In the last decade of the 19th century, the wealthy Bostonian oligarch, Percival Lowell, established a grand Observatory atop Mars Hill, Flagstaff, Arizona, some 7,250 feet above sea level. Here, in 1894, Lowell had installed a magnificent 24 inch refracting telescope, built by the famous American telescope maker, Alvan Clark & Sons. Nearly a century after Lowell’’s death, the telescope has been refurbished and will wow the public with spectacular views of the night sky.
An Eye on Mars
Bought for the princely sum of $20,000 ($500,000 in today’s money), the telescopes long focal length was ideal for viewing the planets. But there was one world in particular that captured Lowell’s imagination: Mars. Back in 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, had reported seeing networks of linear features on the Martian surface, which he interpreted as ‘canali’, or ‘channels’ but he later believed them to be artificial, works of intelligent minds. This was dynamite to Percivall Lowell, who dedicated many years of his life to studying the Red planet through pristine mountain air, far from the lights of towns and cities. Lowell’s many drawings of Mars showed up even more canals than Schiaparelli, many of which were seen to extend from the polar ice caps to the parched equatorial deserts, Lowell published his views in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). In these writings, Lowell combined his misguided faith in Darwinian evolution with the latest theories in planetology to popularise the idea of an advanced race of intelligent beings desperately trying to survive on a dying planet. Lowell’s far-fetched ideas inspired others to create a new generation of science fiction literature, most celebrated of which was H. G. Wells’ influential The War of the Worlds.
Ultimately, many of Lowell’s ideas turned out to be false. When other highly experienced observers, such as E.E. Barnard and Eugene Antoniadi, who had access to larger refracting telescope than Lowell’s 24-inch, examined the Martian disk, they could not see any linear features. Indeed, they maintained that when seen through larger telescopes, the so-called canals resolved down to darkly shaded dots that looked completely natural and not artificial as Lowell had contended. World-wide fame and affection soon turned to ridicule, as more and more evidence was amassed against his fanciful theory of advanced Martian beings. Perhaps the most scathing of all came from the British naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who quipped that only a race of madmen would construct canals on this small desert world.
A Revered Instrument
Because of its unique provenance, the 24-inch Clark refractor at Lowell Observatory became one of the most celebrated telescopes in the history of astronomy. The late Sir Patrick Moore once claimed that it was his favourite telescope. The instrument was massive, fully 32.1 feet (9.77 metres) in length (f/16) with a tube made of riveted steel. Lowell mounted two other instruments alongside the main telescope, also refractors of 12-inch and 6-inch aperture, either of which could have served as the centrepiece of a small college observatory in their own right. The telescope was placed on a massive, state-of-the art equatorial mount. The vaulted dome in which the great telescope was housed, was designed by an ex-cowboy turned machinist, Godfrey Sykes, and was erected from hatchet-hewn ponderosa pine timber by a team of ten labourers in as many days!
A New Career in Education
After Percival Lowell passed away in 1916, the 24-inch continued to be used for research but in recent years it has been complete dedicated to public outreach, attracting about 85,000 visitors per year. As one might imagine, time has taken its toll on the famous instrument and in 2015 the staff at Lowell Observatory initiated an extensive refurbishment project for the 24-inch Clark. I contacted Kevin Schindler, resident historian at Lowell observatory, who kindly answered some questions I had about the project.
What was the primary motivation for restoring the Lowell 24-inch Clark refractor?
“The main reason was the telescope getting more and more difficult to move in recent years, said Schindler, “The telescope is moved by hand, and historically a person could actually push it with one finger. But by 2013, it was so hard to push that some people simply weren’t strong enough to push it. Plus, the telescope had developed a tendency to “clunk” when moved in a certain position, and this was clearly getting worse. As it turns out (we didn’t know this until the telescope was disassembled), both problems were caused by flattening of the main bearing. A new bearing was built and now those problems are gone. The old clock driven mount has also been replaced by a state-of-the art goto system to greatly speed up the pointing of the telescope during public out reach events.”
How much money had to be raised to fund the cost of the telescope’s restoration? Did the team receive any grants or bursaries to meet costs?
We raised nearly $300,000 for the project, Schindler explained, “ Two different sources – a private individual named Joe Orr (since deceased) and the Toomey Foundation for the Natural Sciences each contributed $100,000. We also raised money via crowd-sourcing efforts and many individual contributions”.
Could you provide a brief break down of the individuals/firms involved in refurbishing the instrument and which projects were assigned to whom?
The majority of work was done in-house,” Schindler told me, “under the management of Lowell’s Director of Technical Services, Ralph Nye. Other Lowell staff that played significant roles included: Peter Rosenthal, who refurbished most of the telescope controls (including a full powder coating for the tube) and ancillary parts, Jeff Gehring, who machined many new parts for the telescope, Glenn Hill, who refurbished walls and floor of the dome, and Dave Shuck, who created a new landscape outside the dome. Others were involved, and the people listed above helped out each other, but this is the basic leadership duties of the project.”
How do you think these restorations will be received by the public?
“The public will be quite excited about the restoration,” explained Schindler, “the Clark is one of the primary reasons visitors come to Lowell. They’ll be thrilled both because the telescope will be working better than ever, making for a more pleasant viewing experience, and also because the telescope is now visually stunning. Also, the Clark Telescope has been in Flagstaff since 1896, and its dome is an icon of the Flagstaff skyline. It is a cherished part of the very fabric of Flagstaff.”
Will the instrument continue to be used to train undergraduates and/or as a research instrument in its own right?
“The telescope will be used solely for public education, Schindler told me, “The Observatory is open seven days and six nights per week, and the telescope is a critical part of both the day and night-time experience. No plans are on the table to use it for research, and undergraduates will continue to be trained on modern research telescopes.”
In addition to the mechanical work, the massive, air-spaced doublet objective of the Clark had to be carefully cleaned. Over the last few years, brush fires have laden the air thick with sooty particulates which were deposited on the outer surface of the lens, decreasing its light transmission and increasing light scatter in the images. This has necessitated the removal of the lens cell from the telescope every two years or so for cleaning.
Many observers have visited Lowell observatory over the years and commented on the fine views the telescope has delivered. For many, the 24-inch Clark represents arguably the finest telescope made by Alvan Clark & Sons. Although the firm did produce larger instruments, such as the 36-inch Lick and 40-inch at Yerkes Observatory, the sheer weight of the glass has caused them to warp under their own weight. The 24-inch, in contrast, has not warped over the years and still provides stunning views of the heavens.
I asked Kevin Schindler to tell me about some of the most memorable views he has enjoyed through the Clark over the years. “Regarding memories of excellent seeing conditions, two come to mind,” Schindler explained, “ the first must have been in the early 2000s. I had looked through the Clark for years by that time, but this was the first time the conditions were good enough to slip a 14mm eyepiece into the Clark and, for the first time for me, resolve Jupiter’s moons as disks; I could also clearly distinguish some colour, and this experience was almost surreal in its splendour. The other time was during the 2003 Mars opposition, distinguishing Phobos and Deimos. That was not visually stunning but a 10 on the coolness scale.”
As amateur astronomers, we all hope that the restorations to this iconic telescope will inspire a whole new generation of star gazers. And while there is most certainly no life on Mars as Lowell understood so, the spirit of his legacy lives on as we continue to look skywards for answers to our deepest questions.
Neil English is writing a new book chronicling the history of visual astronomy; Tales from the Golden Age of Astronomy. The author would like to thank Josh Bangle and Kevin Schindler of Lowell Observatory for sparing the time to answer questions.