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Carl Lampland

Carl Lampland

This year features an uncanny number of significant anniversaries in northern Arizona. It marks the 150th year since John Wesley Powell first explored the Colorado River, the 125th since Percival Lowell founded his observatory here in Flagstaff, the 100th since President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act designating the Grand Canyon as a national park, and the 50th since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon.

The primary names associated with these events are well known, but as is typical for such accomplishments and their long-term heritage, so many other people — their names little recognized — also played key roles.

Such is the case with Lowell Observatory. The names of Lowell and Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, for instance, bring a level of familiarity, but how many people know of — or remember — the name Carl Lampland? He spent his entire professional career at Lowell, participated in several defining observatory efforts, and in fact worked here until the day he died. Yet few outside the halls of the observatory know anything about him. Perhaps until now, that is, as the observatory prepares for the May 11 opening of an exhibit featuring this man of science.

In preparation for that opening, here’s a bit of Lampland’s background. Born on December 29, 1873 near Hayfield, Minnesota, he was the third of 11 children and a second generation Norwegian. He went to college in Indiana, attending Valparaiso Normal School and Indiana University, where in 1902 he earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy. Among his classmates were future Lowell Observatory astronomers (and brothers) V.M. and E.C. Slipher. After graduation Lampland accepted an offer to work as an astronomer at Lowell, a post he held until his death in 1951.

Lampland was not only a talented observer but also a master instrument maker and photographer. He built instruments for measuring the temperatures of planets, designed cameras for photographing planets, kicked off Percival Lowell’s search for a ninth planet (which culminated with Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930), and captured more than 10,000 images of star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, planets, and other distant objects.

For all his observational achievements, Lampland didn’t fulfill one of the primary goals of any scientist: publishing the results of his work. Thus, as with the public at large, he is not well known in scientific circles because of his limited publication record. Nevertheless, his research is still useful in modern times. Several years ago, when scientists working in support of the New Horizons Mission to Pluto wanted to pinpoint Pluto’s position, they studied images of the planet taken by Lampland during the decades between Pluto’s discovery and Lampland’s death.

To historians, one of Lampland’s greatest contributions was the set diaries he kept, documenting Lowell Observatory’s daily activities, visitors to the facility, and special events, not just at Lowell but from around the world. This set of diaries is a treasure trove of historical information and has helped modern scholars piece together the history of the observatory.

It is these diaries that Lowell Observatory will feature in its new exhibit, The Lampland Diaries, that will open on Saturday, May 11 at 1 p.m. It includes some of Lampland’s original diaries, photographs, letters, and artifacts. Housed in the observatory’s Putnam Collection Center, the exhibit will continue through the end of the year. In conjunction with the May 11 opening, Lowell Historian Kevin Schindler will give a presentation entitled, “Who was Carl Lampland?” on the 11th at 7 p.m. in the observatory’s Steele Visitor Center.

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