Archival photographs are a glorious timesink.  I spent hours — days! — looking at the photos of old Kansas towns in the Wichita State University archives, getting a sense of how life might have been lived in the 1920s in Kansas.  I even found a few shots of tiny Burdett, Kansas, the nearest town to the Tombaugh farm.

A whole lot of nothing going on in those days.

As opposed to now, I suppose.

One of the gems I found was the oldest known photograph of a tornado.  Okay, so it’s from South Dakota.  Big deal.  What a gorgeously weird image this is!

You can find the original here.

Well, you’ve got to possess a certain kind of character to have an elementary school named after you.  To wit: Clyde Tombaugh Elementary in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Go Comets!

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. 

Oh, how they hated this thing.  You put your eye (just one) against the brass ocular, and stared and stared and stared, while images jumped before your eyes.  It made a clack-clack-clack noise, and gave off a smell of burned dust.  While interviewing Henry Giclas (who was on staff at Lowell Observatory) I asked exactly how the comparator was positioned in its room on the first floor of the Main Building; they had arranged it near the window, so you could rest your eyes looking outside.  You needed to take a lot of breaks.

The iconic picture of Clyde on his way in — I guess — to a night of observing.  Nevermind that it’s broad daylight.  The plates for the 13-inch astrograph were so big (14 by 17 inches) that V.M. Slipher had to design a special holder to give the glass plates a slight curvature — so light would strike the edges of the plates correctly.  You screwed down the four corners of the plate with thumbscrews (visible in this picture, in fact).  And if you got the plate in too tight — pow — it would explode like a bomb.

This is the Tiffany lamp that hung — and still hangs — from the ceiling of the Lowell Observatory library.   Vesto Slipher and Clyde Tombaugh spent their share of time working beneath it.


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

Wichita downtown

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.