The American spirit is deeply and inextricably infused with the drive for discovery. We strive endlessly and work tirelessly to develop the next world-changing innovation, explore uncharted areas of our world, and even journey to brand new worlds.
This is the Forgotten History of the Amateur Astronomer.
As long as little Clyde could hold his head up, his eyes were fixated on the stars. He was fascinated by them, and he sat on his uncle’s knee as they looked through his telescope together.
The second his Clyde’s parents could afford one, they bought him a small telescope from Sears. Every night, Clyde spent hours gazing into it, and even long after bedtime, he would sneak to his window and look longer.
By age 15, though, Clyde needed something more. He had seen all he could through a department store telescope, but as a poor Illinois farm boy, he couldn’t afford a professional-caliber one. So he decided to build one. His father, proud as he could be of his son’s insatiable desire for discovery, took a second job to help him raise money for the materials he would need.
The family had to improvise, so Clyde used part of a crankshaft from an old Buick and pieces of a cream separator to build his telescope’s mount. He used what he could and worked as hard as humanly possible. Three years later, his finished creation was remarkably accurate.
And every night, Clyde looked through it, even longer and more intensely than he had before, and took extensive notes and made detailed drawings of his many observations. He sent them to Percival Lowell’s observatory in Arizona asking for feedback, and astronomers there were stunned: Clyde’s work was so good, so professional, that they offered him a job as a junior astronomer.
Lowell, a businessman and astronomer who was obsessed with the idea that there was life on Mars, funded the observatory to further this theory. He saw what he called a vast network of canals on the red planet, and firmly believed that there was a life-supporting planet elsewhere in the solar system that he dubbed Planet X.
Clyde’s job was to find it—or at least scan a small portion of the sky each night and take pictures of what he saw. But while other junior astronomers and even professional ones worked their nightly shift and then turned in, Clyde stayed up through the night…every night…for weeks. Then for months, each night taking detailed notes about the photographs he took. He was obsessed with discovering Planet X, and he was determined to do it.
After nearly a year of tireless work, Clyde saw something. It was faint, but it was there. It was moving, it was…orbiting the sun. Could it really be? It was. A brand new planet.
The astronomy community and then the entire world were fascinated; what would this new planet be called? Three suggestions were put forth, but one, suggested by an 11-year-old girl became the most popular. It was proposed to both the American and Royal Astronomical Society, and both approved it unanimously.
Clyde’s work had paid off—even though he had no formal training, no education beyond high school, and certainly no pedigree or reputation in the astronomical community—he had made the most significant discovery in his field in decades.
It was a testament to the power of perseverance, a lifetime of dedication work, and of an insatiable thirst for knowledge and hunger for discovery. And on May 1, 1930, it was made official, 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh had discovered Pluto.