Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2962: LETTERS TO MOUNT WILSON

by Andrew Boyd

Today, inventive minds. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I stumbled upon the exhibit in one of the more offbeat museums I’ve ever visited. It was a science exhibit with a special twist. But first, some background.

The Mount Wilson Observatory outside of Los Angeles holds a special place in history. In 1908 a telescope with a sixty inch mirror was installed at the site. It was the world’s largest for nine years, at which point a new, hundred inch telescope was installed at the observatory. The new telescope stood as the world’s largest for the next thirty years.

Mount Wilson Observatory
Mount Wilson Observatory with the smaller 60 inch telescope cupola on right, the large 100 inch cupola on the left. Photo copyright Norm Vargas/Wikipedia image

With such stellar equipment, the observatory stood at the center of the astronomical world at a time when we really didn’t have a good handle on just how big the universe was. The existence of other galaxies was discovered at Mount Wilson, as was the fact that they’re moving away from us. This latter fact set the stage for the Big Bang theory. Such revolutionary ideas captured the imagination not just of astronomers, but of the public at large. By 1920, over 20,000 people a year made pilgrimages to the observatory. Countless others followed work at the observatory from afar. And among these distant followers were those who felt compelled to write letters to the astronomers.


Lambda-Cold Dark Matter, Accelerated Expansion of the Universe, Big Bang-Inflation
Coldcreation/Wikipedia image

Moved by the astonishing nature of the astronomical discoveries, many of the letters expressed awe and appreciation. But not all. Some were so, well, strange that observatory staff handed them down from generation to generation. The letters ultimately found their way into the collection of the oddly named Museum of Jurassic Technology near Los Angeles.

letters
Image taken by E. A. Boyd

And what do the letters contain? One lengthy letter derides astronomers over and over as liars for promoting the theory of gravity. In another, a woman from New Zealand describes, in great detail, the design of Martian spacecraft, including storage for “flour, tin meat, [and] potatoes,” but no “strong drink.”

Many of the letters have religious overtones, including a man who sees the Orion Nebula as “that consuming fire we call god.” One man, after sharing meandering thoughts on life, death, and electricity, writes that “Money is needed to carry on the work of the Spirit World.” He then offers to sell the astronomers shares in a silver mine.

After reading that astronomer George Ellery Hale had won a prestigious award for studying solar magnetism, a woman wrote that she should receive credit since she’d discovered the sun was a magnet years earlier. She also claimed she’d turned lead into gold, but that the U.S. government had hushed things up for reasons she couldn’t explain.

It’s not difficult to see why these particular letters were tucked safely away. They’re creative, but in a profoundly peculiar way. And they serve as a reminder: not all inventiveness is good inventiveness.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

Mount Wilson Observatory. From the Mount Wilson Observatory educational site: www.mtwilson.edu/index.php. Accessed July 29, 2014.

Mt. Wilson Observatory: Center of Scientific Breakthroughs. Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2009. See also: articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/01/science/sci-observatory1. Accessed July 29, 2014.

S. Simons. No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory, 1915-1935. Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information Press and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City, California, 1993.

This episode was first aired on July 31, 2014



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2014 by John H. Lienhard.