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Founding of Lowell Documented in Correspondence

Naming Lowell Observatory

Telegram in which Percival Lowell informs Andrew Douglass of the name for his new observatory.

For several years archivists at Lowell Observatory have been digitizing historic records. The most recent effort focuses on correspondence between Percival Lowell and Andrew Douglass that documents the founding of the observatory.

Bostonian Percival Lowell first became interested in astronomy when at the age of three he saw a comet. He went on to study mathematics at Harvard and then worked for the family business for several years. After spending a decade in the Orient, he returned to the United States in 1893. He now decided he would return to his passion of astronomy, and in a big way. With a fascination for Mars and the possibility of life there, he decided to build his own astronomical observatory to study the Red Planet. He wanted a place removed from eastern U.S. cities, where factory smoke and electric lights blotted out stars and planets. A dry climate and high elevation were also ideal, all characteristics of certain areas in the American Southwest.

The Lowell Expedition

Lowell thus decided to finance an expedition to Arizona to find a site. He would not go himself, but instead hired a young astronomer named Andrew Douglass to carry out the work. Traveling alone, Douglass was to visit various sites in Arizona, carrying with him a six-inch telescope of Lowell’s. Douglass also took instruments to gauge atmospheric conditions. Based on these observations, Lowell would then choose the ideal site for his observatory.

Douglass left Boston on February 28 and arrived in Arizona on March 7. He then spent the next six weeks testing potential sites around the territory. In all, he visited 14 locales in Tombstone, Tucson, Tempe, Prescott and Flagstaff. He tested four sites alone in Flagstaff–the mesa just west of town that overlooked the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company (Site 11), a hill near A1 Ranch lying six miles northwest of town (Site 12), Elden “Mesa” (Site 13) and Wing Mountain (Site 14). Lowell chose Site 11, but he directed Douglass to set up  operations ½ mile to the north of the actual test site. The hillside was not as steep at this modified locale and was thus more conducive to building a road.

During the site-testing expedition, Douglass exchanged telegrams and letters with Lowell. Douglass reported on atmospheric, astronomical, and other conditions at the various sites. Lowell responded with appropriate instructions for Douglass. Taken together the correspondence makes for a lively read and reveals a lot about the two men and the nature of scientific pursuits.

More than 125 years later, Lowell archivists gathered this correspondence and used it as the basis for a collection of documents about the founding of the observatory. The collection is part of the Arizona Memory Project, an open-source site.