Tales from the Golden Age: Excerpts from the Life of Leslie C. Peltier.

The distinguished American amateur astronomer, Leslie C. Peltier (1900 – 1980).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of whose womb came the ice?

and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

The waters are hid as with a stone,

and the face of the deep is frozen.

 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades,

or loose the bands of Orion?

Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?

or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?

Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?

canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?

Job 38:29-33.

Picture a time before radio, before television, computers, cell phones, a time before electricity, running water and central heating. Could anyone possibly be happy in such a world? Could such a time ever be said to be idyllic? After learning of the life of Leslie Copus Peltier, one can begin to understand why that could well be so.

Born in the small town of Delphos, Ohio, on the second day of January 1900, Peltier spent almost his entire life on the family farm called Brookhaven, that was worked by his ancestors since the time before the Civil War. Such rural families formed the basic unit of civilised society. They were self sufficient, hardworking and God fearing. The 50 acres of land was fertile, watered by the nearby Auglaize River, and brought forth crops of corn, wheat and oats in rotation before being revitalised by clover planting. Fresh vegetables were sown, grown and harvested, as were succulent strawberries, cultivated on two acres of land,  which proved to be a valuable source of income for the family every summer.  A half dozen dairy cattle gorged on the fresh blades of grass springing up along the river bank, providing wholesome milk both to drink and to make cream, butter and cheese with. Poultry provided a fresh supply of eggs and a small herd of hogs gave the family a steady supply of ham and sausage. Nothing was wasted. Any surplus foodstuffs were canned, salted or smoked for consumption through the long winters.

But while life was hard, there was a palpable sense of fraternity among the farming communities of Northwestern Ohio, centred as they were in the local Church hall, where meetings were convened to discuss matters of public concern. Both Leslie’s parents were regular Church goers and taught Sunday School to the children. In his famous autobiography; Starlight Nights; the Adventures of a Stargazer; Peltier describes his parents as “living harmoniously” together and this in turn brought happiness and stability to the entire family. “Blessed are they who are raised on a farm,” he was to prophetically write many years later.

The Peltiers were voracious readers. This was a family that knew the Bible, the great classic works of American literature and the immortal poems and plays of Shakespeare. They were also the proud owners of some of the earliest renditions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Any news from the outside world arrived twice a week in the form of a newspaper, week in and week out. Living so close to nature, it is small wonder that Peltier had a highly developed spiritual sense, which spilled over into his eloquent writings in later life. He got his first encounter with the shining stars at age five, when his mother showed him the brilliant Pleiades which captivated the young boy. And two years later, his father pointed out the mighty planet Jupiter beaming its still yellow light across the sable depths of space. In 1910, two bright comets graced the skies over Ohio. First came 1910a in January, followed by the faithful return of Halley’s Comet in May which enthralled him. But it was not until Peltier was 15 years old that the stars of heaven really began to call him.

Though the family library was a veritable mine of information on just about any topic, there was nothing he could find there that could fully assuage the questions that bubbled up in his fecund mind. But these were sated by a visit to the school library, where he picked up a copy of Martha Evans Martin’s classic work, The Friendly Stars, which enabled the boy to begin to identify, first the brightest stellar luminaries like Vega, Deneb, Altair and Arcturus, but as the weeks and months went by, the stars of lesser glory also, together with the shapes of the constellations to which they were assigned. According to his autobiography, Peltier spent nearly two years learning his way around the night sky. Fascinated by how the fixed stars in the firmament mapped out the passage of time, he would rise at ungodly hours of the night just to get a glimpse of how the sky would look at more respectable hours in the month’s ahead. It was his time machine. And all the while, this great journey of celestial exploration was done entirely without any optical aid. He had, as yet, no telescope to extend the reach of his naked eye. But that was something he would have to remedy sooner rather than later.

Between 1915 and 1917, Leslie attended the local High School and it was there, during his middle year, that he had his first encounter with a telescope. It was not very big but to Leslie it was all he could think about! There it was, boldly displayed in the physics lab, like some kind of museum piece, under lock and key inside a fortress of glass. And while he was permitted to handle the instrument by his instructor, his request to borrow it for a spell was firmly refused. Peltier never divulges the reasons for this rebuttal; perhaps his superiors thought he would damage it or some such, but the event had a somewhat unexpected effect on the young man. Instead of dragging his feet and sulking, it only deepened his resolve to save up and buy one with his own money.

And luckily there was a way of earning coin on the farm. The month of June was high season for picking strawberries at Brookhaven and the boy put his back into filling the crates with the choice summer fruit, each of which earned him two cents. Meanwhile he began leafing through various mail order catalogues in the hope that someone was advertising telescopes for sale. His search came up with not one, but two sources. One firm was offering a 3 inch Bardou refractor for the princely sum of $65. His heart must have sank as he realised he would never be able to afford such an instrument, at least for the foreseeable future. But the other advert gave him good cause for optimism; this time it was a 2 inch refractor offered by a firm in St. Louis for $18. By the end of June 1916, Peltier had saved up that $18 and without a moment’s hesitation despatched his order, together with the payment.

The next nine days must have seemed like an eternity as the young squire anxiously watched for the postwagon to pull up on the dirt road leading up to the homestead. Every morning at 11am he’d be there to greet the postman, but on one faithful morning, he delivered that magical package. In prose that would melt even the hardest heart, Peltier described the ceremonial unboxing;

Plopping on the ground right beside the mailbox I hastily removed the outer wrapping of corrugated paper to find inside a round case of heavy cardboard. I pulled off the cover of this case, and there, wrapped in tissue paper, was my telescope; a beautiful thing of black pebbled leather and shining brass.

pp 53

The telescope was actually designed for terrestrial viewing. Technically, it was a four draw instrument, with an achromatic objective of 2 inch aperture and focal length of 3 feet (so f/18). An additional lens placed between the ocular and the objective provided an upright image but that hardly mattered to the young astronomer. He had a telescope, and it was his pride and his joy!

As the postwagon pulled away, he took his first look through the instrument but was somewhat dismayed to find that it yielded a blurred image. Peltier, you see, knew absolutely nothing about how a telescope works! How could he possibly know? He had to learn how to focus it by moving the outermost drawtube first towards the objective, and then away from the same, until the sharpest, clearest image was presented and that position, he quickly learned, depended on the distance to the object in view. At lunchtime, the family gathered round the newly arrived instrument, for it was truly a thing of wonder! They all had a gander though it, and all were smitten. What a marvellous contrivance a telescope is!

The author’s charming 3 draw spyglass, with a one inch objective.

 

 

The instrument, which he affectionately named, the Strawberry Spyglass, came supplied with two eyepieces, delivering powers of 35x and 60x, as well as a solar filter. Peltier quickly learned that in order to optimise its performance, it would have to be rigidly mounted. But the supremely frugal and resourceful Peltier soon solved this problem by hobbling together a disused fence post, an old, heavy millstone and some planks of wood. Let the reader understand; nothing at Brookhaven was discarded; nothing went to waste. The mount allowed the telescope to move smoothly both in azimuth and altitude and was apparently as solid as a proverbial rock.

Leslie Peltier looking through the Strawberry Spyglass.

The Strawberry Spyglass was to be his constant companion under the starry heaven for the next three and a half years. And what a journey it took him on!

He writes:

Despite its diminutive size a 2 inch telescope is fully capable of doing serious work. A quality scope of this aperture will reveal a representative example of every major class of celestial object that can be seen with the very largest instruments.

pp 58.

He marvelled at Jupiter’s constantly changing cloud belts and the bewitching cadence of its Galilean satellites as they lapped the gas giant. He beheld the glory of Saturn’s rings and could even make out the Cassini Division and also managed to track down the distant planets, Uranus and Neptune, with the 2 inch. He followed with singular joy the evolving phases of the Moon, watching how its craters and mountains changed their aspect as the angle of sunlight striking its surface advanced over time. This was all well and good but he wanted to see more, much more. Unfortunately, his by now heavily soiled and tattered copy of The Friendly Stars would not yield the information he desperately craved.

Sensing his frustration, Peltier’s mother presented him with a new book as a Christmas gift; A Field Book of the Stars, by William Tyler Olcott. A law graduate from the University of Connecticut, Olcott ditched it all to become an astronomical evangelist, writing popular astronomy texts for the growing number of people across the country who owned small telescopes. Needless to say, Peltier devoured its contents, conveniently arranged as they were into the 12 months of the astronomical year. It was with this book and the simple charts it contained, that Peltier enjoyed, as the seasons progressed, his virginal sightings of various bright nebulae, open clusters and a rich assortment of double stars. But what really caught his attention was a curious footnote written by Olcott:

Many readers of this book may be fortunate possessors of small telescopes. It may be that they have observed the heavens from time to time in a desultory way and have no notion that valuable and practical scientific research work can be accomplished with a small glass. If those who are willing to aid in the great work of astrophysical research will communicate with the author he will be pleased to outline a most practical and fascinating line of observational work which will enable them to share in the advance of our knowledge respecting the stars. It is work that involves no mathematics and its details are easily mastered.

pp 63

This was dynamite to the young star gazer! How on God’s Earth could he turn down the offer of becoming an “astrophysical researcher?” It had, afterall, a rather exalted ring to it. So he wrote off to Olcott, and to his great relief, the gentleman duly replied, explaining that he, together with seven other active telescopists, had formed the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). Mr. Olcott further added that if Peltier was in possession of a 3 inch or larger telescope, he could join the new organisation!

A 3 inch! Peltier only had a two inch, of course, but after a spell he worked up the courage to apply anyway. Though he spins an interesting yarn on what happened next in his autobiography, this author strongly suspects that the young astronomer deliberately fudged the issue by making the number 2 look like a 3 on the form! Would you shoot him or salute him?

His application was accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history!

Peltier received his first charts from the AAVSO indicating the positions of the target variable stars he was to monitor. The procedure couldn’t be simpler. One would estimate the magnitude of the variable star marked on the charts using nearby stars of fixed magnitude, some brighter and some fainter than the variable under study. But Peltier found, not surprisingly, that this was easier said than done. He first had to find those star fields with a spyglass offering a small field. Using a copy of Upton’s Star Atlas (which served him well for 30 years before dying a tattered death), his maiden surveys were made during the cold nights of February 1918, where he attempted to track down R Leonis. But try as he may, he couldn’t find the correct field for several nights until fortune finally smiled on him on the evening of March 1 1918, when the Strawberry Spyglass first centred Omicron Leonis and moving “a little more than one field to the northeast,” he stumbled upon the little triangle of stars, one of which represented the Mira type variable he was after. Though this author has never looked through Peltier’s 2 inch telescope, it can be deduced that since the distance between Omicron and R Leonis is about 2.3 degrees, his telescope must have offered a true field of about 2 angular degrees; wide enough to monitor many variable stars. This was the first of legion magnitude estimates Peltier was to make and submit to the AAVSO over the decades to come.

By this time, Peltier had dropped out of High School, not because of any premeditated rebellion against his parents or society in general, but out of sheer necessity. Schooling in those days was often interrupted, owing to circumstances beyond his control. His country was at war and his older brother, Kenneth, had enlisted in the army, serving in war ravaged France. Thus, extra duties had to be assigned to him at Brookhaven. But Peltier’s three years of further education were looked back upon with great affection. And like most young people in those days before the relative comfort of the school bus, he had to peddle the 4 mile trip to and from his home in all weathers. Peltier explains in his autobiography how he was particularly captivated by the biology lessons. The school had two microscopes stored under large bell jars to keep the dust at bay, and he was taught the rudiments of cell biology and histology, cutting thin sections with the microtome and staining them with all manner of dyes. He was particularly captivated by the hay infusion; made by adding a handful of hay to a jar of rainwater and letting it stand on a window sill for a few days before a thin veneer of scum would appear on it surface. And though Leslie didn’t have a microscope of his own, he would improvise by using his 60x ocular as a high power magnifying loupe. Placing a drop of this artificial ‘pondwater’ on a pane of glass, he’d run his makeshift microscope across it and was able to make out the skirting antics of myriad ‘animalcules’, charming Paramecia and Colpidia, which, in fact, are just large enough to make out with the naked eye (a personal reminisce from my own childhood) under suitably strong illumination. He writes:

I tried to envision in my mind what an infinite galaxy of worlds our haymow held in bonds of arid dormancy. Surely they must outnumber the countless stars of the sky. I wondered too, how many spyglass lenses had ever watched two such extremes; the microcosmic worlds in water drops and the giant orbs of the Milky Way.

pp 81/2

What an invalubale lesson to learn in life! To gain a true sense of perspective of the very small and the very large, and all from the application of his Strawberry Spyglass!

June 8 1918 was forever etched into the memory of Leslie Peltier, for in the afternoon of that faithful day there was to be a solar eclipse visible across large swathes of the American nation. From Brookhaven it would cover some three quarters of the Sun’s disk. And as luck would have it, the auguries of nature forecast good seeing conditions from the get go. Dawn broke with heavy dew soaking the fields, and the sky presented as cobalt blue, decorated here and there with delicate, fleece white clouds which only added to its comeliness. And, as morning gave way to afternoon, clear skies prevailed.

Peltier moved his makeshift mount to allow him to obtain the best views of the Sun through his 2 inch telescope as it began to sink ever so slowly into the southwestern sky.  And though it was a small instrument, it was a far cry from the apparatus he used to view the only other eclipse he had solemnly witnessed as a young boy.  While at school, some ten years before, his teacher instructed the pupils to flame pieces of window glass so that they would become glazed in a thin layer of soot, allowing the children to safely observe the apparition. This time round however, Peltier resorted to what many other telescopists of the era did; use a thick piece of welder’s glass, which imparted a strong red tint to the solar image.

As the time of first contact approached, he would entertain himself by observing the many sunspots that peppered the disk of our star, and there were many to see on that day, as it was around the time of solar maximum. The eclipse began right on time, and he eagerly drank up the views through his telescope. His keen eye picked up the jagged edges of the Moon silhouetted against the blinding solar furnace, but he was also mindful to observe the surrounding landscape during mid eclipse. He writes:

At mid eclipse I turned away and looked about. Everything I saw, the nearby fields, the distant vistas, all seemed wrapped in some unearthly early twilight. The sky seemed darker; shadows faint and indistinct. A cool wind, almost chilly, had sprung up from the west. The grass beneath the nearby maple now was appliqued with scores of crescent suns, projected there from each small aperture between the leaves above.

pp 93

But an even greater spectacle awaited Peltier as the suns rays fell beneath the horizon later that evening. Thankfully, the skies remained resolutely clear as he set up his Strawberry Spyglass for a night of variable star observing. But as he was clamping his telescope to its mount in the yard, his eyes gazed up to heaven and immediately were met by an intensely bright star that he had never seen before! Located near the bright summer luminary Altair, it was just as brilliant in his estimation. Was this a renegade planet that had strayed far from the ecliptic? Surely not! And Upton’s Star Atlas left him none the wiser. Leslie Peltier had just seen his first nova, a star that had flared up suddenly, increasing its brilliance by a million times or more! Fortunately, he could not claim it as his own, as that honour was bestowed upon the Bangladeshi–Indian amateur, Radha Gobinda Chandra (1878–1975), who had spotted it the evening before with his trusty 3 inch refractor.

It was a mesmerizing sight to Peltier though, and he watched in complete amazement as the star continued to brighten as the night progressed, reaching its peak luminosity on June 9, where the Ohio amateur logged a value of –1.4 in his journals, so about as brilliant as Sirius shines in the winter sky. The official reports published in the days and weeks after Nova Aquila 1918 made its appearance stated that it peaked at –1.5! Peltier continued to monitor the nova as it faded slowly through his telescope for years after that memorable June evening of 1918. Only after 11 years had the star fallen back to its original 12th magnitude.

As the weeks gave way to months and years, Peltier’s stamina for variable star work increased apace. By September 1919, he had amassed hundreds of valuable observations, all of which were published by the AAVSO. But after several years of dedication to his ‘astrophysical researchers,’ it became abundantly clear to his fellow AAVSO peers that here they had a man of extraordinary diligence and talent. But to break new ground he would need a larger telescope and accordingly the organisation offered him the loan of a much more powerful glass; a 4 inch f/15 Mogey refractor with its own equatorially mounted head. The only provisos were that he would employ it as diligently as he had used his own telescope and that he would keep the instrument in good working condition.  Peltier, of course, was only too happy to accommodate the new instrument and so his Strawberry Spyglass was duly retired from active service. It would however continue to occupy a special place in his heart for the remainder of his life.

The author’s previously owned and used 4 inch f/15 achromatic refractor, similar to the 4 inch Mogey presented to Peltier in the autumn of 1919.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just how diligent was Peltier in the scheme of things? The reader of his masterful autobiography will be presented with a clue;

The slowly declining nova and my constantly growing observing list of variable stars kept the 2 inch busily occupied for many months. During the fiscal year of the AAVSO which ended in September 1919 it had watched the stars on a total of 190 nights; more than half the nights of the year.

pp 109

Intriguingly, this claim comports very well with the findings of another equally diligent amateur astronomer living half a world away; William F. Denning (1848-1931), who, like Peltier, lived out almost all his entire life in one place (in this case Bristol, England). This frequency is also supported by the records of the Devon based amateur astronomer Charles Grover. As stated before, this author, for a variety of reasons, has come to trust the records of historical figures more than his own contemporaries. Furthermore, in previously published work (data not shown) this author confirmed that observing opportunities indeed arise far more frequently than is commonly reported by ‘forum culture’.

Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to use a good 4 inch f/15 achromat will tell you that, provided they are appropriately mounted, they are a joy to use! Images are very crisp and sharp at both low and high power, and contrast is excellent. Rest assured, in comparison to his beloved 2 inch telescope, the Mogey would take Peltier’s observations to a whole new level of performance! But to make proper use of it, he had to mount it first. And like with his Strawberry Spyglass before, Peltier set to work building his own.

Unlike the mount for his smaller telescope though, the new arrangement for the larger Mogey would not be transportable. So, he had to carefully plan and select a location in which to permanently situate it. After some deliberation, he decided that it would have to go in the middle of the farm’s cow pasture, which, barring the exception of his grandfather’s maple trees which occluded the lowest 20 degrees of sky to the east, afforded excellent views from horizon to the zenith in all cardinal directions.

One might legitimately ask why a refractor was given to Peltier, when a reflector could do this work equally well. This author suggests that it was the former’s robustness and lack of maintenance which made them ideally suited to these tasks, especially working in all weathers. For example, mirrors needed to be recoated from time to time to enable them to perform at their best. They also required careful collimation. No such provision was needed with refractors though, the object glasses of which were hard to miscollimate and could last for decades and even centuries in comparison. In addition, the revolution wrought by the silver on glass reflector, which had swept the length and breadth of Britain and Europe more broadly, had not yet penetrated so deeply into the American amateur psyche.

Having spent the previous few years using an altazimuth mount with his 2 inch instrument, which entailed moving the ‘scope horizontally as well as vertically,  the equatorial setup, in comparison, would take some getting used to. But he clearly understood its considerable advantages in making his work that little bit easier to carry out. If its rotation axis were accurately pointed at the north celestial pole, it would enable him to accurately track his variable star targets using a single motion. Accordingly, he built a solid pillar on some level ground, then mounted the 4 inch, together with its equatorial head on top. Next, he spent a few clear nights accurately aligning the axis of rotation of the mount with the pole star, which hung 41 degrees above his northern horizon (the latitude of Brookhaven). It took a bit of getting used to, but with enough tinkering he managed to get it working well. Now he was ready for his first light through the 4 inch glass.

Beginning sometime in December 1919, the first part of his maiden voyage with the 4 inch was entirely devoted to sight seeing. In reverence to his 2 inch which was first turned on Vega, so too did he open his observations on this first magnitude star, which by now, had sunk low into the northwestern sky. He writes:

Three years before, on a warm summer evening, she had been the first star for my 2 inch spyglass. In the 4 inch she was almost dazzling, and, after critical focusing, beautifully sharp and clear.

pp 111.

Off he sped to SS Cygni, the irregular variable, which the Mogey could easily show him at magnitude 11.9. Then he took some recreation, paying a visit to his favourite seasonal showpieces. He marvelled at the Ring Nebula, explored the cavernous reaches of the Great Nebula in Orion, with the fetching Trapezium at its epicentre. The Pleaides was a blizzard of stars and, moving into Cygnus, he admired the gorgeous colour contrasts of Albireo. Casting his gaze a little to the southeast, he would have noticed that Chi Cygni, the famous long period variable, was invisible on this occasion. But his knowledge of the sky quickly allowed him to track it down. And there it was, hanging at the precipice of visibility, laid low at magnitude 13! This was a mighty instrument! With it he could gather four times more light and see things twice as finely as his Strawberry Spyglass. In one fell swoop, a whole new sky was opened to him!

Peltier wasted no time using the Mogey, logging in a greater tally of variable stars than ever before and submitting his results to the AAVSO every month. But the open air observatory he had built in the cow pasture was not without its problems. For one thing, he had no choice but to end his observations when the object glass dewed up (for some reason dew caps were not a standard item on early 20th century refractors), requiring him to make not too infrequent retreats indoors to remove the condensation, or on the coldest nights, the hoar frost that invaded the smooth surface of the glass. Still, he was always grateful for the warmth provided by the fire, especially on the most frigid spells. More seriously though, the curious bovines inhabiting the pasture would often use the pillar as a scratching post and this might potentially destabilise structure. A partial solution was arrived at by building a fence around the pillar, which kept the livestock at bay. By the autumn of 1921 though, his father, acknowledging the dedication his son had for his astronomical work, suggested that they build a proper observatory for the Mogey, complete with a rotating dome! This was music to Leslie’s ears and immediately they set to work drawing up plans.

His father, of course, was an accomplished carpenter and builder. After all, he constructed the two story house at Brookhaven where all the Peltier family grew up. They would lay a concrete foundation and erect a rectangular wooden building 14 feet long and 10 feet wide. On top of this they would fit a fully rotatable dome with a diameter of 9 feet. Everyone in the family helped out, as well as Leslie’s school buddy, Gilbert Miller. Erecting the walls presented little problem, but getting the dome to work satisfactorily was somewhat more of a challenge, but eventually they worked out the mechanical bugs by trial and improvement. It goes without saying that Leslie was immensely proud of his new astronomical observatory. The 4 inch Mogey was the centre piece, of course, but now had a desk and chair in situ to record his observations. The dew and frost would also be less of a problem. He did however, admit to missing the sounds of nature that saturated the air around his erstwhile outpost in the open pasture, as well as being able to see the full canopy of the sky and the excitement of witnessing a wild meteor blazing across the sky.

Though he grew fond of the Mogey, it didn’t remain long in his hands. Grateful for all the high quality work he was contributing to the AAVSO, the Director of Princeton Observatory, Henry Norris Russell, wrote Peltier offering him the loan of a 6 inch refractor. Gathering more than twice as much light as the 4 inch, this instrument would allow Peltier to follow his variable stars longer into their cycles, many right down to their minimum. Naturally enough he accepted the instrument but was not entirely prepared for what it would look like. Expecting it to have a tube of the order of 8 feet, he worried that his newly designed observatory might not be able to accommodate the larger telescope. But his fears were allayed when the boxes containing the instrument and its mount arrived from Princeton. Instead of an 8 foot monster, the telescope he received was one of rare pedigree; a 6 inch refractor with a focal length of just 48 inches (4 feet)!

Belisarius; the author’s previously owned 6″ f/8 Synta achromat.

 

 

 

His sense of relief was palpable:

The first box I opened cleared up the mystery and raised my drooping spirits to an all time high for when I removed the strapping and lifted the lid, there before me, a rhapsody in dark mahogany and gleaming brass, lay my new telescope, just four feet long; one foot shorter than the 4 inch. I would not require a head shrinker’s services after all.

pp 125

The exceptionally high quality Istar Persus 6″ f/8 achromat tested in the field by the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After unpacking and assembling the instrument together with its equatorial head, he had to remove the Mogey from the centre of his Universe and have it shipped back to Cambridge from whence it came. After setting it up and taking the instrument for a spin, he came to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument. Vistas like the Double Cluster in Perseus, the star fields around Deneb and Gamma Cygni, as well as those further south in Scutum and Sagittarius were breathtaking through the instrument. It was he insisted, designed for low power sweeping and offered a very generous two degree field. He explains his reasoning thus:

The instrument’s shortcomings were few and of little consequence since, for my observing, I needed no high magnification. For observing the planets, for separating double stars, or any work which requires high powers and critically sharp images, the focal ratio of an objective should be at least f:15, meaning that roughly the length of the scope should be 15 times the diameter. That of my new scope was only f:8.

pp 126

Peltier makes an interesting assertion here. That said, this author, having extensive experience resolving double stars with two different 6” f/8 achromats from the modern era found that their ability to split binary systems was not appreciably affected by their moderate relative apertures. Indeed, both instruments proved to be excellent in this regard. For example, the higher quality Istar unit tested here a few years back even managed to split the sub arc second pair, Lambda Cygni, under excellent seeing conditions, without much difficulty! So, I think Peltier was flatly wrong about double stars for this specification of instrument and there is no evidence from his autobiography that suggests he tested this claim to any appreciable extent. One feels Peltier fell into the trap of following ‘tradition’ rather than testing ‘received wisdom’ thoroughly before arriving at a conclusion.

Of course, a relatively fast doublet like this, derived as it was from the early workshops of the late 19th century, would probably have not operated as well as could be and thus may go some way to explaining his statement. Modern 6 inch f/8 achromatic doublets are, almost certainly, superior to Peltier’s instrument at high power work. I would however agree with the great astronomer in regard to the instrument’s planetary performance. These days, there are much better instruments to be had for less pecuniary outlays than the typical cost of these refractor units; an 8 inch f/6 reflector, for example.

iStar’s 8″ f/5.9 achromatic doublet; very good for low power sweeps. Useless for everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peltier did some research on the pedigree of the 6 inch f/8 telescope in his possession, finding that it was probably of late 19th century design, and originally made as a comet sweeper. Indeed, Zaccheus Daniel, a former student of Princeton University, used the instrument to discover a comet in 1907 and two more in 1909 (1909A and 1909E). Feeling that its distinguished history was all but forgotten, Peltier did something extraordinary:

Rather piqued by such neglect, I vowed that some recording of its earlier deeds, as they were known to me, would now be permanently preserved. I whetted up my pocket knife and on the midriff of that wooden tube I deeply carved the name of Daniel and beneath it cut the date of his three comet catches.

pp 127.

This author was rather taken aback by this gesture. Yes, while there is no doubt Peltier meant well, it was also on loan (see page 124) from Princeton University. So, strictly speaking, it was not within his remit to sanction this act.

But I digress!

It was about this time that Peltier decided to add another string to his bow. As well as using the 6 inch to monitor his variable stars, he would begin the hunt to find comets of his own. The 6 inch telescope was thereafter referred to as the Comet Catcher! But in order to do such work, which involves simple horizontal sweeps of the sky, it would be a great advantage to mount it in altazimuth mode. By now his old school friend, Gilbert Miller, had secured a good job as a draftsman in a local company, and he was able to modify the existing equatorial mount that accompanied the instrument in such a way as to enable it to be used either equatorially (which benefitted his variable star work) or altazimuthly, to optimise his comet sweeps. Problem solved!

It was on Friday November 13 1925 that Peltier struck it rich! Darkness fell early upon the landscape, as it always does at this latitude in November, and it was business as usual for the young astronomer. Off he went to the dome, now having completed five full years of active service, opened the shutters and readied the telescope for what he thought would be a routine night of variable star monitoring complemented by a comet sweep. After visiting R and T Coronae, old familiars of late autumn, he swung the telescope into Bootes, now sinking low in the northwestern sky. Sweeping through the extreme northern edge of the constellation, his 6 inch eye picked up a ghostly blur and moving his gaze downwards Peltier could just make out the faintest traces of a tail. This was a comet alright, and it was barely twenty minutes into his observing schedule! But instead of jumping about like a jackass, he took heir of himself by first making an estimate of its magnitude. Defocusing on a faint field star until its size roughly matched that of the comet, he accurately recorded its brilliance to be of the 9th magnitude. Next, he made a sketch of the object in the field of view using several stars as an aid to identifying its precise location on his atlas. Finally, he returned to the telescope and noted its relatively rapid motion among the fixed stars. It was sprinting south!

Next, he had to communicate the sighting to the hub of all astronomical knowledge; Harvard College Observatory. Preparing his telegram, he wrote: NINTH MAGNITUDE COMET ONE FIVE TWO FIVE NORTH FORTY FOUR DEGREES RAPID MOTION SOUTH. Now that electricity and a telephone line had finally come to Brookhaven, he tried to get through to the telegram office but it had closed for the evening. After getting through to the local operator he was informed that all emergency telegrams could be sent through the signal tower at the Pennsylvania Railway depot but unfortunately there was no way he could be connected directly. Naturally frustrated, he tried to track down his parents, but they had popped out in the car. This telegram just couldn’t wait, so he resolved to get on his bike and peddle his way in the dark to the railway depot several miles distant. Finally, he got there, climbed the steps to the high tower and waited patiently for the operator to tend to his request. At last, the telegram was despatched. There was nothing to do now save to make his way home and begin the long waiting game.

In a cruel twist of fate, the next several days were completely clouded out and thus he hadn’t a ghost of a chance of following the comet’s course into southern skies. All sorts of doubts started to beset him. Was this really a new comet or had someone seen and reported it before him? Did the telegram even get through? Eventually though, an agonising 8 days later, a phone call came through for him from a one Mr. Wahmhoff, the local pharmacist.  Wahmhoff sounded out the telegram he had received from Harvard; Mr. L.C. Peltier of Delphos, Ohio, had indeed discovered a comet and his name would forever be associated with it!

He made his way to the observatory housing the 6 inch, the instrument which had shown him the icy interloper before no other human being had laid eyes on it. And whetting his pen knife, he began to carefully carve its name into the tube: Peltier 1925K.

This was but the first of a total of a dozen comets discovered by his diligent vigils under the stars. The discovery of 1925K brought considerable notoriety to Peltier and he was personally congratulated by many of his astronomical peers; both amateur and professional alike. He also began to receive visitors to Brookhaven; mostly enthusiastic school kids and fellow AAVSO members, but yet remained suspicious of the press, which he felt were exploiting his new–found fame for their own swinish gains.

By his late twenties though, other things began to preoccupy the Ohio stargazer, not least of which was a pretty young brunette, Dorothy(a.k.a. ‘Dottie’) Nihiser, who grew up in the nearby town of Delphos. Dottie attended the same High School and Sunday school as Leslie, but being ten years his younger, their paths naturally never crossed that often whilst growing up. All that changed in 1925 however, when Leslie took up temporary employment as a stock clerk in a motor truck factory, which necessitated him driving into town every day.  And it wasn’t long before the pair became reacquainted with each other. Dottie was then in High School but was an excellent student who went on to study at Ohio’s Wesleyan’s University. They began dating in 1928 and were married on  November 25 1933.

Like Leslie, Dottie was a keen amateur naturalist and, in what can only be described as a beautiful honeymoon (described at length in Peltier’s autobiography), the happy couple took off on a journey of exploration to the American Southwest in their beat up 1929 Ford Sedan, camping here and there along the way. The next nine months were to be the happiest in Peltier’s life, visiting the wilds of Texas, with its rugged mountains, canyons, great rivers and desert trails.

Peltier was deeply impressed with the great natural beauty of this American wilderness, which he revered as a kind of ‘geological Mecca’ of the young nation. Back then, the skies here were utterly pristine and, as he later admitted, were in a completely different league to those he enjoyed back in rural Ohio. It was on this trip that he first caught site of the brilliant star Canopus, the brightest luminary of the far southerly constellation of Carina. Small wonder, he noted, why so many first-rate astronomical observatories were springing up all over the region.

This extended honeymoon to the Southwest was possibly inspired by a trip the courting couple took to Mount Locke in Western Texas a few years earlier, during February of 1931, where they hooked up with the Belgian–born astronomer, Dr. Van Biesbroeck (Van B.), who was, at that time, a staff astronomer at Yerkes Observatory, overlooking Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Accompanying them on the trip was the Comet Catcher, the mahogany tube of which was now replaced by a much lighter tube fashioned from rolled metal. Indeed, this new tube served him well for the remainder of his life.

At the summit of Mt. Locke, 7000 feet above the surrounding plains, the telescope provided some charming deep sky views of the southern sky, but Peltier always wondered whether Dr. Van B. would truly appreciate them, given his familiarity with much larger instruments. Here, a full 1.3 miles above sea level, he noticed how the stars hardly twinkled at all owing to the more rarefied air at high altitude. But it wasn’t so much the stars that captivated the couple on Mt. Locke that evening, so much as the deafening silence permeating the place. He writes:

The impression that I will longest remember of the night on Mt. Locke had nothing to do with sharp stellar images or the new stars I saw in the south. It was, instead, the feeling I had, while all alone in the darkness, of complete and utter detachment from all the rest of the world. There was absolutely no sound. Earlier that evening Van B. had called this to our attention by asking us to remain perfectly still for a moment and “listen to the silence.” We listened in vain for there was nothing up there to make a sound. It was winter and there was no nocturnal bird or insect sounds. There was no hum of wires, no rustle of leaves, no sigh of wind. The mountaintop was a silent wonder.

pp 168/9

A view of McDonald Observatory from highway TX-118. Mt. Fowlkes is on the left while Mt. Locke is on the right. The dome of the Hobby–Eberly Telescope is visible on Mt. Fowlkes while the domes of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope and Otto Struve Telescope are visible on Mt. Locke. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

For the next three years, the couple took up home on the Peltier estate, in Leslie’s grandfather’s cabin, situated on the opposite side of the cow pasture and so about equidistant from the domed observatory. The accommodation proved adequately roomy and comfortable while it lasted.  And it was here that their son, Stanley, was born. But their circumstances changed when Leslie’s paternal uncle, who was the original occupier of  grandfather’s house, returned to Brookhaven together with his aunt. The young family had no choice but to seek new lodgings. What’s more, his job at the truck factory folded but he soon found another one, this time, as a designer in the Delphos Bending Company.

It wasn’t long before they successfully rented a home in town, conveniently near his new employment. But since there was no easy access to his telescope, he had to totally rethink his way forward. His solution was as ingenious as it was simple; enter Peltier’s now famous Merry Go Round Observatory, the inspiration for which came to him whilst idly swivelling in an office chair at his work. In essence, it was a one roomed structure, with the objective end protruding into the outside air, and the ocular end positioned inside. He would sit in a renovated leather upholstered car seat, the height of which could be adjusted, and the entire structure could be rotated through 360 degrees simply by turning a wheel. Another wheel allowed smooth movements in altitude. Needless to say the structure worked like a dream, allowing him to bag several more comets as well as making thousands of additional variable star measures.  Expressing his pride in the design of the Merry Go Round Observatory Peltier wrote:

When in 1948 the giant 200 inch telescope on Mt. Palomar finally swung into action the press made much of the story that, when used at its prime focus, the observer, for the first time in history, would ride with the telescope. I gloated just a little over this, for by then I had been riding with my telescope for eleven years, and furthermore, I had not blocked out a single ray of light while doing it.

pp 178/9.

By now, Peltier was unquestionably one of the most dedicated star gazers in history, with a correspondingly encyclopedic knowledge of the night sky, so it was inevitable that he would discover more things in heaven than a dozen icy comets. Indeed, his name is also forever associated with five guest stars that made their explosive appearance in the skies over Ohio, just like the one he witnessed with his Strawberry Spyglass on that faithful night of June 8 1918. The reader can learn of these discoveries in Chapter 23 of Starlight Nights, but what piqued this author’s attention was his discussion of other types of visitors; what we have come to call ‘UFOs’ and ‘little green men’.

Intriguingly, Peltier declares that despite spending more time under the stars than arguably anyone else on Earth, he never once saw such objects. Indeed, he called the 1950s a period of ‘mass psychosis’. He remembers receiving numerous phone calls over the years from folk who saw strange things in the sky. In a humorous exchange, Peltier does however recount a curious incident during which, for a brief few moments, he himself was duped, only to later discover that his ‘flying saucers’ were nothing more than a flock of Canada Geese flying southward for the winter! In the end though, he maintained a healthy scepticism concerning whether such beings could really exist, despite the vastness of the Universe that he explored each clear night with his telescope. He was, afterall, too much of a Christian to go ‘a whoring after other gods’, as the Biblical narrative phrases it.

The 1940s brought its fair share of changes for the Peltiers. They were busier than ever. Leslie still had his full time job. Their second son, Gordon, arrived on the scene, while Stanley enrolled in the town’s kindergarten. Both Dottie and Leslie became actively involved in the local church, with its garden fetes and the training of a new generation of cub scouts. There was also an uprooting. The owners of the premises they rented in town notified the family that they intended to move back in, which meant that they had to search for a brand new home once again. After looking at one or two properties, they settled on a twelve acre estate, called the Old Moenning Place, which they bought outright. A fine, large house, already over a century old, it had seven large rooms with grand, high ceilings. More than 40 species of tree inhabited the various parts of the land that attended the homestead and it was conveniently located on the western edge of town, which meant that not much of the smog and dust from the various industries would accumulate on the premises or in the skies above, owing to the prevailing westerly winds that blew across the grounds. Though it was quite a task, involving several years of regular work during each spring and summer, the family slowly transformed the grounds into a picturesque natural haven of ‘cultivated wildness’ and it was appropriately renamed New Brookhaven.

Peltier selected a spot, some 100 yards north of the house, where his Merry Go Round Observatory was rehoused. And though there was minimal light pollution here owing to some distant lamp posts, the trees were quite effective at blocking it ought. Indeed, so confident was he that this would be his final abode, Peltier had a new, solid concrete foundation laid to support the observatory. But in the middle of the summer of 1959, Peltier got yet another offer, this time, of a truly gigantic telescope; a 12 inch Clark refractor to be precise, complete with its own observatory, transit room and, as Peltier himself put it, “all the trimmings!”

The instrument and its massive equatorial mount was originally constructed back in 1868 by Alvan Clark & Sons and used by Professor J.M. Van Vleck at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, but was later purchased by Miami University, Oxford, Ohio in 1922. But over the years, the observatory in which it was housed fell into disuse as more and more buildings were erected when the campus expanded. By the time Peltier was contacted by the University, it was completely boxed in! When he made a visit to the observatory, Peltier found the telescope objective was completely covered in dust, with a small chip at the egde which was partially covered by the retaining ring. “Old telescopes never die,” he wrote, “they are just laid away. There is little about a telescope that can deteriorate and the lens, the vital organ, even though a century old, can still have all the fire and sparkle of its youth.” pp 232

Because of Peltier’s great acts of philanthropy for the community of Delphos, he was held in very high esteem, and he was fortunate enough to have a boss who was capable of orchestrating such an enormous task of transporting the giant telescope, its imposing dome and octagonal walls from Miami back Delphos, a distance of 125 miles. Peltier had selected a site on his own premises for the new observatory, somewhat further north of his Merry Go Round. The dome, which was 22 feet in diameter and 11 feet high, had to be sawn in two.  The eight sided walls holding it up also had to be dismantled and the components moved individually. Needless to say, it was a massive engineering undertaking but he had an army of loyal friends, who were only too willing to lend a hand in its reconstruction. His two grown sons also put their back into the project and Dottie provided refreshments for all. His fellow AAVSO members, Don and Carolyn Hurless, based in Lima, Ohio, elected to do the painting and decorating of the inside of the new observatory. And, as stated previously, since the Peltier’s never wasted anything, some of the materials from the original dome he had built all those years ago with his father, were also incorporated into the new structure.

Before mounting the telescope, Peltier did some makeshift star testing on it but found the images to be unsatisfactory, only to subsequently discover that one of the elements had been fitted the wrong way round at some time in the past. But with a bit of help from his academic contacts, he was able to rectify this problem quickly. The 12 inch doublet achromat had a focal length of 15 feet 7 inches (relative aperture 15.6) and Peltier himself was delighted with the images it rendered as he took it on a grand tour of the heavens. He writes;

Since finally settling into its new home the 12 inch has done its level best to show off its accomplishments and as yet I have not ceased to marvel at the wonders it reveals. Star clusters such as M 13 in Hercules and M11 in Scutum are gorgeous quite beyond description, and these are only two among a host of these far away star cities whose sparkling street lights seem to wind and twist about until they fade out in the distance. A favourite of mine is known as NGC 4565, the edge on spiral galaxy in Coma Berenices. Still another is the weird and ghostly Ring Nebula in Lyra with its faint and difficult hot blue star in the center of the ring. M42 the Great Nebula in Orion, is breath taking in its sharply defined bright and dark nebular cloud forms. All of these celestial showoffs I had seen hundreds of times before in my other telescopes, but with the 12 inch, everything that before had been vague and elusive was now sharp and clear. It was pleasant to make their acquaintance all over again.

pp 221.

This was the last telescope Peltier would use regularly in his nightly vigils and it served its purposes very well. Where the Comet Catcher barely reached magnitude 14 on the best nights, the 12 inch took over, registering stars fully two magnitudes fainter. Its prowess was amply borne out when he, Don and Carolyn followed the slow fading of a supernova in one of the faint spiral galaxies inhabiting the Virgo cluster, which remained completely invisible in the 6 inch. Indeed, for the remainder of his career, the time divested on each instrument was 50:50. Indeed they perfectly complemented each other!

In the autumn of his life, Peltier, like so many lovers of the night sky, lamented the march of ‘progress’, especially in regard to the growing problem of light pollution. He concludes:

The moon and the stars no longer come to the farm. The farmer has exchanged his birthright in them for the wattage of an all night sun. His children will never know the blessed dark of night.

pp 224

Crowned by Dr. Harlow Shapley as “the world’s greatest non professional astronomer,” over a span of six decades, Peltier contributed an incredible 132,000 variable star observers to the AAVSO. Actually, from the time he joined the AAVSO aged 18, he never once missed sending in his monthly report This he could add to his tally of a dozen comets and 6 nova ( four with his naked eye!) finds. Asteroid 3850 was also named in his honour. In 1947, Peltier received an honorary doctorate from Bowling Green State University. In 1965, a Californian mountain, the site of Ford Observatory, was named Mt. Peltier to commemorate his achievements, and in 1975 he finally received his honorary high school diploma from Delphos Jefferson High School. Peltier died of a heart attack on May 10 1980, aged 80 years. Those who knew him unanimously declared that the man described in Starlight Nights was one and the same as the real Leslie Peltier. Having absorbed this engaging work of prose, this author sees no grounds to disbelieve it!

Recommended reading for all astronomers and those who lament the bucolic days before city sprawl and light pollution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix:

                                                              Comets Discovered by Leslie Peltier

Comet                Date of Discovery

1925d                      13.11.1925

1930a                      20.02.1930

1932K                      08.08.1932

1933a                      16.02.1933

1936a                      15.05. 1936

1937c                       27.02.1937

1939a                       19.01.1939

1943b                       19.09. 1943

1944a                       17.12 1944

1945f                         24.11.1945

1952d                        20.06.1952

1954d                        29.06. 1954

 

Some other sources of interest

https://www.aavso.org/leslie-c-peltier

http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1980JAVSO…9…32H/0000032.000.html

 

Dr. Neil English is author of many books on amateur and professional telescopes and has been a regular contributor to Britain’s Astronomy Now magazine for over 20 years. He is currently completing an ambitious historical work; Tales from the Golden Age of Astronomy, chronicling the lives of visual observers over four centuries since the invention of the telescope, which is to be published in the spring of 2018.

 

De Fideli.

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