Kicking it Old School

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 19, 2008 1:49 pm

Google is now serving up more than a hundred years of photographs from Life Magazine. The pictures of the early days of astronomy are just spectacular. The archives contain images of many astronomers who were critical figures in the development of the field, but who have yet to have telescopes named after them. A large fraction of them also seemed to smoke pipes.

A huge hero of mine is Walter Baade. Baade was the guy who essentially took over observations at Mt Wilson during the blackouts of WWII. With the lights of Los Angeles snuffed out, and unable to serve in the military himself, he pushed the telescopes on Mt Wilson to their limits, and established the study of stellar populations in nearby galaxies.


There are some terrific pictures of Walter Adams working at Mt Wilson. In the picture below, he’s holding the telescope controls used for guiding. During an astronomical observation, you have to move the telescope to compensate for the earth’s rotation. Nowadays, your computer can take care of it by adjusting the position to keep a bright star at a fixed position on a CCD camera. Back then, you looked through a little spotting scope, and manually adjusted the telescope position to keep it pointed at the right part of the sky. If you let it drift, your image would be blurry. No pee breaks for you, Dr. Adams!


The guy kneeling in the figure below is Gerard Kuiper, working on a telescope at McDonald Observatory. He was a planetary astronomer, and the guy for whom the “Kuiper Belt” in the outer solar system was named, although Edgeworth probably deserved more credit for it. (Kuiper actually does have an airborne observatory named after him).


And you have to love this picture of Frank Drake, working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank West Virginia. You really can never have enough toggle switches. FYI, Drake is the guy behind the “Drake Equation”, used to estimate the likelihood of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.


And finally, a wonderful overhead shot of the 100″ telescope at Mt. Wilson

Mt Wilson overhead

The pictures above are a tiny fraction of the available pictures of working scientists. Cancel your afternoon appointments and dive in.

  • NGC3314

    I should point out that there is a Baade telescope (and quite rightly, too). I keep wondering when the world will be ready for the Zwicky space telescope… Oh yeah, do I remember manual guiding!

  • changcho

    Very nice pictures, thanks. I should point out that the ‘Kuiper’ belt is, sometimes (not enough, imho) also called the Kuiper-Edgeworth belt. Also, the Kuiper airborne observatory (KAO) is no longer in use; it is the observatory used to discover the rings of Uranus, if I recall correctly.

  • Eugene

    Ah yes, God created the Universe. Baade doubled it.

  • Yvette

    I was lucky enough to meet Frank Drake this summer through my REU program, he gave us students a tour around Lick Observatory. Really neat to see a place like that with a guy who’s seen so much!

  • Tod R. Lauer

    I believe that’s Walter Adams guiding the 100″, not Baade.

  • Julianne

    Indeed — text is for the picture below!

    I had to do hand guiding at Las Campanas, back in the day. The device was known as “El Gancho!” (said con gusto).

  • Jonathan Lubin

    Of course, it’s not a hundred years of photos from the pages of Life, which was founded as a photo-journal only in Nov. 1936.

  • Bill

    I loved the picture with the big gear. 😎

    19th and early 20th Century technology is simply beautiful;
    and besides, you can see how it works.

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  • Neil B

    First, just a slight clarification that the telescope does automatically move along with the Earth’s rotation, just not perfectly enough for a good photo – hence the hand guiding and now CCD. As for pipes etc, I remember hearing that at one observatory the spectroscopy kept showing unexplained phosphorous lines in the stars. They found out later, it was from the astronomer lighting his pipe. I don’t think this is apocryphal despite it not being obvious how the match light made it into the spectrometer (cracks in the sides, who knows, and the match is fairly bright.)

  • Julianne

    Neil — The story about the matches is true. For a while there was a class of objects known as “potassium flare stars”.

    There’s a little story about it in Time here.

  • Robert V Sobczak

    Those were the days. You realize they are posing for those photos. We recently did an article in a natural sciences journal, and we had to stage a sampling event. It took dozens of takes to get it right. I’m sure those old time scientists were no different.

  • Julianne

    Robert — it’s always obvious in the telescope photos, because the lights are on!

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  • Alex

    This website has many great pictures. I can’t resist pointing out this one of Einstein’s blackboard, which I believe was taken shortly after his death in 1955:

  • Niteskygirl

    The photo of the men around the computer system ..
    As an astronomer I can honestly say ..
    Amazing how we went from room sized chunks of computer machinery to laptop size isn’t it !!! I can’t imagine working on those monsters compared to small sized ‘ universe in your lap ‘ laptops .

    WHAT A FASCINATING BLOG TO READ! Just discovered it , a reader of my astronomy blog sent this link to me , a keeper, I enjoy it .

  • Niteskygirl

    forgot to add my site , click my name

  • Gene Milone

    Great photo of Walter Baade. For the benefit of younger astronomers: the instrument he is using is the blink comparator, the premier device for detecting variable stars as well as objects with large proper motion.

  • Pingback: The Man Who Observes the Universe Smokes Viceroys | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Tim Jones

    For more historical images of McDonald Observatory please see our web site at These can be used for publication purposes with credit.

  • Haelfix

    I’d love to hear recordings from back then while an observation was going on. Hours upon hours of the same thing, ad nauseum. It takes a strong personality to overcome the tedium for the sake of science, and I bet the dialogue would have been entertaining.

    A bored scientist is a candidate fifth force.

  • Andrew

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