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Ingenuity and Legacy: Clyde Tombaugh’s Remarkable Telescope

Clyde Tombaugh stands by his 9-inch telescope on the family farm in Burdette, Kansas, in 1928.

This past July, the Heritage Auction House listed a lot consisting of several items of historic interest. Among a saucer once owned by Martha Washington, a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s hair, and a handwritten manuscript from a portion of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro opera was a 9-inch telescope that might best be described as rustic. Assembled of a variety of bolted-together mechanical parts that would otherwise not be associated with each other except perhaps in a scrap pile, this Frankenstein of telescopes nevertheless drew the attention of Lowell Observatory. So much so that the philanthropy department aggressively collected pledges from donors around the world, and Lowell ultimately put in the winning bid.

Why would such a pedestrian item be associated with such treasures, and why did Lowell’s philanthropy department enter the world of auctions to obtain it? Well, the telescope dates to 1927-’28 and was built by Clyde Tombaugh, who soon would be hired by Lowell Observatory and discover Pluto. Ok, the connection to Tombaugh is significant, but he built several telescopes in his lifetime, including one mounted on the base of a push mower and nicknamed the “grazer gazer.” Why did this one draw such attention?

One reason is because it exquisitely captures the passion and creativity of Tombaugh. Working on his family’s Kansas farm, he did not have extra funds to buy such non-essential items as telescopes. But he was so enthusiastic about exploring the night sky that he did not let a lack of funding get in his way. Instead of money, he used good old-fashioned ingenuity to get what he wanted. He gathered several old farm machinery parts lying around the farm and created his own device. Piecing together such items as a grain auger, cream separator base, fly wheel, and the axle from an early-model Buick automobile, he built a 9-inch telescope that looked unlike any other in the world.

Of course, Tombaugh was not as much interested in how the telescope looked as how it looks. Was it of good optical quality, allowing him to explore the heavens in detail? It turns out it was, and he soon made detailed drawings of planets and other features of the night sky. He became so proficient that he decided to send his handiwork to professional astronomers to see how his work rated. Being familiar with the planetary studies of Lowell Observatory (one of his heroes growing up, in fact, was observatory founder Percival Lowell), he sent drawings of Jupiter and Mars to the Flagstaff-based research center. In a splendid example of perfect timing, observatory Director Vesto Slipher was just then looking for someone to help with the reenergized search for Percival Lowell’s predicted ninth planet. Slipher liked Tombaugh’s drawings and hired the 23-year-old farmer; within a year he discovered Pluto.

The 9-inch telescope was thus a vital step along Tombaugh’s pathway to the discovery of Pluto. While the 13-inch Lawrence Lowell (Pluto Discovery) Telescope is the tool that Tombaugh used to make the discovery, the 9-inch helped pave his way to getting hired at Lowell in the first place. And while the 13-inch captures the spirit of the discovery itself, the 9-inch captures the spirit of the man who made the discovery. And that’s why Heritage Auction House grouped the telescope with other items of intrinsic historic interest, and why Lowell’s philanthropy department, particularly Sherry Shaffer with help from Rachel Edelstein, fervently collected pledges so the telescope could find its rightful home at Lowell Observatory.

In September, Ralph Nye loaded the 9-inch telescope on a trailer and took it to his home shop, where he will refurbish it.

*Lowell Observatory will put the 9-inch telescope on permanent display in 2023. Staff will also occasionally capture the spirit of Clyde Tombaugh and set up the telescope for viewing. To prepare the 9-inch for its new life, the observatory has hired a former telescope designer/engineer—none other than Ralph Nye, whose last major work at Lowell before retiring involved refurbishing the Pluto Discovery Telescope.