LOWELL’s 15 cm Refractor in 1892


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As LOWELL’s infatuation with the Far East began to wane, his boyhood interest in astronomy came once more to the foreground. It was premonitory of the change in direction his career was about to take that on his last voyage to Japan, in late 1892, he carried with him a 6-inch (15-cm) Clark refractor, which he used to observe Saturn from his Tokyo residence – Mars being neglected only because it was already past opposition by that time.

……….William SHEEHAN

A 15 cm Alvan Clark refractor in Tokyo:  The final grand opposition of Mars in the 19th Century occurred on 4 August 1892: The planet was closest to the Earth on 6 August with the maximal diameter 24.8 arcsecs. The season was about λ=230Ls. Percival LOWELL so missed to catch the Great Mars observing bus when he made his fourth and final landing at Yokohama on 23 December 1892 though he carried with him a 15 cm Alvan Clark refractor as described as above by Bill SHEEHAN in “The Planet Mars – A History of Observation and Discovery” (The University of Arizona Press, 1996, p103). On 23 December 1892, the angular diameter of the planet was already down to 8.1 arcsecs (λ=315Ls), and the planet just shined low near the evening horizon. According to Toshio SATO, LOWELL really set up his Clark refractor in the garden of his residence at Akasaka, Tokyo, but seemed to lament the poor seeing at Tokyo in winter time.


Percival was yet interested in the Japanese Occultism: He gave a series of lectures in Tokyo to the Asian Society of Japan in 1893 on the theme (later published as Occult Japan in 1895; the famous book disliked by Lafcadio HEARN, but referred to by William JAMES), and also visited the Ise Shrine, the most distinguished and revered out of all Shinto shrines in Japan. On 24 November 1893, Percival LOWELL left for ever Japan from Yokohama on board the Oceanic (having a voyage record of 13 days, 14 hours and 5 minutes to cross between Yokohama and San Francisco. Retired however in 1896). The planet Mars was approaching, but its angular diameter was under 4 arcsecs yet. Mars was bound to be closest to the Earth on 13 October 1894 with the maximal angular diameter 21.7 arcsecs.


What became of the 15 cm refractor?  Early in 1894, LOWELL contacted with the PICKERING brothers in Harvard about the plan of the Arizona expedition to look for the suitable observing site (to be also suitable for ladies and not to be attacked by Indians): W H PICKERING and A E DOUGLASS, the latter once PICKERING’s assistant in Arequipa, Peru, received a leave of absence from the Harvard Observatory to support Percival from 1 March 1894. And by the first week of March, DOUGLASS got on board a westbound train together with the 15 cm Clark refractor as described by SHEEHAN as follows:


Douglass was sent west in early March to scout out sites, taking along the 6-inch refractor Lowell had used in Japan. With this instrument he planed to test the seeing, using a ten-point scale developed by Pickering at Arequipa that was based on the appearance of bright star’s diffraction disk and rings. Douglass arrived in Tombstone by March 8 and tested the seeing there, then went on to Tucson, Tempe, and Phoenix in southern Arizona before veering north to Prescott and Ash Fork. Finally he came to Flagstaff, on the main Santa Fe Railroad line to California. The altitude at this site (7,000ft, or 2,100m) on the Coconino Plateau appealed to Lowell ……… . Thus Lowell, on April 16, decided to build the observatory in Flagstaff. (Bill SHEEHAN, op cit page 105).


Also refer to W G HOYT, “Lowell and Mars” (Arizona Univ Press, 1976) on this point (another detailed description on page 32). See also an interesting description by SHEEHAN (op cit, p106). LOWELL and W PICKERING arrived at Flagstaff on 28 May 1894, and they started to observe the early morning planet Mars from 31 May by the use of a 30 cm refractor, and from 1 June by making use of a 45 cm Brashear refractor, both borrowed from Harvard. On 1 June 1894, the angular diameter of the planet was still 8.8 arcsecs, and the season was around λ=215Ls. The planet was at opposition on 20 October (and closest on 13 October 1894 with 21.7 arcsecs as aforementioned).


Where can we then find the 15cm Clark refractor at present?  This question was raised many years ago by Sho-ichi ITOH, an old astronomical friend of one of us (MURAKAMI): ITOH visited first the Lowell Observatory in December 1982 to find that the telescope was nothing but the finder one attached to the famous 61 cm refractor which was also fashioned by Alvan Graham CLARK. The first photo here shows the cover of David STRAUSS’s book “PERCIVAL LOWELL – The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin” (Harvard Univ Press, 2001) in which Professor STRAUSS employed an old photograph which displays the inside of the famous dome at Mars Hill. The photo really proves a presence of the 15 cm refractor together with Percival LOWELL himself drawing something at the eyepiece of the 61 cm refractor. The 61 cm Clark refractor was set up in July 1896. In 1896 the planet was at opposition on 11 December (closest on 4 December with the maximal diameter 16.7 arcsecs).


Sho ITOH visited again Flagstaff in July 1986, and also in October 1999. He recently made a fourth visit to Mars Hill to produce some pictures inside the dome on 4 or 5 August 2002: The following photographs show here the 15 cm refractor by courtesy of ITOH: Two of the photos clearly show the refractor was produced in 1892 by Alvan Clark & Sons, and so it was very new when it was brought to Tokyo. ITOH presented these photos on the occasion of a Meeting of the Lowell Society of Japan held on 31 August 2002 in Kanazawa.


So we should say the 15 cm refractor is a symbolical object that well reflects the transition of LOWELL from a psychical researcher or a Japanologist to an astronomer or a Mars observer. According to David STRAUSS, LOWELL already discussed with William PICKERING about Mars in 1890. Furthermore STRAUSS reports there are kept letters of LOWELL addressed to Edward PICKERING that were dated 9 September & 7 November 1892, in which LOWELL asked Edward “if he could see the charts and maps of Mars that his younger brother had drawn.” So LOWELL’s inclination to Mars began around the time. The following inclusive description of Professor STRAUSS is interesting concerning the period:


The surviving documents tell us little about how Percival Lowell reached his decision to collaborate with William Pickering. It is evident, however, that his plan to visit the Arequipa stations in Peru in 1893 fell victim to his research on esoteric religion in Japan. His 1891-92 communications with the Pickerings reveal a strong interest in investigating the surface of Mars; moreover, on his way to Japan via Chicago and San Francisco, he had requested and received from S. W. Burnham, the double star observer, a letter of introduction to E. E. Barnard of Lick; and Lowell took with him a 6-inch Clark refractor through which he viewed Saturn at his Tokyo residence. However, Lowell had apparently not decided on his future course of action by November of 1893, when he wrote Ralph Curtis to urge an Easter jaunt to Seville in the following spring.

A Christmas gift of Camille Flammarion’s La planète mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité was apparently the catalyst for Lowell’s decision to launch an astronomical expedition. Inside the cover of the book, Lowell wrote “Hurry” in his own hand, apparently in recognition of the fact that the Martian opposition was approaching. ….. (David STRAUSS, op cit page 178)


STRAUSS also gives a detailed description of the delicate relationship between LOWELL and William PICKERING. As to W PIKERING, see also Chap 15: The Madman of Mandeville, in “Epic Moon” written by W P SHEEHAN and T A DOBBINS (Willmann-Bell Inc. 2001).


Before closing, we would like to express our thanks to Sho-ichi ITOH for his kind communications about LOWELL’s 15 cm refractor. ITOH works for the Suginami Planetarium, Tokyo.



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