Jun 7

Uncle Percy’s attic

Category: Lowell

We’re lodged in the Slipher building at Lowell observatory.  It is one of the older buildings at the here – a wonderful old creaking mansion, built in the early 1900s from local stone and ponderosa pine.  It’s filled with fireplaces, multiple stairways, wood paneling, and period furniture.  The window glass is wrinkled; its large attic is stuffed with historical curiosities.

Don’t forget that you can click on any of these images to see larger versions.

On the first night, I explored the entire building from top to bottom.  The attic was by far the most fantastic place.  Although the rotunda of the building houses Percival Lowell’s library and a number of historical astronomical instruments (like the blink comparator used to find Pluto), a large quantity of material lies out of public view.  Creeping around in that attic late at night with only a flashlight, I felt like I was in a Harry Potter movie.  Cobwebs were draped across ancient wooden telescope cameras; shadowed corners divulged piles of glass plates bearing images of mars exposed at the dawn of the last century.  90-year-old notes scratched with fountain pens described the contents of disintegrating crates of handwritten data.  Handmade, 19th-century brass machinery gleamed dully in the feeble light from the unevenly spaced bulbs.  Good thing I had a flashlight.  I wiped a thick rime of dust from the manufacturer’s plate on a primitive-looking electric telescope drive; it was patented (and manufactured) around 1900.  Less antique but still dated tube-based equipment also piqued my interest, as did a box of mariner 9 data.

I went back in the day time to make use of the beautiful dusty light.


The intriguing stairway upwards…


As you go up, you can see the inside curve of the rotunda.




In seemingly endless shelves lining the attic, a jumble of astronomic history sits awaiting display by future curators.  At lower left, a portrait of Percival Lowell glares sternly at me and my camera.


In dozens of boxes, historical artifacts lie in a semi-organized jumble.


The label on this box of glass plates reads “Negative enlargement of Mars and pro-mars arranged in order of original films.”  The date on the box is 1922.


Carefully opening the box and gingerly holding the plate up to the light, I could see an image of mars used in research almost 50 years before I was born, and about 90 years ago.  In the intervening years, many spacecraft have orbited Mars, and several robots have landed and even crawled around on its surface.  If only those early astronomers could have seen the data we have!  What they labored to learn, squinting through primitive telescopes, imagining the details of this distant and blurry planet, was only a fraction of the larger understanding we now have; but the modern knowledge would not have been possible without their pioneering labor.


Here are some primitive filters used for photographing mars (and probably other objects).  The one on top reads “To measure apparent brightness of Mars.”



I’m not sure what this is – probably a small blink comparator, or a device for close inspection of photographic plates.  It has the look of old machinery, made by hand with brass fittings.


A box of Mariner 9 data from 1972.  Notice the small sign tacked to a beam – it says “Photographic equipment – ‘old’.”


Here is some of that photographic equipment, made of wood and brass and with an enormous bellows.  Lying on top and around this camera (known as an “astrograph”) are the carriers for the  enormous glass negative plates of approximately 10’x14′.  Glass plates date from the earliest days pf photography, before there was cheap celluloid film.  They continued to be useful for some time after the invention of celluloid because the rigid glass maintained the flatness of large glass plates.  I don’t know how old these are, but I’m guessing they date from before 1915.  Matthew Brady used similar equipment to photograph the civil war.



A primitive-looking reflector telescope made of riveted struts, and with brass fittings.  Any time I see a metal construction with brass and no welds, I suspect that its old; welding wasn’t commonly used priot to 1930, specially in one-off custom pieces like this.  Brass is not often used in the modern era; aluminum has largely replaced it.


If you look closely, you can see the reflection of me and my camera.


An antique vacuum pump, probably used to evacuate spectroscopy tubes.  It has a leather belt and a wooden base.  They don’t make ’em like that any more!


The manufacturer’s plate on the motor.  The patent date is 1900; based on the appearance and other objects attached to it, I’m guessing that the motor was made around than 1915 (the patent date of 1900 does not reflect the manufacture date, which is always later).


This mysterious and ancient-looking mechanism was sitting on top of a piece of modern electronics when I found it.  I put it on the floor to photograph it, then carefully replaced it.  It seems to be some kind of synchronized reflector.


A large telescope lens found lying amidst a pile of picnic equipment.


Finally, the iconic painting of Percival Lowell gazing through his signature Clark telescope.  This painting has been reproduced many times on various promotional materials.  It is really quite good; it was painted by Flasgstaff junior high school students in 1980.



3 Comments so far

  1. Niffer June 8th, 2009 1:56 PM

    Wow! You must have been like a child in a candy store. What amazing treasures you stumbled on!

  2. Niffer June 8th, 2009 9:15 PM

    Like a kid in a candy store! What a fantastic find! Look at all those treasures from ancient times! It would have been fun to see in person.

  3. Niffer June 8th, 2009 9:16 PM

    Doh. The only reason I posted again was that I saw there weren’t any comments. Feel free to delete one of the previous, along with this one. If you approve all three, then I’ll take this moment to say hi to everyone. HI!

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