How young Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto back in 1930

Clyde Tombaugh with Pluto and news headlines

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Clyde Tombaugh, first man to identify the planet Pluto, is an astronomical enthusiast who can forget to eat his supper while explaining his homemade telescopes after working all day on a combine in his father’s fields — Has built four instruments, grinding his own lenses and constructing mountings from pieces of discarded farm machinery.

[Original] Editor’s Note: There is yet majesty in the soul of man. Untutored and self-taught, a Kansas youth working alone in the Lowell observatory a few months ago located a hitherto unidentified planet. His first studies in astronomy were on his father’s farm with his homemade telescope, costing $36.

Is not this reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin, a poor boy who, with his homemade kite and a dangling key, discovered electricity? Or of Michael Pupin, Serbian shepherd boy whose solitude in youth led him to studies that later were to make him a master scientist?

Or of Edison, who, alone in the quiet of night, patiently made experiments that were to give the world the incandescent light, the phonograph and the motion picture machine?

We somehow find in Mr McDonald’s story of Clyde Tombaugh, astronomer, and exemplification of the motto of Kansas, ad astra per aspera — “the stars through difficulties.”

And, again, the thought comes that persons who accomplish great things in this life know well the value of solitude. Great thinkers may be handicapped in the constant distractions of a crowd. Alone, at night under the stars, new worlds are found.

Pluto discovery - March 14, 1930 - SEE ANOTHER WORLD IN SKY

A discoverer of a new world returns to his Kansas home to help out with the wheat

By AB McDonald

Clyde Tombaugh, the Kansas farm boy who startled the whole world recently by the discovery of a new planet, has returned from the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, to spend his vacation on his father’s farm near Burdett, and to help him in the wheat harvest.

The foregoing brief news item took me to the Tombaugh farm in Western Kansas to see this young man whose discovery of a new planet is said by scientists to be the most important event in astronomy in the last 100 years.

His name now will go into the world’s dictionaries, encyclopedia, geographies and textbooks of astronomy.

Because of the discovery made by this young farmer of Kansas, every dictionary in the world will have to be revised.

“Neptune: The most remote known planet of the solar system.”

That definition will have to come out of the dictionaries, and into them will have to go the name of the newly-discovered planet:

“Pluto: The most remote known planet of the solar system, discovered 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.”

1930 Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto (1)

The name of Tombaugh will have to be inserted in future editions of all encyclopedias along with the names of Sir William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus, and Leverrier, discoverer of Neptune. For all time to come, students of astronomy will read that the ninth planet, Pluto, was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. His name is already enshrined with those of the immortals.

It was twilight when we reached the Tombaugh farm, four miles northwest of Burdett, in Pawnee County.

“Clyde is out on the combine cutting wheat,” his mother said. “But he knows you are coming. He will be back soon.”

His mother receives the news

While we waited his mother told how she first heard that he had discovered a new planet.

“The Star telephoned to Leslie Wallace, editor of the Tiller and Toller,” she said, “and he telephoned and asked for my husband. He was out in the cave cellar working with the cream separator. I ran out and told him he was wanted and then waited in the cave for him. When he came back he asked me: ‘What do you suppose they wanted?’

“That frightened me, and I thought of my son, so far from home, and asked:

“‘Is there anything wrong with Clyde?’ and he laughed and said, ‘No, Clyde has found a new world.’

“I didn’t understand it at first, but my husband did; he is a good deal of an astronomer, himself, and after he’d explained it, I said right away that we ought to be the first to congratulate Clyde. So we fixed up a telegram and sent it to him, telling him how proud we were of him.

“We have always been proud of him, and I always thought he would be a good astronomer, he worked so hard at it, ever since he was big enough. Many a time I have got up, long after midnight, and there he would be, out with his telescope, even after a long hard day’s work plowing or in harvest.

“I would call to him to come in and go to bed, and he’d answer: ‘All right mother, just a little while longer.’ But he’d be there till daylight came and the stars faded out.”

Clyde Tombaugh

His sister, Esther, who teaches school in the neighborhood, spoke up.

“It seems queer, now, but when Clyde and I were in high school together in Burdett, we had a class prophecy once, and I foretold that Clyde would discover a new star,” she said. “I always knew he would be a great astronomer some day.”

“Well, here comes Clyde, now,” called his mother, who had stepped around the corner of the house to look.

Six heavy draft horses, in pairs, were coming up the lane, their heads bobbing, shoulders heaving, harness jingling and rattling, their forms silhouetted against a background of golden sky in the west.

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“It got too dark to cut any more,” shouted Clyde to his mother as the horses turned in at the barn.

He was bareheaded. Bits of wheat beards clung to his blue overalls, soaked with sweat. His face and neck were brown with dust of the combine thresher, and it covered the glasses of his big, horn-rimmed spectacles.

“Sorry I’m late, folks,” he called cheerily to us. “We’re behind with the harvest, and I wanted to cut as long as I could see. But we’ve time yet to have a squint at Venus before she sets.” He hurried into the house and came out with a small box under his arm. It held the eye-piece of his telescope.

From wheat to the stars

Near the Tombaugh house, in different places, are three telescopes all made by Clyde. The best of them, the largest of the three, is the last one he made.

He led us to this one, in the center of a cleared space, fifteen feet square, in a patch of black currant bushes, and enclosed by a fence of woven wire to keep out all the cattle, horses and hogs. The chain rattled as he unlocked the gate, and we went in with him, all eager and expectant.

The telescope was a tube of galvanized sheet iron, seven feet long and nine inches in diameter. Clyde first picked up and threw to one side some big flat stones piled beneath the lower end of the telescope to take off the strain of its weight when not in use.


He unlocked the chain that held the telescope, pointing straight upward, and turned the long tube down. Then he locked his arms around it, to twist the tube in its bearings, and bring the eye piece into a favorable position for looking into, and as he labored at it he told how he had made it.

The apparatus upon which a telescope stands and is moved about by cogs and wheels is called the “equatorial mounting.” Clyde explained that an equatorial mounting as good as this, for a telescope of this size, would cost $500 if bought of a manufacturer.

“But this did not cost me a cent, for I made it myself,” he said. “First I dug a pit for the foundation, made and put up the forms and mixed and poured the concrete. That steel base, bolted onto the concrete, is the standard from an old cream separator, and all these wheels, cogs, shafts and gears are out of tractors, reapers and other old farm machinery. I put it together myself.

“This 7-foot tube I had made at a tin show in Larned. The eye-piece I bought, but the reflector I ground myself. The whole thing, as it stands, cost me exactly $36.”

“And how much would it have cost had you bought it all?”

“A thousand dollars, at least, for as good a telescope as this,” he replied, as he aimed the tube at the western sky, where the golden afterglow was fading, and the planet Venus hung like a huge sparkling diamond on a curtain of greenish-gray.

Peering into the eye-piece and giving the tube a rotary motion, he “fished” for the planet, trying to get it within focus, talking all the while.

“This is the fourth telescope I made, and I learned a lot as I built them — but, there’s Venus now.” He stepped aside, and as one of the party looked into the telescope he said: “You won’t care for Venus. It shows poorly in any telescope because its atmosphere is so heavily charged with vapor. Astronomers have never been able to see its surface and, therefore, have never learned the length of its day, how long it takes for it to rotate on its axis.”

1930 Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto (3)

A new view of the moon

Sure enough, Venus was disappointing, just a brightly shining spot about the size of the top of a lead pencil. In the southern sky the moon hung, almost full, and in all the heavens there was not a cloud.

“We’ll turn it on the moon,” said Clyde, and he swung the tube around and focused it on the moon. I shut one eye and peered into the eye piece.

There was a part of the rounded outer rim of the moon, roughened exactly as the edge of an orange skin would appear, and I saw that the moon was moving. In about the time one would count ten the whole face of the moon moved across the glass and disappeared.

1930 Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto (2)

“That’s because you are on the earth, which is revolving towards the east,” said Clyde. “So, if you point a telescope at the moon, the earth will soon carry the end of it on past the moon.

“In the big observatories, telescopes are fitted with clock drives so when you train the telescope on a spot in the heavens, the clock moves it and holds it steadily in focus. I could not afford to do that here, and in all my observations I had to keep the telescope moving by hand.”

A half dozen of us were there that night, fascinated with the wonders and mysteries of the heavens, with the mountains and craters and fissures of the moon, and with the rings of Saturn.

But to me, the greatest wonder of all was the young man in blue sweat-soaked overalls, his shock of hair filled with shreds of wheat straw and the dust from the thresher, his whole soul thrilling in his voice as he moved around in the moonlight in the midst of that briar patch, talking, not boastingly at all, but in low, earnest tones, of what he had done out there in his lonesome night vigils on that lonely Kansas farm.

“All I know of astronomy I learned right here among these currant bushes,” he said.

Kansas farm boy spots new planet

Clyde Tombaugh of Burdett First to Detect “Blotch of Light”

photographic plates that were used to discover Pluto

Flagstaff, Arizona — Discovery of a new world, probably larger than the earth, brought to mathematical astronomy its second achievement of the kind.

The new and nameless planet, whose actual presence in trans-Neptunian space was first detected last February 18 by an astronomy-loving farmer boy from Kansas, was heralded through an announcement here yesterday by Dr V M Slipher of the Lowell Observatory.

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A strange “blotch of light” on a photographic negative, registered by an extremely delicate instrument at the observatory, led to the discovery.

The speck of light was noticed by Clyde Tombaugh, the young student of astronomy, formerly of Burdette, Kansas, and this led to detection of the heavenly body, bringing the known number of major planets in the solar system to nine.

The presence of another planet beyond Neptune was mathematically predicted years ago by the late Dr Percival Lowell, noted scientist and brother of A Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University.

Clyde Tombaugh - pluto

The location of the new body on January 21 was fixed at three hours Greenwich time, seven seconds west from Delta Geminorum with Lowell’s predicted long side. It is approximately forty-five times farther from the earth [illegible] is “at least no smaller than the earth.” Like Neptune, it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Astronomically, the discovery is regarded as the greatest achievement since the location of Neptune, the eighth primary planet of the solar system, in 1846. The task now remains to determine its size, exact distance from the earth, its orbit, and other planetary characteristics.

The discovery was accomplished much in the same manner as the finding of Neptune in 1846. Tombaugh, a student scientist, came to the observatory a year ago, and has been working with the new Lawrence-Lowell telescope, exposing and examining the planets under the direction of senior members of the staff.

“While I was peering the comparator at a plate, something new flickered before my eyes,” Tombaugh said.

“At first, I thought it was simply an illusion, but I looked at some more of the plates and finally realized that I had stumbled onto an important discovery. After an examination, the senior members of the staff were soon convinced that we were viewing the trans-Neptunian planet.”

Two years before his death, Dr Lowell, founder of the local observatory, announced calculations of the trans-Neptunian planet and, although he never had seen it, his computations indicated that such a body must exist.

While the newly-discovered planet as yet remains just “a blotch of light” on a photographic plate, astronomers at the observatory have announced that they will follow every action of the planet in order that more of its character may be learned.

Whether or not the new planet is inhabited is a matter for further calculations, but scientists agree that it may be as large as Jupiter, the greatest of the planets, which is 1,200 times the size of the earth.

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