Science with a History
The wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell established Lowell Observatory in 1894. Percival came from a distinguished eastern family – his brother Abbott was president of Harvard for 24 years, his three sisters included the poet Amy; Elizabeth, who married William Lowell Putnam, the great grandfather of our current trustee; and Katharine, who married Alfred Roosevelt, a relative of Theodore.
Percival graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After spending six years working for his grandfather and 10 years in the Orient, he decided in 1894 to build an observatory initially to study the planet Mars.
Through the years, the Observatory has been home to many discoveries, including the first detection of the expanding nature of the universe, the discovery of Pluto, moon mapping for the Apollo program to the moon, the rings of Uranus, atmosphere of Pluto, and scores of others.
Because of the significant scientific and cultural heritage of Lowell Observatory, it has been recognized as a Registered National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, an Arizona Treasure by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, and included by First Lady Hillary Clinton in her Save America’s Treasures program. In 2011 Time magazine named Lowell one of “The World’s 100 Most Important Places.”
In 2014 Lowell Observatory took a major step toward ensuring this heritage is preserved by opening the Putnam Collection Center. This facility will ultimately house the Observatory’s vast collection of documents and artifacts. Some of these treasures include correspondence with such luminaries as Einstein and Hubble, Percival Lowell’s cherished Mars globes, one of the original Pluto discovery plates, and Percival Lowell’s 1911 Stevens-Duryea automobile.
Lowell welcomes researchers from around the world interested in using the collections for historical research.
Image of America: Lowell Observatory
A new book about the history of Lowell Observatory was just released as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. Written by Lowell Historian Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory consists of more than 200 pictures and captions. Lowell Observatory highlights the rich legacy of Lowell Observatory—its scientists, their groundbreaking research, and the tools they used to both advance the field of astronomy and popularize the excitement of space to the general public.
Atop a mesa one mile west of downtown Flagstaff, Arizona, sits Lowell Observatory, an astronomical research facility steeped in tradition. Percival Lowell, scion of a Boston Brahmin family, initially established his observatory in 1894 to study the possibility of intelligent life on Mars. Lowell widely popularized his controversial theories, sparking debate among both the scientific community and lay public. In the following years, the observatorys astronomers made several discoveries that dramatically altered our understanding of space, including Clyde Tombaughs discovery of Pluto in 1930 and V.M. Sliphers detection of the expanding nature of the universe in 1912. Decades later, Apollo astronauts visited as part of their training to fly to the moon. These stories and others offer a glimpse of the scientific discovery, community pride, and personal triumph that define Lowell Observatory.