December 2009

A costly, complex instrument, the 13-inch reflector was one of the most advanced astrographs in the world when it was finally operational in the spring of 1929.   The very large plates could capture images down to the 15th Magnitude. 

Clyde spent many long, cold hours alone at this device, his eye fixed to the guide scopes to make sure the big telescope tracked true.   Glamorous in retrospect, the actual work was tedious and lonely.


Notice that in the telegram from Lowell Observatory — the stuff that comes after the colon — nobody calls it a planet – not yet.  Why?  Because the astronomers at Lowell know they’ve got something weird.  The object they’ve discovered on February 18 is definitely retrograding — that is, it’s definitely in orbit around the sun.  But in size, color, and composition, the object is not at all what they expected. 

This announcement card was released March 13, 1930 —  Percival Lowell’s birthday.  By this point, astronomers at Lowell have decided to announce their findings.  A planet?  A comet?  They don’t know.

They’re further faced with a weird dilemma – that the object is just about where Percival Lowell’s math suggested it would be.  But it’s too small to have been discovered through its perturbative effects on Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.  How can this be?

Born Constance Savage Keith, the young Constance made her name in the unlikely field of real-estate speculation, buying promising Back Bay properties, fixing them up, then selling them to prominent or socially ambitious families. Known for her argumentative and contentious nature, her marriage to Percival Lowell in 1908 came as a surprise to everyone, especially those who knew the famous astronomer – who had long been thought to be permanently partnered with his loyal secretary Wrexie Louise Leonard.

When her husband died in 1916, Constance Lowell’s quarrelsome and bizarre nature took a turn for the worse. Not only did she engage the Lowell estate in a ten-year probate battle in an attempt to prevent much of her husband’s fortune going to support the Observatory, she became willfully peculiar and increasingly reclusive, often pretending to be blind.

But she displayed her own kind of loyalty.  Even long before it was found, Constance Lowell was determined to name Planet X after her late husband; she wished the planet to be named either Percival or Lowell.

I came across a few threads during the writing of the novel that led me to wonder about this marriage.  Percival Lowell’s family firmly discouraged him from marrying Wrexie – his loyal secretary, to whom he was thought to be fondly attached.  Might he have have settled on the irascible Constance as a form of revenge?  And might Constance have fought so hard to keep her late husband’s money from going to the Observatory because she suspected this truth?  (But in this case, why press to have the planet named after him?)

Every marriage is a mystery, this one especially so.

The following letter from Constance was composed the day after the discovery of Planet X had been announced.  “Lawrence” is Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, and “Roger” is Roger Putnam, executor of Percival Lowell’s estate.  One can imagine the cautious conversation Mr. Lowell and Mr. Putnam must have had with the astronomer’s widow…

Boston, Mass.
March 14, 1930

Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Arizona

In eastern newspapers and at a luncheon today unaminous demand that the planet be named Percival, and we hope that you at the Observatory who made possible its finding will be in sympathy with the appropriateness of this name.  They think as I that the gods of the past are worn.  I find from Lawrence and Roger what you all have to say is going to have great weight.

Constance S. Lowell

The “Pluto dome,” as it would come to be called, under construction in 1929.  That’s Stanley Sykes on top, kneeling.

Stanley Sykes, the Lowell Observatory handyman and carpenter, built this funky structure to house the 13-inch astrograph.  There are two “floors” to this building – the telescope is up a flight of stairs.  Clyde Tombaugh spent many, many long cold nights here, monitoring the drives and keeping an eye on the weather.   A typical exposure could last a full hour, during which he had to keep his eye on the ocular almost constantly.  If a haze came in, he had to judge when – or whether – to close the shutter to preserve the intergrity of the image. 

Here you can see the cool, very much homemade mechanism that opens the observing slot – those rods that will pull open the flap-thingies.

Stanley Sykes began as a bicycle designer.

Clyde Tombaugh’s plans to go up to Lawrence to college were foiled by an inopportune hailstorm — the oats that were to furnish his college funding were destroyed.  Crop prices in 1928 were solid and would have provided a substantial income to the Tombaughs.  But disaster proved an opportunity.  The chance hailstorm that destroyed the oats caused Clyde to write to V.M. Slipher at Lowell Observatory for advice; as a result, Slipher invited Clyde to come to Flagstaff for a trial period of employment, which put Clyde in a position to find Planet X — something he may actually have been uniquely qualified to do.  As an outsider at Lowell, he was especially eager to please.  In need of work, he was unlikely to complain.  He had little sense of the quixotic nature of the project, at least at first.  And, as luck would have it, he was just the sort of exceptionally methodical worker the Planet X search required. 

But without the hailstorm, none of it would have happened.