October 2009

When Clyde Tombaugh was at his wits’ end, a fortuitious invitation came from Napoleon Carreau, in Wichita, the man to whom Clyde had sent his mirror to be silvered.  Carreau offered Clyde a job — the start date was uncertain — and Clyde was of two minds concerning the offer.  This photograph is from an optical outfit (not Carreau’s) from around 1915.Carreau's shop

Clyde is not prepared to like Carreau, but he begins to warm to him.  For the next half hour Clyde follows him around the shop.  They begin in the optics corner, where the speculae are cut from heavy sheets of plate glass using a giant jigsaw; then to the grinding bench, where Henry Bundt labors in his buttoned vest; to Rene Poule in his gloves at the silvering table, behind which the brown bottles of nitrate of silver and tartaric acid and caustic potash are lined along a black shelf.  Around a corner, in the instrument shop, is where the telescope housings are welded, finding scopes fitted, mountings bolted. 


This is how the city might have looked to Clyde from his hotel window.

Wichita downtown

As far as I can tell, this photograph was taken after Clyde became famous and after he returned home to Burdett to visit his family.  But it’s the real telescope — the one that finally worked, and that allowed him to draw Jupiter well enough to convince V.M. Slipher that Clyde knew what he was doing.  This is the telescope that earned Clyde an invitation to Lowell Observatory.

Clyde and his telescope

For a dollar forty he buys a 90-inch length of galvanized steel pipe, ten inches in diameter, which he carts back in the bed of the truck.  From the side panel of a dead 1910 Buick that stands in the back of the barn (the landlord’s ancient car, slowly being cannibalized for this and other purposes) he cuts twin strips of iron and bends them into hoops to encircle the pipe, with two small square flanges where he attaches the hoops to an iron mounting that he builds from the innards of an old cream separator, using the universal hinge of the baffle joint to construct a sturdy rotating pivot that will allow the telescope to swivel in all directions.  The Tolles objective he bought via the U.S. Mail is mounted in an hour and the focusing mechanism he has in place by the next night, and then he is ready. 

From his own account, Clyde Tombaugh didn’t like living in Kansas.  He’d moved from Streator, Illinois, with his family, at 16 – a tough age to move anywhere.  Tenant farmers, the Tombaughs went where the farming was good, and Muron Tombaugh — Clyde’s father — believed they could do better for themselves in Kansas.  But Clyde missed his extended family in Illinois and the nearby gangster hustle of Al Capone’s Chicago.  This photograph dates from a few years before the Tombaughs’ arrival, but when they got there, Burdett was still a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere — Pawnee County, Kansas.  And it still is today.

 Burdett KS

The ten-minute drive south to Burdett for supplies takes him past a dozen tenanted farms.  It is flat here, almost exactly flat.  The sky is vast, open in all directions.  Early on this summer morning the sky is a fruitful, endless blue.  A mile from town the first shabby houses appear: hard-packed yards under the sunstruck vacancy.  Laundry plunging on the lines.  A girl runs a wild circle around a fresh stump while her brother looks on from where he sits atop it like a cat, full of opinion but saying nothing.  Then he comes to the railroad tracks and the tiny depot, where the baggage cart stands casting its shadow on the unpopulated platform. 
It is so empty to Clyde.  He is still not really used to it.