
Our new exhibit, The Lampland Diaries, opened on May 11 in the Putnam Collection Center. It highlights the career of astronomer Carl O. Lampland, who worked at Lowell Observatory from 1902 until his death in 1951. He made more than 10,000 images of planets, comets, variable stars, nebulae, and star clusters. In the 1920s, he partnered with W.W. Coblentz of the U.S. Bureau of Standards to measure the temperatures of planets. Lampland played a significant role in the search for Planet X, which culminated in 1930 with Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto. He was also in charge of the Observatory’s library, and he designed cameras for telescopes.
Lampland kept a daily diary throughout his career, and the diaries are now housed in the Lowell Observatory Archives. He wrote about the weather, astronomy, research projects, Flagstaff news and activities, and international events.
Notable entries include Percival Lowell’s death (November 12, 1916), Armistice Day (November 11, 1918), Pluto’s discovery (February 18, 1930), the start of World War II (September 1, 1939), the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death (April 12, 1945).
In addition to the physical display here at Lowell, we created an online exhibit showcasing the digitized diaries and other items from Lampland’s papers.
I was looking at a portrait of Percival Lowell today, and I noticed a stamp in the lower right hand corner. It says “Copyright 1904 by J.E. Purdy, Boston.” I did a quick web search and discovered that James Edward Purdy was a professional photographer in Boston around the turn of the century. He and his business partner, C.H. Howard, opened a studio in Boston in 1896, and they specialized in photographing famous people. Benjamin Orange Flower, an early twentieth century cultural critic, described Purdy as “The famous Boston photographic artist, who has undoubtedly taken more portraits of really distinguished statesmen, authors, educators, artists, clergymen, diplomats, journalists and persons eminent in various professions than any photographer in New England.”
Lowell was in good company! Read more about J.E. Purdy here.
In 1894, wealthy Boston mathematician Percival Lowell sent his assistant, A.E. Douglass, west to the Arizona Territory to choose a location for an astronomical observatory. Lowell had become fascinated with the planet Mars, and he wanted to build his own observatory to study the Red Planet and other astronomical objects. Douglass arrived in Arizona on March 7 and spent the next six weeks testing potential sites in Tombstone, Tucson, Tempe, Prescott, and Flagstaff. On April 16, Lowell sent Douglass a letter stating, in part, “Flagstaff it is.” Following a month of preparations, Lowell arrived in Flagstaff from Massachusetts on May 28 and immediately began observing with borrowed 12-inch and 18-inch telescopes.
As part of our 125th anniversary celebration, we’ve added a new digital collection to the Arizona Memory Project called “Flagstaff It Is – The Founding of Lowell Observatory.” It consists primarily of letters and telegrams between Douglass and Lowell from 1894 to 1901. Topics include Douglass’ reports from the various locations where he was testing sites, weather and atmospheric conditions, travel plans, moving the observatory to Mexico and back to Flagstaff, finances, and astronomy.
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: