Jones Observatory … a
Muy amados nietos, Jonathan y Jacob,
You are rapidly approaching the age of twelve. That is how old I was when I discovered the Jones Observatory. If plans work out right, I will be taking you there soon.
* * *
It was 1958 and I had just moved to Brainerd and entered Brainerd Junior High School. The school proper—that is, the teachers and students—is long gone. The schoolhouse, ever stately in its architecture, still stands. From Brainerd Road you turn north into Tuxedo Drive and there it is, set among trees on a gentle rise of land, with Tuxedo, wider than Brainerd Road, forming a grand esplanade of approach.
It is just at the end of this esplanade, on the right, that an alert observer will notice stone steps, hand cut, set into the steep hill that rises there. As the eyes follow these steps through the dense trees, one finds the hill topped by a brick building supporting a telltale hemispheric dome. That dome can cover only one thing: the telescope room of an astronomical observatory.
The observatory drew me at once. I quickly found out that it was open to the public every Friday night. It was within walking distance of my house. For the next two years I rarely missed a Friday at the observatory.
Entering the front door of the observatory, one found oneself in a circular lobby perhaps sixteen feet in diameter, with a brick column about four feet in diameter in the center of the room. Doors opened left and right, leading through anterooms to a library and a lecture room, respectively. Around the rear wall of this lobby were backlighted transparencies of astronomical objects. I learned that the center column extended down to bedrock, and that it supported the observatory's principal telescope in the room above.
Besides leading to the library, the left anteroom also led to the basement stairwell. The mirrors of the telescope had been ground in this very room. The right anteroom also led to the telescope room stairwell, a planetarium, and the back door. Its longest wall also sported transparencies. From the stairwell one could go onto the roof, where there was a broad deck atop the planetarium.
As it turned out, I was at the observatory a lot more than just on Friday nights. For my two years in Brainerd my life was pretty much organized around the observatory; and I have continued to frequent the place even to this day when circumstances permit.
I want to tell you here a few stories about the observatory, the people I met there, and the things we did there and elsewhere. The things I want to say involve not only the observatory but ceramic dolls, briar patches, and pipe organs. I do not know how to begin putting such diverse things into a rational arrangement. Let us just jump in and say what comes to mind.
Friday night guests at the observatory usually included one or two groups of students in the fourth- to eighth-grade range, perhaps one or two families, and two or three stray adults drawn by curiosity. Two main men made the observatory come alive for the guests: Llewellyn Evans and Karel Hujer.
Dr Hujer's path led him from his native Czechslovakia, where he had taken his doctorate in astronomy at the University of Prague, to Chattanooga, where he was professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the local university, under whose auspices the observatory operated. On Friday nights he was to be found lecturing in the planetarium.
But I came to know Dr Hujer more at the personal level than at the scientific. Thus it happened that many weekends found me not in the planetarium on Friday but on Lookout Mountain on Saturday. Dr Hujer and Harriet, his beloved wife, had bought a lot up there, just below Jon Robere's place, where they hoped to build someday. The Hujers would round up me and another one or two observatory rats (more on them later) and take us up the mountain to spend a day cutting and burning briars and brush. I believe they paid us fifty cents plus lunch for a day's labor, or maybe it was a dollar. But we boys loved the Hujers and would have gladly worked for free, had no money been offered.
We also were called upon for landscape work at the Hujers' home on Hillcrest in Brainerd. One terrible day turned out to be not landscaping but cleaning and whitewashing the basement coal bin, no longer used for coal. I was the only lad who showed up that day. But Mrs Hujer joined in and would hit a few licks on the cleaning in between paragraphs explaining to me Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophical Society, and we got the job done.
The Hujers lived in a treasure house, surrounded by fabulous and intricate things. My favorite was an ivory ball about the size of a tennis ball, or a bit smaller. The ivory had been carved into eight concentric spheres, and the surface of each sphere engraved and cut into delicate tracery, all without ever cutting open any sphere. Was that one of the gifts Dr Hujer had been given on a visit to his friend Mohandas Gandhi?
The Hujers happened to be good friends with Paul and Mary Auger. I believe that friendship began due to the interest that all four of them had in the person and poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Although my wife Ann and I knew nothing of Tagore, it is still not surprising that we three couples, despite large differences in age, came to share friendship. I recall the high point of that friendship in 1970 or 1971 when Ann and I were living at the Mansfield house in Dunlap. We invited the Augers and Hujers for Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal we went walking in bright warm sun over crackly dry leaves, through the sidewalks of our neighborhood, which was still mostly residential back then. A perfect day.
Mrs Hujer, bless her, loved to talk and indulged her love when she had the chance; that is, when anybody at all was around. Dr Hujer liked to talk too, but did not attempt to compete with his wife. I believe the last time I saw the Hujers, or Dr Hujer, anyway, was about the mid seventies when Ann and I dropped in at their house. Dr Hujer opened the door, broke into a flower of a smile, and gushed, “Oh, komm in, komm in, zo goot to zee you, Harriet iss gone und ve kan talk!”
On Friday nights Mr Evans was generally found in the telescope room, entertaining the guests with views through the observatory's twenty-inch Cassegrainian reflector. But as with Dr Hujer, much of my activity with Mr Evans took place away from the observatory.
A trip to Mr Evans's house was always a treat. He was an electrical engineer, retired from TVA. But he could not be confined to one field. The basement of his house at 68 South Crest contained Mr Evans's office/study, with its large windows facing east over Brainerd and East Ridge. The rest of the basement was given to his woodworking shop, metalworking shop, chemistry lab, darkroom, ceramics kiln, and … what? There remained yet more of the basement that I never saw.
At one point in my acquaintance with Mr Evans he was putting much effort into making ceramic doll heads. And not just any doll heads. What Mr Evans wanted was heads with eyes that closed when the dolls were reclined. That meant eyeballs and eyesockets that had to be spherical or elliptical so the eyes could turn in the sockets, as well as rods and weights attached to the backs of the eyeballs. Given that ceramic objects change shape slightly when fired, achieving the objective was no mean feat. But achieve he did, using a thin metal foil between eyeball and socket during the firing. When this foil was removed, enough play was left between the ceramic surfaces that the eyes could move as intended.
Another trip found the front steps of the house sporting new wrought iron railings, perfectly curved. Mr Evans told me he had worked the iron, eight or ten feet long, using his kiln for his heat source. He did not give any details.
On my last visit to Mr Evans's house he showed me a windmill he had made. He started with a fifty-five gallon drum, cut it lengthwise, and mounted the two halves, offset, onto a vertical shaft so as to form wind scoops. The lower end of the shaft was coupled to a generator. In the stiff winds to be had atop Missionary Ridge the device did generate electricity.
Mr Evans was a member of the Pilgrim Congregational Church. When his parish built its present church at Glenwood and Third, Mr Evans volunteered to remove the pipe organ from the old church at Oak and Lindsay and put it in the new church. He did so. In the process he got so interested in it that he decided to learn to play the organ, and signed up for lessons. Alas, he found that his hands, being about seventy years old at the time and battered by a lifetime of tinkering with things, were not supple enough for the organ, so he terminated his study. This is the only instance I know of that Mr Evans undertook a project that he did not complete.
Did Mr Evans ever play? Well, I think all his work was play for him. But he did play, in the strict sense, as well. Alongside his driveway he had laid a shuffleboard court where he occasionally took his guests to play, using pucks and paddles produced in his basement shops. He also played golf, using clubs of his own manufacture, the shafts of the drivers being made of the classical persimmon. He played at the public course in Brainerd. Although he was well past seventy years of age when I knew him, he always walked the full course, towing his clubs on a two-wheel cart.
The Astronomical League is a nationwide federation of local astronomy clubs, whose members are both professional and amateur astronomers. It is divided into ten regions, with Chattanooga being in the Southeast Region. Chattanooga, in turn, has its local club, the Barnard Astronomical Society. As I was a member of the Barnard society at least by 1960, and perhaps a year or two earlier, I am one of its most senior members—though I was not a member in most of the years between then and now.
The national League holds annual conventions, and at one time the Southeast Region also had an annual convention. Mr Evans went to most of the conventions, invariably driving his red and white mid-fifties Ford Fairlane. He would round up enough passengers to fill the car and share expenses, and, for adults, the driving. I went along to the national conventions in Haverford, Pennsylvania (1960) and Orono, Maine (1963). I also attended regional conventions in Atlanta and St Petersburg, and perhaps some others, possibly Birmingham and Huntsville.
The Orono convention, on the campus of the University of Maine, was located and timed to put us in the way of a total solar eclipse. Besides Mr Evans and myself there were a Mr and Mrs Morgan and Mr Evans's daughter Ruth. The Morgans lived in East Lake. Mr Morgan was a private instructor in fretted instruments. We drove to Detroit, or maybe it was Buffalo, entered Canada, and drove across southern Canada to Maine. I do not remember the convention except for the eclipse itself, which was a bust. As the sun's light diminished, so did its heat, and the sudden cooling of the air produced heavy clouds. This clouding is a frequent feature of solar eclipses. Jim Pyne, a St Andrew's classmate who lived in the area, had come over for the event. We went out that night and consoled ourselves with steaks.
The Haverford convention included a trip to Barrington, New Jersey, where we visited Edmund Scientific Company, which sold every kind of tool or material that a tinkerer could ever want. The retail store was closed that day and we were turned loose to roam throughout the store and warehouse. There was also a visit to the Spitz Planetarium factory, where we banqueted with Armand Spitz himself, seated at temporary trestle tables set up in the factory.
On these northern trips, our first and last overnight stop was the Lincoln Hotel in Marion, Virginia. For the other stops—in those days there still existed travelers' lodges which were just large old private residences, generally operated by older couples and widows. These were a sort of forerunner of today's bed-and-breakfast places, but they were no-frills places, geared for businessmen and not tourists. Mr Evans had a built-in radar for finding these houses.
The regional conventions were closer to home and we had more than one car going to some of them. I recall one of the Barnard members, Russel Noll, who carried all the observatory rats to one of the regional meets. I believe he lived in East Ridge. His heart was that of a boy and also of a scoutmaster. He loved us rats and we loved him, spending time with him not only on astronomical matters but visiting his house and enjoying his amateur radio rig and other toys. Alas, his heart was magnanimous but not strong. That heart stopped before Mr Noll reached the age of fifty.
At regional conventions, few if any travelers had to stay in hotels. Members of the hosting club would open their homes and take in as many guests as they had beds and sofas for. Their observatories, too, became campgrounds by night as telescope rooms, lecture halls, shops filled up with sleeping bags. It was a time more gracious than our own.
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, to be followed by many more both from that entity and from the United States. Calculation of orbits was in its infancy. There was no precise knowledge of where satellites were, or exactly what direction they were moving in, or where they might be at a given time. Imagine a shooting match with targets posted on the side of a barn, where the shooters are so untrained that they are happy if they can just hit the barn. That is where satellite tracking was for the first several years after Sputnik.
To track a satellite, one started with a crude estimate of its orbit. One then searched a wide section of sky on either side of the estimated path of the satellite, and a wide block of time on either side of its estimated transit time. To plot a corrected orbit, multiple observations from around the world were needed. These observations were gathered by hundreds of teams of volunteeer observers around the world. Under the direction of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, those teams were organized into a network called Operation Moonwatch. One of the stations was the Jones Observatory. Its coordinator was Mr Evans. Mr Noll was the alarm clock. I was a team member and I took part in every observation carried out during my years in Chattanooga.
The crude estimates of all currently orbiting satellites were calculated on a computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and delivered in bundles of printouts to each observing station. A station's team would use the estimates to look for a few satellites and report back their findings. Orbit calculations would then be adjusted according to the findings, and another round of printouts would provide the crude estimates for the next observations—not quite so crude, one hoped, as the previous estimates.
Our observation point was the deck over the planetarium. There we had a long, narrow wooden table. A two-by-six was rigged to run the length of the table at the eye level of a seated person. On either side of the two-by-six were mounted three small right angle telescopes. Each telescope could see fifteen degrees of sky. To prepare for a sighting, we would set the table perpendicular to the satellite's estimated path. The middle telescope on one side of the table would be centered on the estimated path. The other two scopes were set ten degrees left and right of the middle scope, so that three observers could cover thirty-five degrees of sky with five degrees of overlap between scopes. The three scopes on the other side of the table were set the same way, so that each zone would be covered by two observers.
On a shelf in the telescope room we had a radio receiver specifically designed to receive WWV, the official time signal of the (then-called) National Bureau of Standards. There was also a twelve-pen recorder through which passed a metallic-backed paper tape. A grid on the face of the tape had a line for each pen and a bar for each second of tape travel. Besides giving the familiar audio signal from WWV, the radio also offered relay contact connections which opened or closed momentarily on most seconds. These contacts were wired to one pen of the recorder. On each second a spark jumped from the pen to the metallic backing, burning that second precisely into the grid. Six more pens were connected to a cable harness, of which the other end broke out into six hand-held pushbuttons, set into easily gripped mounts much like the handle of a joystick. A push of the button would make a mark on that button's tape track.
Now you may think that my description of equipment and technique is dry and grim, but there was nothing grim about a tracking session. Eight persons were needed: six observers, a radio and recorder minder, and a coordinator; this last almost always being Mr Evans.
Mr Evans would study the printouts and decide on a satellite to look for, taking into consideration the object's brightness (would our strong stray light drown it out?), how high in the sky it was (above our tree line?), the weather forecast (clear?), and so on. He might find two satellites to look for in one night, if their transit times were about forty-five minutes or an hour apart. He would then call several members two or three days ahead, making sure he had the needed personnel—himself and seven more, usually including Mr Noll. Mr Noll, in turn, would give a reminder call to each observer early in the evening of a session, and another call an hour or so before deadline to anyone he suspected might have trouble waking up.
As I indicated above, Mr Noll loved big-boy toys, such as observatories. He also loved to talk. Yes, he would call you and remind you to be at the observatory at two thirty next morning. But he did not stop there. He would get wound up on how cold it was and how you had to sit still in the cold, so you better bring a blanket and a Thermos of coffee. He might discourse on the satellite to be tracked, or reminisce about memorable sessions in the past, or the hope that our team might someday get that ultimate feather in its cap: by finding a lost satellite. He would end by asking, in the case of boys, if you had a ride, and if not, tell you when to be out front for him to pick you up. If you lived close you walked.
You walk, and you get there first, and it is so cold and lonely, and dark—and there is the graveyard that shares the hilltop with the observatory, and … you hear something … it is Hal (more on him later), slogging through the dry leaves. Two minutes later Mr Evans's Fairlane purrs up the driveway, and he steps out and unlocks the back door to the building. You go in, out of the chilly breeze, and try to warm up before going up to the deck.
Everybody ready!, calls Mr Evans, and you follow the curving stairs to the telescope room, pick up a scope, exit to the roof, and climb again to the observation deck. Seats are assigned and scopes are attached to the mounting board and aimed. Here comes Mr Evans with a flashlight. Let's see that setting. No, you are aimed at seventy-eight degrees. I need sixty-eight. OK, right. In another few minutes, just as you are getting cold, Mr Evans calls for all lights out, so your eyes can adjust. In the dark he calls observers one by one to press their buttons and mark the tape, so he can tell who is on which pen.
Fifteen minutes until estimated transit time. Eyes to scopes! The jokes begin. You tell yours with voice shivering in the cold. Minus ten minutes! Minus five! You attempt to pour coffee with one eye to the scope and one on your cup. Minus one minute! Time!
Nothing. Plus one. Plus two. You ask how long the satellite will take to transit your scope. Maybe a minute, if it goes through the center of the field. You raise your head for a gulp of coffee, then back to the scope. Plus five. Plus ten. Hey!, says the man to your left. I think I have something. Yes! Here it comes! His second says, I have it too! Five seconds, three seconds, Mark! The pens spark, the time is recorded, and you have not seen a thing. You refresh your cup, then dismount your scope and take it to its place in the telescope room. Mr Noll offers to drop you off at home. You gladly accept.
Six days later, your phone rings. Can you make it at zero three hundred tomorrow morning?
In the Evans-Hujer years, the observatory was never lacking for teenage, and even preteen, boys who found themselves drawn to this place. In my time we did everything from raking leaves to cleaning excess mortar off the exterior brick, using muriatic acid and steel brushes. We learned to use the ephemeris and aim the telescope. We learned enough about the backlighted transparencies to explain them to visitors.
We took our work so seriously that we decided we ought to look like scientists. We took the bus down to Fillauer Surgical Supply on McCallie Avenue, where we were fitted with dazzling white laboratory coats to wear at the observatory on public nights. Mr Evans surprised us by donning a lab coat himself, but not from Fillauer. He had his daughter make him one. Now behavior is said to be influenced by clothing, and there may be something to that. A lab coat did not alter Mr Evans. But as I recall, it altered the rats' behavior for the worse. We were, after all, still children, and our white coats led us to incorporate mad doctor routines into our horseplay. But we kept that out of public view. When guests were present we were young scientists, knowingly discoursing about the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. What a childhood! What a way to be a child!
My own rat project was, for perhaps three years, publication of a newsletter for the observatory. When a local church bought a shiny new Gestetner mimeograph, I acquired their old one, an ancient Dutch-made Print-O-Matic, for ten dollars. I quickly became expert in its use. I learned to do right justification directly from typewriter to stencil, without an intermediate copy. It was a matter of mentally, and almost unconsciously, counting spaces to the margin and expanding and contracting words to fit those spaces. Fortunately my Woodstock model 6 typewriter would do half spaces. I also devised a simple way to print in two colors. I placed a stencil cover, inpervious to ink, on the drum. Next I added a wrap of cotton cloth. This I painted down with red ink, using an ordinary paintbrush. Finally came my stencil. Because the ink supply could not be replenished (the stencil, once inked, would often tear if lifted), this technique was only good for maybe a hundred copies. But the newsletter was mailed only to Moonwatch participants, Barnard members, and a handful of others, the sum of which did not exceed sixty. So my two-color process was good enough for the job at hand.
When one is twelve years old—which I was when I became an observatory rat—three years is a major age difference. One is not usually interested in someone three years younger. A couple of years ago I had occasion to visit with one of the rats of my time. In our talk I learned that he was three years younger than I am. That means that when we first met at the observatory, I was twelve years old and he was nine. But even then I had found him intellectually stimulating, and had learned more from him than he did from me. I do not recall that I was ever consciously aware of any age difference prior to our recent meeting. This rat was Harold (Hal) McAlister, and it did not surprise me to find he went far with astronomy. He is the Regent's Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Georgia State University and founder/director of the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA). You can read about him and the Center at the link below. With Hal, the observatory planted good seed in good soil.
I also found that Hal has a collection of my old newsletters. I mean to get one or two of those old issues scanned and posted on this site before long.
The other two rats of my day were Cleveland Wheeler and Mike Szpara. I last heard—in the early sixties—that Cleve was working in a radio station. In the same time period Mike and his family moved away.
* * *
Well, nietos, this has been a long letter. I jumped in and said what came to mind and it turned out to be a good bit. The bulk of this letter suggests how great a role the men of the observatory played in my formation, formation of intellect and character. As you approach your adolescent years, I hope and pray that you will find equally good men for your own formation.
Con mucho cariño,
© 2009 Joseph Mansfield
2009.03.16 first draft
Here are some links of interest.
Kindly notify me if any of these fails to function:
The CHARA website
McAlister's collection of materials on Dr Hujer
The Barnard Astronomical Society website
The Jones Observatory website
November 2010 : I have been able to recover one front page of one
issue of the newsletter which I produced, courtesy of Bobby Thompson.
He also sent me a page which is not my work; I don't know whose this
was. The links:
A page from my newsletter
A page from someone else's newsletter