Young Clyde Tombaugh: How a Midwestern farmboy set a course for Pluto

By | Published: May 18, 2015

On a spring day in 2007, buses of students and area residents descended on the Streator Township High School auditorium in Streator, Illinois, to hear about the exploits of the community’s favorite son who had died a decade earlier. Throughout the day, guest speakers flown in from around the country talked about this man’s background and his worldwide impact that is still felt nearly a century after he moved from this farming community along the Vermillion River. The presenters gave four programs throughout the day and evening, with a full auditorium for each presentation.

Who commanded such crowds? None other than Clyde Tombaugh, who had spent the majority of his childhood in Streator before going on to discover Pluto at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1930.

The eldest of six children, Clyde was born on a Streator farm to Muron and Adella Tombaugh. He learned to work hard at a young age, helping his father cultivate corn, thresh oats and wheat, and carry out other arduous tasks of farming life.

By the time he was a teenager, astronomy had captured his imagination. Clyde’s uncle Lee owned a 3-inch telescope and lent it, along with an astronomy book, to Clyde. Tombaugh would later say it was this book that introduced him to people that would become his heroes: Galileo, William Herschel, and Percival Lowell.

In 1920, Muron and Lee bought a 2 ¼ -inch telescope from Sears-Roebuck, and Clyde enjoyed using the instrument whenever possible. Two years later, Muron moved his family to Burdette, Kansas, with the hopes of finding better farming conditions. The telescope went with them, and Clyde would spend the next several years scanning the dark Kansas skies whenever time and weather allowed.

In 1924, Clyde subscribed to Popular Astronomy and was inspired to build his own telescope after reading an article in that magazine about the markings of Jupiter. His first attempt was an 8-inch that he built in early 1926. He made a tube out of pine boards and used old farm machinery for the mounting. Not having an adequate facility to properly test the telescope as he ground the glass, the final figure was poor.

After some research, Clyde realized he needed a testing room with a constant temperature in order to properly test the figure of the glass. He convinced his dad to construct a “cave,” which could also be used as a tornado shelter and food storage cellar. Using a pick and shovel, Clyde dug a rectangular pit 24 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 7 feet deep.

With cemented walls and roof, this made an ideal facility for Clyde’s mirror-making exploits. In February 1927, he built a 7-inch reflector — this one with a very good figure — that he sold to Uncle Lee. With this money, he bought material to build a 9-inch telescope, which he finished building early in 1928.

Later that year, the Tombaugh family crops were ruined by a hailstorm and Clyde decided to begin looking for a new career, realizing that the farming life was not for him. He soon had an offer to help a Wichita man build telescopes, but before he had the opportunity to do this, another offer cropped up.

Clyde had been reading some of his older issues of Popular Astronomy and saw an observation report of Mars written by Lowell staff. This inspired him to send some of his planetary drawings made with the 9-inch to Lowell to see what the astronomers thought of them. The timing turned out to be perfect, because just at that time Lowell was looking for an assistant to help with a new planetary search program.

After an exchange of more letters, Lowell Director V.M. Slipher invited Clyde to work for the observatory. Clyde was thrilled and accepted the job immediately. On January 14, 1929, he left home and caught a train to Flagstaff. As Clyde boarded the train, Muron imparted his fatherly advice to his eldest, “Clyde, make yourself useful and beware of easy women.”

True to his father’s wishes, Clyde did make himself useful. Only 13 months later, at age 24, he discovered Pluto, making headlines around the world from London to the small community of Streator where it all started.