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A Brief History of a Legendary Telescope

Newly refurbished Clark telescope. Image Credit: Sarah Conant
Newly refurbished Clark telescope. Image Credit: Sarah Conant
Newly refurbished Clark telescope. Image Credit: Sarah Conant

In 1895, Lowell Observatory founder Percival Lowell commissioned the Alvan Clark & Sons Firm of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts to build a state-of-the-art 24-inch refracting telescope. Since completion of the project the following year, the telescope has been in regular use to view the heavens and help unravel the wonders of the universe. The facility is now undergoing a renovation requiring disassembly of the telescope and replacement of parts no longer functioning properly.

The Clark Telescope is one of seven structures listed in the Observatory’s 1964 Registered National Historic Landmark designation. In 1999, First Lady Hillary Clinton recognized Lowell Observatory and, specifically, the Clark, as a site worthy of preservation as part of her Save America’s Treasures program.

Percival Lowell initially used the telescope to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars, research that brought worldwide attention to Lowell Observatory. Percival’s elegant writings about his research, based on observations made with the Clark Telescope, inspired the work of both scientists, such as rocket expert Robert Goddard, and writers, including science fiction icons H.G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Later generations used the Clark Telescope to study double planets, moons, comets, and more. Of particular note, V.M. Slipher revolutionized our understanding of space with his observations of the expanding nature of the universe. He made these fundamental discoveries while using the Clark Telescope in conjunction with an instrument called a spectrograph, a device astronomers use to not only determine the composition of celestial objects, but also detect their line-of-site-motion.

In the 1960s, a team of scientists and artists used the Clark Telescope to create detailed maps of the moon in support of America’s manned voyages to the moon. Apollo astronauts studied these maps and some even used the Clark Telescope for part of their training to go to the moon.

By the 1980s, education replaced research as the primary use of the Clark Telescope. Since then, more than two million guests have had the opportunity to enjoy the telescope by joining daytime historic tours or viewing celestial objects during the evening. In 2013, 75,000 people — including 7,500 school children — visited the facility.

In 2012, Lowell launched our Kids Camp for 1st-6th grade students and in 2013 added Tykes Camp for 3–5 year-olds. We are now planning an ambitious long-range plan to establish the Observatory as a center for STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. The Clark Telescope is critical to the long-term success of these endeavors.

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