Clyde Tombaugh Goes To Flagstaff

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Clyde Tbmbaugh, the eldest of six children, was born on a farm near Streator, Illinois, on February 4, 1906. He enjoyed exploring the heavens with his Uncle Lee and his 3-inch telescope. Clyde virtually memorized the popular astronomy book his uncle loaned him. In 1920 his father and Uncle Lee bought a new 2.25-inch scope from the Sears-Roebuck catalog for them to share.

When Clyde was 16, his family moved to a rented farm near Burdett, Kansas, and his uncle insisted that he take the new telescope with him. So much work needed to be done on the farm that Clyde dropped out of school for a year to help. In 1925 he graduated from Burdett High with a longing to be a college professor. But even a college education seemed out of reach. He was needed for farmwork.

Yet the lure of astronomy was strong. In 1926, Clyde fashioned an 8-inch reflecting telescope. He made the mirror out of ship porthole glass, the tube out of pine boards, and the mount out of discarded farm machinery. But the curvature of the mirror was not very good, and he was disappointed with his view of the features on Mars.

With his father's help, Clyde built a storage and storm cellar that could also provide the stable air needed for telescope-mirror testing. He then made a fine 7-inch reflector and sent it to his Uncle Lee. His uncle paid him, and Clyde plunged the money into a 9-inch mirror of his own. His days belonged to farmwork, but his nights were devoted to observing the skies and carefully sketching the planets. He completed his excellent new telescope in time to enjoy the 1928 close passage of the Earth by Mars.

The growing season of 1928 was developing in to one of the best the family had ever known win, a sudden hailstorm ruined the crop just befo^ harvest. Clyde decided against a career in fanrf He was 22 years old. He needed to get a job toe«« some money to help his family through the crisis He weighed joining the railroad as an apprentice fireman or trying to start a telescope-making business. He sent a few of his meticulous sketches of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars off to the Lowell Observatory for appraisal. "It was the only planetatj observatory I knew of," he confessed years late

His letter arrived at an opportune time. Vesto Slipher, the observatory director, was looking fa a committed young observer to resume the photographic search for a trans-Neptunian planet suspected by observatory founder Percival Lowe] and upon which he had invested so much effort. Slipher, his brother Earl, and Carl Lampland, the three professional astronomers on the Lowei Observatory staff, had all grown up doing fan»-work. Slipher invited Tombaugh out to Arizona on a three-month trial basis. Clyde's family drove him 30 miles to the nearest railroad station. His fatho advised him, "Clyde, make yourself useful, and beware of easy women." The Kansas he left had for its state motto Ad astra per aspera—"To thestan through difficulties."

Tbmbaugh arrived in Flagstaff on January 15 1929, after a train ride of 28 hours. He didn't have enough money to sleep in a Pullman berth. Hi didn't have enough money for a train ride home

'This and the following quotaUon are from Clyde W. Tomhau^* Patrick Moore, Out of the Darkness: the HlanH Hluto (HantsM»'»» sylvania: Stackpole Books. 1980|. p. 25.

raph each region three times. The two most nearly identical to Ptl0^u|£j jje blinked against one another. The third plate and pic-S(aken by a 5-inch (13-centimeter) telescopic camera mounted pig-tUl»ck on the telescope tube would be kept for comparison and—hope-


Tombaugh started in Cancer, to the east of Lowell's predicted location

Clyde Tombaugh with his homemade 9-lnch telescope on his family's farm in Kansas. The year Is 1928, and Tombaugh Is 22 years old. Clyde IV. Tombaugh

Slipher met him at the station, and Tombaugh moved into a bedroom at the observatory.

The lens for the 13-inch telescope to be used for the search had not yet arrived, so Clyde was pressed into service showing tour groups around the observatory, stoking the furnace in the ad ministration building (as all the staff did), carefully pushing snow off the canvas dome for the 42-inch telescope, and painting the 13-inch telescope tube red.

The lens arrived in February. Slipher coached him through the photographic process, and quickly Tombaugh was on his own. He faced a series of problems that threatened the very precise work necessary. When the clock drive of the telescope (to keep it pointed at the proper star field as the Earth rotates) turned through a particular position, one of the telescope axes slipped slightly, creating double images of each star. Such a photograph was useless for blinking. A second problem was that the glass photographic plates he was using shattered in the numbing cold—and with a crack so loud Tombaugh feared that the expensive telescope lens had broken. It was up to him to find the cause and invent a fix for each problem. He did. For the axis slippage problem, he ran the telescope ahead and then backed it up through the problem point so that there would be no slippage when it ran forward. For the problem of the photographic plates that cracked, he found a new way to fasten them onto the telescope so that the corners could expand or contract before being tightened down.

Slipher was pleased with Tombaugh's progress. "We think he is going to develop into a useful man. He has several good qualities that are going to make up for his meager training He has a good attitude: careful with apparatus, willing' to do anything to make himself useful and is enthusiastic about learning and wants to do observing."2

2Lctter of February 7. 1929, to Roger Lowell Putnam, ftrcival's nephew and sole trustee of the observatory. Quoted by William Graves Hoyt. Pljnets X and Pluto fl\jcson. University of Arizona Press, 1980). p. 181.

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