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I recently toured the Lowell Observatory for the first time.


Everyone’s favorite sometimes-planet Pluto was discovered here in 1930, though the observatory dates back to 1894. That was before electricity was available from nearby Flagstaff. Back then, Percival Lowell and the other researchers used a system of ropes and pulleys to rotate the dome as it tracked the planets and stars through the night. When electricity finally came, the astronomers installed an electric motor on the dome to do the job they had once done by hand.

But it was only a single electric motor.

With a rather short cable.

And no switch.

So, as the need arose through the night, the scientists would plug that motor into the nearest outlet, let it run for a bit, then unplug it to stop. When the dome had moved (with the attached motor) beyond the the cord’s reach, they simply plugged it into the next outlet on the wall — presumably tugging at it if it were just a little too far. And so it went through the dome’s full arc.

Apparently, an extension cord wasn’t in the budget.

Those astronomers did a lot of important research back then — before light- and air-pollution around a fully-electrified Flagstaff turned Lowell into a museum and public awareness site. All that plugging and unplugging was probably no more than a minor distraction to the science they were doing, though likely that strain on the cable — and the constant need to leave the eyepiece to move it from outlet to outlet — caused more than a few lost hours of viewing. I’m not sure if the engineers who finally got involved and installed a system of multiple hard-wired motors controlled by a switch conveniently located at the viewing port knew anything about stars at all.

But see, they didn’t need to.

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