Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997) « Michael Byers

Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997)

Lowell Observatory staff astronomer
Discovered Planet X, later called Pluto

Born in Streator, Illinois, Clyde Tombaugh moved to Burdett, Kansas, with his family in 1922. The Tombaughs were tenant farmers. After Clyde finished high school he worked his family farm in the company of his father and brothers. In the emptiness of Kansas, Clyde took up the hobby of telescope manufacture after reading an article in Popular Mechanics. While he hoped to save enough money to attend the University of Kansas, fate – and the vagaries of the farmer’s lot – prevented this. Despondent, wanting out of Kansas, and apparently without options, Clyde wrote to V.M. Slipher, Director of Lowell Observatory, asking for advice. To Clyde’s surprise, Slipher invited him to come work in Flagstaff on a provisional basis. There, Clyde’s meticulous nature and willingness to do anything made him an invaluable asset during the painstaking work the Planet X search required.

While he waits for his mirror to be returned from Wichita, he builds the housing for the telescope. The ten-minute drive south to Burdett for supplies takes him past a dozen tenanted farms. It is flat here, almost exactly flat. A mile from town the first shabby houses appear: hard-packed yards under the sunstruck vacancy. Laundry plunging on the lines. A girl runs a wild circle around a fresh stump while her brother looks on from where he sits atop it like a cat, full of opinion but saying nothing. Then he comes to the railroad tracks and the tiny depot, where the baggage cart stands casting its shadow on the unpopulated platform.

The dirt road turns to brick. Now the houses are separated from one another by fences, and the shade of the elms reaches deep into the green yards. Here is the Lutheran Church, blazing white in the sun. Paint is peeling, as it always is, from the sign in the churchyard, and in his mind Clyde scrapes it away once and for all. Main Street is a row of low shopfronts. At the far end of Main Street stands the Masonic Hall, three stories of concrete, the flag flying. Clyde parks in front of Zeebe’s Hardware. He sets his hat on his head and ducks into the store. It is cooler inside, the fans turning up near the ceiling.

“Another telescope, Clyde,” says Bill Zeebe.

“Looks like it,” he answers.

But a good one this time.