Oral History Transcript — Dr. Malcolm Aitken
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Interview with Dr. Malcolm Aitken
Malcolm Aitken; July 17, 1977
ABSTRACT: Interview centers around experiences as a child on Mount Hamilton (Lick Observatory) just after the turn of the century; father’s scientific life (Robert Grant Aitken) and personal life; the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; Halley’s Comet, 1910; contact with the families of astronomers; W.W. Campbell; H.D. Curtis; experiences in World War I; Mrs. Aitken’s astronomical training
DeVorkin:This is a tape-recorded interview with Malcolm Aitken at Pacific Grove July 17th, 1977. The interviewer is David DeVorkin, the sponsor, American Institute of Physics; and also in the room: Richard Kron from Berkeley, I would like you to start with your recollections of your home life on Mt. Hamilton and some of your first recollections of your father.
Aitken:All right, I was born in San Jose, and six months later my father took the family up to Lick Observatory as I believe he was an assistant of some sort. Just what his title was at that time, I don’t know; possibly a Fellow.
DeVorkin:Your father was at first an assistant.
Aitken:Yes, I imagine so, I don’t know whether that is the correct designation of his job or not, but I know that in a couple of years he was made assistant astronomer.
DeVorkin:What year was it when you went up there?
Aitken:Yes, about 1895. I was six months old at the time. My two main recollections of those early days is the six and a half to seven-hour horse stage trip from San Jose up there. It was a hot and a dusty ride. Most of the time it was rather slow with two or three horse changes. It also carried the mail and whatever goods in the line of vegetables and meats — daily, milk and so on — that the people up there needed and ordered previously. The next recollection that comes to my mind is the fact that we had to entertain ourselves because of the closeness of the community and the fact that the community was about 25 miles or so from San Jose, which was our largest city. And when my father or any of the other men wanted to get a haircut and not allow their wives to do it, it meant that they’d have to go down one noon, stay overnight and then come back the day after, because they couldn’t get down there in time to have their hair cut in the afternoons. They had to get their hair cut in the morning and make the next stage going up. If they missed it, they had to wait until the next day to get the stage going up. So it was quite a procedure to go and get your hair cut. So most of the women did the usual hair cutting, just enough to keep them from going all over the place; and as far as the youngsters were concerned it was the old type of bowl and that was it. Well, all right. We didn’t worry about how to dress particularly. We dressed in old clothes because as youngsters, we’d do a lot of scramming around and got ourselves all dirtied up and torn running around in the brush.
DeVorkin:Were you allowed the full freedom of the mountain to play?
Aitken:Yes. But as I have to remark, we never went by ourselves anywhere till we were quite older — teenagers. We’d go with one of the other boys, two of us.
DeVorkin:You would go with someone who was older or younger?
Aitken:Younger or older, whichever case, but my younger brother and myself, for example, went out together quite a bit.
DeVorkin:So as long as you traveled in two’s, it was okay.
Aitken:We traveled in two’s or more. And, of course, we definitely let people know about where we were going and about when we would come back, and we were allotted a certain leeway for our return. But ordinary safety precautions you would take in any event.
DeVorkin:Was this primarily a family requirement or was it the observatory requirement?
Aitken:No, it was a family requirement, but it was general. I know that Dr. W.W. Campbell had that same requirement of his boys, so that we had that in common. We very seldom went anywhere with any of the other boys unless it was a group taken out by one of the young men on a hike, that sort of thing. We were family loners, if you wish to call it that, although we recognized the fact that there were other boys there, for instance when we played games like cops and robbers and Indians and all that sort of thing, we had an Indian tribal chief and dressed up and got ourselves a picture — a whole gang of us all dolled up out there on the main place in front of the observatory all you could see was way off in the distance someplace or other. It looked like a prairie. The chief, of course, was the oldest son of Dr. Campbell, and he was chief because they had a burro. He had lances, you know, and war paint; and the paint was stolen from the paint house. We had a lot of fun as youngsters.
DeVorkin:Did you ever get in the way of the work of the observatory?
Aitken:I can tell you just one or two things. We were not allowed to climb up the big dome — up that ladder. We were not allowed to go inside the big dome or any of the other telescope places. That was off limits entirely. But we were allowed in any other place. Of course, being the type of people we were, we found that there was an old sort of a walkway — we called it that — between the main building and the meridian circle building. It was the place where they put wires and pipes between the two buildings. All right, we found we could get in there by crawling and creeping. My brother and I crawled and creeped beneath there and got into the meridian circle building. And if you have seen it, it’s composed of outside louvers, louver-type arrangements, and an inside wall, and there was a space about so wide through where Dr. Tucker had his office in the back because he was a meridian circle expert, and he had been there working and he heard these noises. Of course, we had to make noise through there. So he poked around to see what the noise was. Well, of course, as soon as we heard him — we expected it — we quieted down. I don’t think he ever did find out what was causing that trouble. I know he asked around because Dad talked about it at the table about wondering what kind of animal had come in there. They couldn’t find anything. Well, of course, we never let on. I must have been in my thirties when I said something to him about it. That was just one of those sneaky things that we did.
DeVorkin:Creeping in the vicinity of Dr. Tucker’s office.
Aitken:Yes. Well, of course, in there, too, was the weather station, because at that time they were telephoning weather reports, and of course the conditions of the meridian circle that was more or less self-evident. And I, of course, was very much interested in the way they handled the time element because the big drum that they had there in connection with their big clock — their master clock. I don’t know how many fractions of a second it was slow or fast it doesn’t make any difference but anyhow they synchronized that with the drum and with the telephone combination down to some place, maybe Mare Island — I don’t know where it was. But anyhow I was interested in watching that, every day at a certain time they’d do it.
DeVorkin:This was Tucker’s responsibility?
Aitken:I don’t know just who was responsible. Some of the younger men — I imagine some of the fellows — may have taken that over. But he was probably the astronomer in charge. I’m not sure. But, of course, that was done away with very shortly after that, because they got the observatory time either from the Naval Observatory or from Mare Island — one of the two took over. It was too clumsy, this telephoning, and too uncertain.
DeVorkin:Were you still on the mountain when they dismantled the Meridian Circle Building?
DeVorkin:So you don’t know what had happened to it.
Aitken:You see, I left there really in about 1912. Our schooling was a small single-room schoolhouse with one to eight grades like the usual farm schoolhouse. And my father and mother decided that since there were four of us that were in the graduating class and we might possibly go on to high school and possibly go on to college, they would give us our first two years of high school work there. Dr. Curtis came over and gave us Latin.
DeVorkin:This was Heber D. Curtis.
Aitken:Yes. And Mother took the English and history, and Dad took the math and the German. And whatever else was done was done by other astronomers, and I don’t know who they were. But it was a regular type of school. We had our little yells and a few little songs.
DeVorkin:What were they? Do you remember?
Aitken:Well, Darroch Craig Academy is what it was called. There were four boys and two girls, at the most, at that time, that were in that Academy. All except one were astronomical folks. This one girl was the daughter of the machinist. He was a German Swiss and very accurate and very good at his precise work, very good. Dad said many times that he didn’t know if there was any of piece work that Bachmann couldn’t do when it came to very minute things that had to be done with certain of the instruments.
DeVorkin:This was Bachmann?
Aitken:Bachmann. After he retired I think he went down to — the University of California — and had some kind of a maintenance assignment down there.
DeVorkin:He had been on the mountain for quite some time then.
Aitken:Yes. Just how long, I don’t know, because we had a man by the name of Zengler that preceded him, and dates in that area were just absolutely out as far as I am concerned. I can’t give them to you, because (it was) during that particular eight-year period or maybe earlier that these things happened. But I do know the names of these various people that were there.
DeVorkin:That’s fine. Could I ask you for your recollections of the school life and how Heber D. Curtis was as a teacher of Latin?
Aitken:Well, now, Dr. Curtis was very exact in Latin, and declensions and so on was his forte, as you can imagine they would be. He was quite sure that we were going to all be classical scholars without the slightest doubt in the world. He was treating us as if we were all going to be classical scholars. He was that type of person, a very intense person, and a person that you felt knew exactly where he was and where he was going and what he was going to do about it. You had all kinds of confidence in him. I’ve always held him as being the type of teacher that I wanted to be after I started in teaching. Well, all right, Mother, of course, taught English and history based upon the fact that she taught in an academy, a girls’ academy, there in Oakland — I don’t know the name of it — while she was waiting for Dad to complete his work back at Williams.
DeVorkin:Was that Mills? Did she teach at Mills College?
Aitken:No, it was some seminary or other. Just what the name was, I don’t remember. It was about a year, maybe two years only, that she taught there until Dad graduated from Williams and came out and they got married on a shoestring and they haven’t found the end of it yet.
DeVorkin:You gave some very nice recollections of your father’s early home life and how he met your mother. Could you repeat them now?
Aitken:Yes. Well, Dad and she went to high school together there at Oakland High School. That’s how they met. My mother’s father was chief of police of Oakland and later on was mayor of the city and was quite a gruff individual. He’d been on one of the staffs of one of the generals in the Civil War.
DeVorkin:What was her maiden name?
Aitken:Thomas. So he delighted in showing us where a mini ball took his leg. We’d put our finger into a little dent there. As youngsters, he delighted in that. Well, we thought the world and all of Grandpa Thomas. He could tell us stories that raised your hair up. Maybe I should mention a change that Dad made from being a minister and going into astronomy. It was one of those happenstances that occasionally happen when you go to college. You need an extra unit for some reason or other, and so you pick up something that will give you that extra unit and time and so on in order to meet some requirement, and you find something that’s of such primary interest to you that you can’t let it go, and so you follow that. And that’s the way he found his math and astronomy.
DeVorkin:This was at Williams College.
Aitken:At Williams College, yes. And so he changed over from the ministry into the field of math particularly, with astronomy as the natural outcome. And the fact that he taught math at this little college in Livermore just after they were married — I suppose it was the only job he could find, I don’t know — He then transferred down to the College of the Pacific, which was at that time at San Jose, and was principal of the Academy there, which was on the same campus, and also taught mathematics and astronomy in the college. There was a small telescope there that he loved to handle and work with. Just how good it was, I don’t know.
DeVorkin:Did he have a telescope at Williams College? Did he ever talk about what it was about astronomy that had fascinated him so much?
Aitken:I think it was just the mathematical parts of it more than it was the actual astronomy itself, although he did mention the fact about where were the stars going and what were they doing, end the marvelous way these old people had these funny pictures. He used to show us these maps of Orion and The Crab and all that sort of thing, various formations: Cassiopaeia and the other ordinary formations. He used to take us out and point out these various constellations that could be seen at that particular time. So he tried his best to get us interested in astronomy. Well, anyway, maybe I ought to stop there and have you ask another question.
DeVorkin:Did he teach you any astronomy as part of the schooling in the school house?
Aitken:No. The astronomy I learned was from following around after the janitor Guide on the Saturday night visitors night and listening to him explain those various transparencies the clocks, the rain gauge (the pluviometer) and so on, combination. Yes, and of course the wind gauge. I was interested in that, because it was on top of the Meridian circle building at that time. Also I was interested in the operation of that big dome and the floor.
DeVorkin:How did they operate the dome and floor at that time?
Aitken:Water power and a big set of rams, a ram here, a ram there and a ram the other place. And there was a water tank at a place called Huygen’s Peak, which was the location of that small Crocker telescope. Would it be the Crocker telescope?
DeVorkin:Yes, the Crocker telescope.
Aitken:It was there on that side ridge.
DeVorkin:At Huygen’s Peak, yes or Huygen’s Ridge or something.
Aitken:It was Huygen’s anyhow. And the water would return to that from use by the rams, and then it would be pumped up to Copernicus Peak and Copernicus would give the pressure to the rams is the way it was explained to me. And, of course, by whirling these little round wheels a certain number of times you would open up or close the rams, and so you could set the floor at any particular level that you wished within those ranges. So that all was very interesting to me and the fact that you could get up on top of this telescope in this little place and by handling this and that could direct the telescope around any place you wanted to with these little handles on the main support. I never did handle the big telescope, of course, or the little telescope at all. I wasn’t allowed to, because that was not my purpose. But I knew the principles of the thing — the right ascension and the declination and that sort of thing all right.
DeVorkin:Your father taught these to you?
Aitken:No, I picked them up. I got interested in that angle, which of course led to my work on surveying with the theodolites and with the leveling of instruments in later years and with mathematics, to be sure.
DeVorkin:How was the dome actually turned at that particular time?
Aitken:The dome at that time let me see. How was it turned? I just simply can’t remember.
DeVorkin:I do recall seeing a picture of a team of horses that someone said were hooked up to turn the dome, but I wasn’t sure if they really had that.
Aitken:Well, I don’t know about that. They might have had that in the early days, but I’m pretty sure it was connected to the water power in some way, because electricity didn’t come in until quite a number of years later when they turned over the whole thing. They had windmills down on Huygen’s, which operated as a pump to pump the water from Huygen’s up to Copernicus.
DeVorkin:So it was basically the wind power.
Aitken:Wind power basically, yes. And the water power actually I imagine that would be my guess. I know there was a set of four wheels. Two of those were used for the floor. So it might be the other two were used for the dome.
Aitken:It’s possible they were interconnected in some way. I really don’t know.
DeVorkin:Okay. You mentioned you weren’t allowed to use the telescope.
DeVorkin:But you certainly probably from time to time recall the astronomers using the telescopes.
Aitken:Oh innumerable times.
DeVorkin:Could you recall for me your impressions of how they approached the telescope and how they used it your father possibly and some of the other observers?
Aitken:Well, I can go to the general, if you like. They had these movable chairs of various heights and sizes that they moved around with a seat that would rise and fall by pulley arrangement to suit your needs, because the telescope could be moved, as you know, from the horizontal to almost the vertical and in between. So you’d have to move your floor and your chairs according to the position of the telescope in general. That’s the same way with the l2-inch as far as that’s concerned. The l2-inch you turned the dome by hand, and of course the floor was stationary. So it was a matter of the small airs that you had to use in order to accommodate the telescope because it didn’t have much of a range up and down as the 36, of course. But on the other hand, it could be depressed more than the 36-inch could because at the time of the 1906 fire, they turned the little telescope down on the fire.
DeVorkin:Where was that first?
Aitken:In San Francisco.
DeVorkin:Oh, the great fire.
DeVorkin:And did you see the fire through the telescope?
Aitken:Mother wouldn’t let me. Well, my brother, my younger brother, had just an absolute fear that caused him to stutter on account of some experiences that he had with a rattlesnake, for example, but she was afraid that if I saw that inversion that occurred with a telescope where the flames instead of going up would go down and the buildings instead of going down would go up and all that sort of thing, that I might possibly react. I was a very nervous youngster in the early days. They expected me to go the way my mother’s sister went — into convulsions and nervous breakdowns and all that sort of thing till I was about ten or twelve years old. I suppose they expected it every ten minutes — I don’t know — but I know they were badly worried about me getting the same thing that she died of. But there’s no sign of that peculiar effect except I am of a very nervous temperament, very definitely. That’s one thing I’ve had a hard time keeping control of. But nevertheless that makes no difference.
DeVorkin:But they wouldn’t let you look through the telescope at the fire.
Aitken:Not at the fire and for that reason, which I was very willing to accept, because I could stand out there in the front and see as much as I thought I wanted to see of the fire, with the big black smoke that came up from Tamalpais, When we first saw this, it was a little funnel-shaped part coming down from Tamalpais, which gave rise to Tamalpais becoming a volcano. The newspapers made quite a fuss about it.
DeVorkin:They thought Tamalpais was a volcano?
Aitken:Yes, because of that funnel-shaped cloud. It was the wind conditions, I suppose. And that cloud came out funnel-shaped and branched out mostly over to the right. And on the left hand side there was a place where you could see a giant hand had taken a big grab of the smoke up. You could just see the fingers in that smoke cloud. And that smoke cloud didn’t change its shape at all during the several days we were watching except it grew blacker. The top of it was just as level as could possibly be imagined. The winds aloft were probably doing that.
Aitken:Well, now, what other particular thing…?
DeVorkin:Well, could you actually see the flames?
DeVorkin:From 70 miles away.
DeVorkin:That must have been really something. And you realized it was San Francisco that was burning.
Aitken:Well, of course, communication was very poor. It was mostly by word of mouth. The telephone between here and San Francisco was all right, but to get a telephone call through to San Francisco was just simply not done. At least that’s what they told us. I don’t know whether it was ever tried or not. But our first information came through the stage driver, the regular stage driver. He was full of all the latest, of course. And the one thing I definitely remember was that everything from 16th Street to the ferry had been swallowed up. That was all manmade land from there on down. And that had all been swallowed up and the water was back to what it was wherever it was when they started filling in.
DeVorkin:How did the people on the mountain — your parents and the other adults — seem to react to this? Did you feel the earthquake up on the mountain?
Aitken:Mother described it to me very nicely two or three times. She said she felt as if she was swinging out and wasn’t going to swing back. Of course, as soon as the earthquake started. Dad rushed up to the observatory to check on the telescope and the building and so on like that because he felt responsible for it. He’d just gotten home from a night of observing and the seeing wasn’t worth anything anyhow he’d wasted a full three or four hours — and thought maybe it would settle down, because his work was so fine that you had to have pretty good “seeing.” So they were worried about my mother’s brother, whose marriage ceremony was scheduled for that same week.
DeVorkin:In San Francisco or Oakland?
Aitken:In Oakland. His bride lived in Oakland, and he was a San Francisco man about town, one of those people that in those days before you were married or the day before you were married, whatever it was, they’d have a bachelor’s party, and they’d all dress up in their white tie and tails, you know, with top hats and have this bachelor’s party. I don’t know what all they didn’t do at the bachelor’s party, but that’s neither here nor there - there he was. And it broke up about the time that the earthquake came. So he had the wedding at 11 o’clock or some such time the next morning, whatever it was. There were no cabs, no nothing around, so they had to walk — how far, I don’t know. He started in to go up to his little apartment, and a fellow with authority stopped him and said, “You look like you’re a nice young man even though you are dressed up. Here’s a shovel, Get to work,” So he remarked to my mother that “I spent my hour and a half digging ditches and so on.” “So what if you are dressed up? You’re able to work, can’t you? Here, take off your coat.” He said he wouldn’t take off the coat; it wouldn’t bother him anyhow. Well, of course, there were all kinds of stories about the transportation problem. It was very difficult. He finally got an express wagon, a ride in an express wagon, that was going to take things to people down in San Jose, and he got them to take him clear around the edge and up the other side to Oakland to his fiancée’s place and found them all in a dither, because there was no way to get communications at all.
DeVorkin:That must have been several days later.
Aitken:Yes, it was — I don’t know how long it was. Anyhow they got married safely all right.
DeVorkin:Just a few days later.
Aitken:A few days later. And, of course, we had all kinds of very interesting hearsay type of stories in connection with that earthquake. The one that I remember most is the elderly Negro lady who was in the back of an express cart being taken someplace or other I imagine with all her master’s belongings and among them was a parrot in a cage. And the parrot was one of those swearing kind. And she would say, “Hush, Chili, hush, Chili,” and evidently the parrot came back with something and she said, “Oh, Lordy, Lordy, this is the limit. Hush, Chili.” Well, that was one of those hearsay stories.
DeVorkin:This was in San Francisco.
Aitken:In San Francisco proper, yes. And the woods were full of those at that time. Everybody had experiences. We had a lady here at Canterbury who was a young lady at that time, and she had some of the wildest stories you could possibly imagine. She was I guess under 21 at the time I don’t know but anyway she would talk to me. I’d come up with a story and then she’d come up with a story to cap mine. We had a lot of fun with those stories.
DeVorkin:What were some of your experiences in the few days following? Were people up on the mountain worried about other earthquakes? Did they latch down the telescopes or anything?
Aitken:No, they didn’t. The only other earthquake that really bothered us was the one in 1911, and that one I think had an epicenter somewhere around the San Jose area, because that moved the entire telescope, the big telescope, over some inches on its base even though it had been cinched down by those big bolts, you know, that go in there. I don’t remember just how they did it. They had to get some kind of a crew up from San Jose to move it back again. They were quite concerned about it, because they didn’t know whether it had been out of plumb and there would be trouble, and they were of course afraid of a crack in the big lens, and all kinds and sorts of bugaboos came up on that type of thing, but they finally got it eased around so that it was satisfactory and all that. Nobody ever gave a thought to poor James Lick down there, buried down there in beneath it, you know, as to what might happen to him.
DeVorkin:Right. Were there stories at that time about whether James Lick was really buried in there?
Aitken:Yes, but we never doubted that. There was a big sign there on the base of the telescope. We never doubted that at all.
DeVorkin:So as far as you knew, he was definitely buried there.
Aitken:As far as I know, it’s very true.
DeVorkin:Did any of his family ever come up to the mountain?
Aitken:Not that I know of. My younger brother in Palo Alto to could tell you a great deal about that, because he’s got quite a collection of slides and pictures from the early days. I have one or two showing the men that came up there originally to set up the place with their rifles and their dogs and that sort of thing.
DeVorkin:This was during the time of Captain’s Floyd’s building the observatory.
Aitken:Yes, that’s right.
DeVorkin:Is your younger brother able to talk to us do you think?
Aitken:Oh, I should think so. He has an address of 126 Kellogg Avenue, Palo Alto. His name is Douglas Aitken. As I say, he has made quite a name for himself (shall I say it that way?) in going around to various clubs and associations giving talks on Mount Hamilton based upon slides that formed part of my father’s lectures that he was continually giving and pictures that you put on a Balopticon: the pictures themselves, you know, as well as the ordinary scope. So he had quite a good presentation. I don’t know how long the talk was, but a talk that he could give to a service club, for example — maybe three quarters of an hour, maybe half an hour, something like that. So you might be able to get something out of that from him.
DeVorkin:Well, let’s continue with your years on the mountain as a child growing up.
Aitken:What age about?
DeVorkin:Well, we can continue on in the 1906 era and during that period. Do you know what your father did when he went up to check the telescope just after the earthquake? Did he talk about what he did?
Aitken:No, it was just the talk between three or four of the men in our parlor. They gathered together to talk about what they were going to do and how they were going to go about it and made arrangements. Dr. Campbell was there and I don’t know who else.
DeVorkin:This was in 1906?
Aitken:Or shortly after. No, 1911. The 1906 one didn’t bother us at all as far as the condition of the telescope was concerned. It knocked a chimney down maybe or something like that, but there was very little damage. It was the 1911 one that made the final damage to the brick house that caused that to be torn down and, as I say, made the shift in the telescope itself and cracked the observatory building itself in several places, the brick work, because it was really more of a sharp shock than the long swinging one in 1906.
DeVorkin:Did you feel the one in 1911 also?
Aitken:The one in 1911, Mother had taken us down to see the dentist in Oakland, and we were up about five or six stories, whatever it was, and the earthquake started then when we were there and the building began going this way. My brother and I were interested in seeing what the other buildings were doing we weren’t interested in our building. Of course, being youngsters, why that’s the way it was. Of course, Nether was immediately worried about the conditions up at Lick, as she would naturally, so it wasn’t very long before we got back home and that condition that I just described to you was what actually took place. It was quite an exciting time for us, of course, but the only thing we were interested in was whether the shingles on our new barn had slid off or not these big packages, you know. That’s the only thing we were interested in, and we had to go down and see about that right away as soon as we got home.
DeVorkin:As you grew older on the mountain did you feel a sense of isolation?
Aitken:We exhibited that early and tried to figure out a way to make this isolation less. I guess I was maybe four or five at that time and this other young fellow and myself were about the same age. We each got a little red wagon about the same time, and we’d been in all kinds and sorts of difficulties, the two of us. What he couldn’t think of, I could, as far as getting into mischief is concerned. We got into the paint shop and played Indians and so on like that and got ourselves a good bath and got put to bed and were given bread and water to eat and all that sort of thing because of the fact that we stole into the paint shop and used all that paint. You know, to scrub off paint off clothes is just almost impossible. And, of course, some of it had gotten onto our skin, too, and that made things worse.
DeVorkin:Did your father scold you or did your mother scold you?
Aitken:Neither one scolded us.
DeVorkin:Who had the direct contact with your ‘bread and water’ and that sort of thing?
Aitken:That was a threat. It wasn’t actually carried off. That was one of those things that Mrs. Paul; the mother of this other boy, and my mother got together on. My mother was living at that time down there in the flat, that place that used to be the boarding house. Mrs. Paul and her family lived over next door. I think Mr. Paul might have been the janitor or something like that in those early days, before Mr. Vogt came on.
DeVorkin:He was the man who gave the tours that you used to follow?
Aitken:Oh, yes, he did, and so did Mr. Vogt. Mr. Vogt was a photographer of sorts, too, an early photographer, not in a class with Dr Wright at all, of course, but a pretty good everyday photographer. Well, one of the highest spots that might be of interest was the lack of church and religious things. The only time we ever had a church service up there was when somebody came up to stay the weekend who was a religious person, as often did. Some of the astronomers had that religious bent, visiting astronomers, particularly if they were Italian or in that type of area. But occasionally they’d have what they called a real minister would come up there and stay overnight with somebody, and as soon as they did they’d have a church meeting. Well, that went along fine until my mother took the two of us down to visit her father in Oakland, and of course we had to go to Sunday School. Well, we’d never been to Sunday School; didn’t know what it was all about, so we thought maybe that would be fun. And I guess my kid brother might have been eight, along in there somewhere, and we went to this class with youngsters about our same age, and the teacher said, “Well, now, I’m going to ask you if any of you know who Paul was?” And Duke raised his hand, my younger brother, and stood right up, and she said, “Now, here this is a young man that’s just come down and this is his first time in Sunday School and yet he knows who Paul was. What is your name?” she said. “I’m Douglas,” he said. “Well, who was Paul?” “His name was John Paul Jones. He was captain of the United States Navy.” (laughter) Well, all right, that’s just one of those little stories.
DeVorkin:Did you have any religious instruction from your parents?
Aitken:Yes, we did. Dad always said grace whenever he was home at dinner time or when we had dinner at Sunday noon at home. He always said grace. And we were acquainted with the Bible just as if it were a history book.
DeVorkin:Did he read from the Bible in the evenings or did your mother?
Aitken:No, nothing of that sort. Of course, being an astronomer, he very seldom was home, very seldom ate breakfast with us, and only occasionally he’d eat dinner, and once in a while lunch. He was very erratic about eating meals at a regular time when the rest of us were ready for meals. But that was because of his job. He just simply couldn’t leave his work right at this point; he’d have to wait till he got to that point. When you’re working on a mathematical problem say an orbit you’ve got to get to a place where you can leave it and forget about it till maybe an hour later. And, of course, when he got a little further along the line, why he was interrupted with all sorts of interruptions when he was associate director after Dr. Campbell went down to the University. For example, he said, “I don’t have any time for my observational work at all. I’m always busy wondering where I’m going get the next piece of wood or the next can of paint to do something or other around the place.” He always had to get on that and get the permission through Dr. Campbell at the office in order to make any improvements at all.
DeVorkin:So when Dr. Campbell was down on the Berkeley campus and your father was associate director, your father still had to get directives and invoices through the director?
Aitken:For any major improvements, I think there must have been a financial limit there somewhere, probably was. But I don’t know.
DeVorkin:Did he regard it pretty much as an inconvenience because it took more time?
Aitken:Oh, definitely. Well, now, Dr. Campbell felt the same way, and I’m sure that the other directors up there felt much the same way. The superintendent of the school I first went to here in California said, “If I could just spend one period a day in classroom, there’s nothing I would like better.”
DeVorkin:This was when you first worked as a teacher?
Aitken:When I first worked as a teacher. Well, all right.
DeVorkin:Let me ask you something about your home life and your father’s erratic schedule as an astronomer: when you were a young child, were you aware that this was why he wasn’t around at all? How did you feel about his absence?
Aitken:Well, I had to take it in stride. Mother would say: “We can have liver and bacon tonight because Dad had to go down to Berkeley and won’t be back until tomorrow.” Dad wouldn’t have liver in the house, you know.
DeVorkin:No, I didn’t know that. Why was that?
Aitken:It was just one of those idiosyncrasies.
DeVorkin:He didn’t like it?
Aitken:He didn’t care for it at all. He didn’t care for any wild game, such as trout and quail and that sort of thing that we might possibly bring home. When there was an occasional deer killed, as there was during the season up there, and the whole mountain was invited to a feast of venison. Dad would go but he didn’t care for the wild taste of the meat. Well, that was just simply one of those idiosyncrasies.
DeVorkin:Was there a lot of hunting on the mountain?
Aitken:About a two-mile distance from the top was about as close as you could get to any place where you could do any hunting.
DeVorkin:Was this a rule set down by the observatory?
Aitken:It was initiated by the Regents. I think it was perhaps Dr. Campbell perhaps at the observatory that did it first because he was going down home in his new automobile, by the way, but he was going down home from the observatory and a bullet from a rifle went through his windshield and buried itself in the seat right beside him, missed him by maybe six inches or so, but it splashed glass all over. I suppose that scared the poor man, I don’t know. But, at any rate, I think that was the start of making that a game reserve. At least that was one of the main reasons that it was, because that people were shooting at deer in the vicinity of human habitation. And you could say this much about Dr. Campbell: he was one of the most direct individuals to get something done. If he thought something should be done, it was going to be done by golly, or else. He was that type of person. And he would work and work and work and work till he got it done. That comes right back to these early days: recollections regarding dogs. We had two dogs and somebody else had dogs. Well, dogs would chase deer, and dogs might chase foxes and I don’t know what else. So a little directive came out about dogs. I don’t remember just what that included, but one thing was that we weren’t supposed to have more than so many dogs and we had to keep them on leashes and this and that. I don’t know just how comprehensive it was. But he didn’t inspect or anything else like that, but we were warned as youngsters that when we took our dogs for a walk not to let them run, to keep them on a rope. Well, of course, we didn’t worry about that. As long as we could go with the dogs, we’d go with the dogs. And then we found out that there was a limit to the place. So when we got out where we thought the limit was, why we’d take the leash off the dogs and let them run. Well, that was just one of those childish things.
DeVorkin:Later on did you have contact with Dr. Campbell’s sons? Did you play with them?
Aitken:We had a lot of contact with them, both the boys. As I say, one was in the Indian tribe that we had, and Wallace the elder had to be chief because he was the one that had the horse or the donkey in this case. And the girls joined in with us, too. There were three or four girls — Dr. Curtis’ daughter and the mechanic’s daughter.
DeVorkin:Did you ever get together and play astronomer?
Aitken:No, we never did. We never did that. But we had the reputation among the visitors of being some kind of an extraordinary person because we’d meet him at the door, you know, and: “Would you like to see some of the observatory? I suppose that’s why you came up.” Nice and gentlemanly like — took them to the first transparency on the left, you know, “and this was this and this was that”, and we’d go on in great detail almost verbatim what we heard. And, of course, we added our little personal touch to the description from what my father told us about the various constellations and various stars and so on like that.
DeVorkin:What were some of those stories? What were the transparencies that were up there?
Aitken:The ones that I was mostly interested in were comets, because when it came on in 1907 — I guess it was, wasn’t it?
DeVorkin:Halley’s comet was 1910.
Aitken:1910? Well, anyway when it came along, it was such a brilliant object that I was wondering about it, and I remembered that Dad had told us about these early comets, the one in 1888 I believe it was that made such a splash across the sky and several other comets, and the fact that he had discovered one or two comets in his early days and that this one fellow that had discovered this comet over in Europe or somewhere or other had sent a telegram with all the information on it, and of course Dad picked it up because he happened to be in charge of the observatory at that particular time. I think Dr. Campbell was away on an eclipse expedition or something.
DeVorkin:In 1910 or just prior to that?
Aitken:Some time around there, some of those early comets; I don’t know which one it was. At any rate, he got this long telegram, and of course it was in code, and he had to take it up to the observatory and decode it, and then send somebody to locate it. And, of course, they had plenty of the young men up there that were definitely interested in this type of thing that were very glad to get their name on some kind of a paper, which is common sense. They were very good observers, from what Dad said; he trusted them, you know. He wasn’t particularly interested in that sort of thing, not that he thought it was below him or anything like that, but there were so many other things that he felt he had to do that this took a relatively minor spot in his mind.
DeVorkin:It was something that somebody else could do just as well.
Aitken:Something that somebody else could do just as well and maybe better.
DeVorkin:Do you recall seeing Halley’s comet yourself?
Aitken:No. The head of it was right at the horizon and the tail of it was three-quarters of the way across the sky and expanding as it went from the head on up, and I’ve remarked several times since that I’m not at all surprised that the ancients believed that all kinds of things were going to happen when they saw that thing, because it was just something remarkable, just an absolutely remarkable sight. There’s no doubt about it. But that rather crystallized my ideas on comets, including those things that Dad told me about those previous comets — the one in 1888 and so on like that, — so that I was interested in that one transparency that was made up of all different comets, and I knew about the star paths that were shown on there and all that sort of thing and could hold those visitors agog at a 10 or l2 year-old boy being able to sound off like that. And, of course, when they asked me: “Are you going to be an astronomer when you grow up?” “Of course.”
DeVorkin:You did have that feeling at that time?
Aitken:I’d reply, “Of course I’m going to be an astronomer when I grow up.” But I had no more idea what I was going to do than the man in the moon, but that was a certain reply, because I knew that if I talked to them long enough, that pretty soon someone would want to know about water, because of course those automobiles they came up there and we didn’t start this until the automobiles came up.
Aitken:The four of us boys — the two Campbell boys and the two of us — made up what we called the “autobiography,” which included the name of the automobile, the number of passengers, whether it boiled or not the last half mile, and little items like that.
DeVorkin:Did you keep this and write it down?
Aitken:We wrote it down, and we had a little book. We were very meticulous about it and compared notes whenever we’d get up there, the four of us together. Once in a while we’d get there and compare notes about things that went on in the past. We’d sort of trade it around.
DeVorkin:Do you know where this book is? Is it still in existence?
Aitken:I don’t know what happened to it.
DeVorkin:Who had control over it? Did you keep it or did the Campbell boys?
Aitken:My brother and I had one together, and I think the two Campbell boys had one together I’m not sure. But at any rate, we’d trade information around. We never tried to trade the books. We’d trade information around all right between us, because we just thought we were ahead because we had two more automobiles than they did, and I suppose they felt the same way. But we had very pleasant association between the youngsters and the young people, when we’d play our games such as “Run Sheep, Run,” and “Pum pum, Pull Away.”
DeVorkin:What were those games?
Aitken:In “Pum, pum, Pull Away,” you’d line up on this side of the flat and the fellows would get in the middle, and then somebody would yell “Go,” and the whole gang would go, and he would try to catch one of you. And if he caught one of you, the one he caught was “it.”
DeVorkin:Where did you play this game?
Aitken:On that flat place just below the observatory you know, that first flat.
DeVorkin:This would not be the parking area in front of the building?
Aitken:No, down on the first level below.
DeVorkin:Below the chicken walk?
Aitken:Yes. That was the flat.
DeVorkin:That’s outside of the diner area. It was relatively safe there to play.
Aitken:That’s the only place you could play. They wouldn’t allow us to play in front of the observatory. You might break a window.
DeVorkin:Oh, you might break a window. What about falling off the cliff?
Aitken:Well, that didn’t bother them. They thought we had enough sense not to, I guess — I don’t know. But anyway the young people just ate that right up, because it gave them a chance to do some exercising and we had to explain the games to them. They played “Run Sheep, Run” with us; they played “Pum, pum, Pull Away.” They played “Dare Base.”
DeVorkin:What was that?
Aitken:A tree here, and the fellow that was “it” would stand by the tree and then the fellow would come up to him and try to move without getting caught, and you were supposed to count up to a certain number, whatever the number was, and the number you got up to was the number determined by the man who was “it” at the tree, and so you never knew when that number was going to stop. And, of course, you had to be absolutely still when he quit; and if you moved a muscle, why you were “it.” That was what they called “Dare Base.” It was a conventional game like “Duck on the Rock.”
DeVorkin:What was that game?
Aitken:One small rock on top of a bigger rock, and the idea was to throw another rock at it and knock that little rock off the top of it and you took turns doing it, and the one that did it he was supposed to get some kind of a prize. Nobody ever got a prize but he was supposed to get one. And we had a lot of fun with that as an offshoot.
DeVorkin:And again this was played in front of the diner?
Aitken:Yes. All our games were played on that flat.
DeVorkin:Did you continue playing through the evenings when some of the astronomers and observers would come down?
Aitken:We were limited to our time. We had to be in at five o’clock to get ready for dinner, because Mother never knew whether she was going to have distinguished guests for dinner or not until somebody called from San Jose that they were coming up on the stage tomorrow and would like to see the observatory and something like that, and Dad would get his share of those visitors. Somebody who wasn’t too so-called “important” would be shifted over to him. Or if the director’s house was full, why he would take whoever it was. So we got some very interesting people there.
DeVorkin:Who were some of the people?
Aitken:I don’t know the names because I was too young, but this one astronomer was from Italy, and I remember him as being a big fellow with a beard. That’s all I remember about him. I don’t remember his name. But he was very much interested in that we had just started Latin at the time, and so he wanted to know what we knew. Well, we came up with the one that Dr. Curtis taught us — “Likabus, Likabus, Sweet-a-Colorum; Boy-a-bus, Kiss-a-buss, Sweet-a-colorum; girl dislikabus wanta some—morum?” (laughter…) I think he was a priest. That’s my impression of him. And he said, “Boy-a-bus, Boy-a-bus…? Where does that come from?” And Mother, of course, told us afterwards, after he had gone she said, “I don’t think that was a nice thing to do at all. That was no more Latin…Why didn’t you tell him some Latin?” Oh, we thought that was fun. Boyabus likeabus sweeta kissorum Girlabus likeabus wanta someorum Papabus spyabus sweeta kissorum Kickabus boyabus outa the doorum. —Anonymous
DeVorkin:Did Dr. Curtis actually teach you that one?
Aitken:Well, he was blamed for it. Whether he did or not, I don’t know, but he was always blamed for it. He was a card anyway. We thought a lot of Dr. Curtis.
DeVorkin:What was he like?
Aitken:Well, he was a sort of easygoing type of person as I remember him, one that was very hard to jostle or get out of order at all, and he took youngsters in stride. He had three of them. No, I guess it was two. But anyway he was the fellow that we as youngsters thought was just ace high. Take my friend. Dr. Wright, for example, or Dr. Tucker, either one as youngsters we were scared to death of either one of them.
DeVorkin:Why was that?
Aitken:Well, Mrs. Wright thought that a youngster’s place was any place except where she was. She was one of the artistocrats of San Jose, of the Loeb family, I believe, and although she never interfered with us, she’d tell us to keep quiet when we’d be racing around the institute, around the buildings, because Mr. Wright was sleeping. Well, we recognized that; that was a good reason. But we were just a little bit scared of her. We didn’t know exactly how to take her. We’d never met any person like her. But she never was sharp with us, understand; never tried to put us in our place or anything like that, I think she treated us as if we were individuals. Of course, looking back on it now, that’s the way it seems to me, because we never had anything against her personally; and when they moved over across the camp ground from our house and took up that new house built especially to their liking and all that sort of thing. And was as much as they could get under the circumstances and settled down, we came to an amicable decision as to just how far we could go in and around their house. She was very kind about it and told us the reason why we were disturbing Mr. Wright, you see; he was sleeping. Nothing about disturbing her, no all about Mr. Wright. Well, we could understand that because we had the same trouble at home with Dad when he wanted to sleep.
DeVorkin:You had to be quiet.
Aitken:Yes. Well, he had hearing troubles. He discovered it when he was playing tennis back there in Williams. He wore a hearing aid constantly. So we worried about him because as Mother would say, “Well, Dad’s got his good ear in the pillow, so don’t slam the door or jump up and down or run downstairs or run upstairs because it makes vibrations.” She was very careful about what we could do and what not to do. We couldn’t play the piano, for example. But we could yell all we wanted to. “If you want to yell and scream, go ahead, you won’t startle me and I know what you’re doing.” So we weren’t held down by any strict discipline at all, because all the time it was explained to us as to why this was not the thing to do not because of the “gentleman” way, but it is not the thing for us to do. That was the basis of it.
DeVorkin:What about Dr. Campbell? Did he ever keep the children in line or your impressions of him? Did he deal with the children at all?
Aitken:We admired the man. We loved to characterize him — his brows that stuck out here…
DeVorkin:His big bushy eyebrows?
Aitken:Oh, they just stuck right out. He was proud as the devil of those things, I guess — I don’t know — but anyhow according to the story (hearsay again) he would brush them out every morning before breakfast. They just stuck straight out about so far, as I remember it.
DeVorkin:About two inches?
Aitken:An inch and a half anyway. But he was a kindly person, as I remember him. He was just a little bit shocked about some of the things that his boys and we did without the slightest doubt in the world.
DeVorkin:What was he shocked about?
Aitken:Such as the case of the skunk that I told you about.
DeVorkin:No, you didn’t tell me about the skunk.
Kron:You told me about it at lunch.
Well, we had a trap line. We decided we would have trap lines, box traps, because of the fact that we’d read in the POPULAR SCIENCE magazine about how these people, whose names don’t make any difference now, went about fixing their traps in the dead of winter, you know, and splashing around and all that. Caught these furs and bundled up these furs and went down to this particular rendezvous and sold their furs and got lots of money and went out and played around and gambled and had a good time in general. What that good time was, we didn’t know, but they had a good time. Well, why not? “Let’s set some box traps.” Because one of the things we heard or read in a little book was that these steel traps were just absolutely out because the animals suffered. All right, that sounded all right. So we built these box traps, and then it was a matter of who would have what ridge, and so we got together on it: “We’ll take this ridge and you take that ridge.” That was all right, and so we had our own ridges. So every day at a certain time we’d hike off to these box traps, and if there was any animal in there we’d get rid of the animal.
If it happened to be a fox, we’d kill the fox and skin him and take him home or, as I say, one time we took one live and brought him home. But he finally got away; we let him go because we thought we’d scared him enough. But we made a set of furs for my sister, including a muff and a neckpiece and all that sort of thing out of six or seven skins, something like that. Oh, yes, and the skunk. Well, in this case it was the two Campbell boys that had picked the skunk out of their trap, and when we found a skunk in the trap, we simply opened the door and let him go. But they decided they wanted that skunk fur. Well, all right. The result was, of course, they got covered with the skunk’s odor and all that while they were doing it. And they had been trained that when they had visitors down there at the director’s house and they had them quite often to say their little speeches (“Good afternoons,” and “Did you have a pleasant trip,” and all that sort of thing and then “excuse me”) and then they’d go upstairs and change their clothes and come down for dinner like nice little gentlemen and one thing and another. I think that bothered Dr. Campbell. There was absolutely no way that he could make a ruling concerning that type of activity, you see.
DeVorkin:You mean the box traps.
Aitken:The box traps, because it wasn’t hurting the animal anyway. And if we caught something like a Bobcat in there, the wild cat would probably break the box trap anyhow, which it did. But foxes and things like that — well, boys will be boys I think was his attitude. And I don’t know of a single instance of what you call corporal punishment in any of the families up there. I never heard of it, and it wasn’t in our family, and I’m sure it wasn’t in the Campbell family or the Curtis family. I’m sure that they had this other way to get around the disciplinary action other than the sitting in the corner and waiting for Daddy to come home, that sort of thing.
DeVorkin:What were some of the disciplinary actions?
Aitken:Well, as I say, that was mainly this matter of: “That is not the type of thing that we do.” That was the general trend and then the explanation of “why” put in words that we might understand.
DeVorkin:What happened with the skunk?
Aitken:That dribbled off after a little flare-up, and nothing was said about it. The Campbell boys, both of them, thought it was fun.
DeVorkin:And they came home with the skunk odor all over them.
Aitken:They thought it was fun, and they warned us very definitely about it: “If you’re caught with a skunk, leave your clothes outside. Don’t go in the house with it on you or you’ll get into trouble.” That was the main thing they were worried about.
DeVorkin:Right. Well, let’s go back to the transparencies. You mentioned that you were very interested in the comet one. Were there any others that you liked to show the visitors, like maybe Mars or something?
Aitken:No, the only other one that I was also interested in was the one that had the cluster of Hercules in it, and the Crab Nebula and the Orion Nebula and that sort of thing were in that same transparency case.
DeVorkin:Were these objects that your father liked to talk about or the other astronomers or the guides?
Aitken:The guide did. But the only thing I had with Dad was when he’d take me out and point out the various constellations like Orion and Cassiopaeia, and he told me the location of Hercules and the location of the Orion Nebula approximately.
DeVorkin:Did he talk about the stories about the constellations too?
DeVorkin:Just the locations.
Aitken:The locations. We read a lot about the way that they were drawn by the ancients, you know, and their imagination as to the various people that were implicated there, the various gods and goddesses and all that. That was Sunday reading if you wish.
DeVorkin:What did your father say about the constellations?
Aitken:Just “Can you see them? See this star here and this star here and this star here?” And to this day I’ll find Cassiopaeia and Orion quite easily when they’re out.
DeVorkin:Did he ever talk about the individual stars and the double stars in any detail?
Aitken:Just in the way of his lectures. He gave quite a number of lectures both in this country, California and abroad, because he was often delegated to represent the observatory at observatory dedications and that sort of thing in the various parts of Europe.
DeVorkin:What were some of his favorite lectures that you remember?
Aitken:It was something about the dance of the dark or something of that sort. I don’t know the exact title. I’ve got one of his pamphlets, some of his pamphlets upstairs, and that might be up there.
DeVorkin:Maybe we should look at those pamphlets and that would help your recollection?
Aitken:Well, they’re all upstairs in my apartment. All right, because I have some of his monographs there and then a collection of the Astronomical Pacific Leaflets.
DeVorkin:He wrote one of the first of the leaflets I remember, and he contributed to the leaflets a lot.
Aitken:Quite a bit. In fact, after he retired, why he was always working on that. And what irked him was as he grew older, he couldn’t do the things that he wanted to do. He was very very much disappointed in the fact that he couldn’t get around the way he wanted to do. He wanted to go here and he wanted to go there, and he just couldn’t. DeVorkin Because of his health?
Aitken:When he was my age, for example, why he had his own office down on the campus at Berkeley. And he also had his study upstairs. That was his, and orders were that things as they were would be left as they were until. Nobody could touch them, not the housekeeper or anybody else. The dust could stay there. That sort of attitude. As you’d expect, he had his double-star catalogue up there that he was working on. He was always working on something, always. He’d be going over to San Francisco and meet with several people, both in the Astronomical Society and others that he knew. One interesting experience that I can tell you about: he had a Manzanita cane, a walking cane, that was made for him by one of the men that used to live down in the canyon. I have the man’s name upstairs. And he was swinging it as he went along. And, of course, you know he was hard of hearing. At that time there were four streetcar lines in San Francisco besides the traffic, and the control of those, of course, was by lights. I went over just once with him at his invitation. He was going to see somebody or other over there I don’t know who it was; it doesn’t make any difference and he decided to cross the street, and he stuck his cane out. “Traffic? Foo!” Well, I couldn’t do anything except go with him. So we got across to the other side, and I said, “Just a minute, Dad.” He said, “What’s the matter?” I said, “You know about the traffic?” “Oh, that’s not for me,” says he. What are you going to do with a man like that? Well, of course, it got down to the place where he had his fall and had broken his hip and had a little stroke and all like that.
DeVorkin:When did that happen?
When he was about 86, 87. And he’d go out and get on the little bus there in Berkeley — that was after he’d retired, of course, a long time. They bought a house there on Spruce Street in Berkeley, with either nine or ten rooms to it, a beautiful place. Eucalyptus siding in the main room and hardwood floors. I guess it had a butler’s room and I guess a maid’s room and all that sort of thing. I don’t know. But anyway it had a very nice kitchen and a beautiful view of the bay where the Golden Gate Bridge is now, in that area. Dad loved fuchsias, and they had fuchsias all over the place but in variety, and of course he had a gardener take care of it. So he was pretty comfortably off, but when Mother passed on — she passed on before he did — he was just absolutely broken. That, in connection with his slight stroke and his fall due to that stroke that broke his hip. And the fact that he had to spend a length of time in a wheelchair was just more than he could stand, absolutely more than he could stand.
Well, my younger brother and I wanted to get him to leave this big house where he had to have a housekeeper and a maid and all that. It was a very unsatisfactory situation as far as we were concerned. And we wanted him to move up to one of these apartments where he could get some kind of care, where they had maid service and all that, which could very easily have been done. Do you think he would move? “If I have to die, I’m going to die right here. I’m not going to die in somebody else’s strange place.” All that. Well, what could you do? Nothing. So we’d visit him whenever we could. And, as I say, after Mother went, my younger brother and I took him on a ride up the line and took him on a walkway to look over the ocean and all that sort of thing to sort of distract his attention as much as possible from it. But he was adamant in his desires and his wants and his needs, and he knew what he was going to do and what he wasn’t going to do and that was that.
DeVorkin:Did he ever say after he retired that he wanted to go back up and visit the observatory?
DeVorkin:Why was that?
I don’t know. We never took him up there. We took him and my mother on several trips, automobile trips. He asked me about it. One time when I went up to see him, he said, “We would like to take an automobile trip. You’ve got an automobile.” “Yes, I’ve got an automobile.” “A big automobile?” “Yes, there’s plenty of room for four people. Why?” “We went to go up to Tahoe. We want to go to Yosemite. We want to go here; we want to go there; we want to go the other place.” “All right,” I said, “how about up Jackson way?” That’s where he was born, the Motherlode. He said, “Yes, very definitely, Jackson.” So I said, “All right, now suppose I take you only up to Jackson, the two of us together, and we can spend as much time as you want up there in Jackson.” Seeing as how I was in the high school game, I had the entire summer that I could do with as I pleased, and most of the time I went to Stanford to complete my work towards a possible doctorate, but I could let that go in favor of him as long as he was alive.
So we went up to Jackson and stayed there in one of the big hotels down at the end of the street. And the next morning he walked out and said, “I want to go down to the county clerk’s office. So I said, ‘All right. He knew exactly where it was and we went down to the county clerk’s office and we met there a man that knew him when he was a boy. This man was about getting ready to retire, I guess. Maybe he had retired I don’t know. But he called him “Robbie” and all that. So I was very much interested naturally “And now where?” “Wel1,” he said, “I don’t want to see the graveyard. I don’t want to see that where my folks are, but I would like to go down one of the mines.” So he spoke to this county clerk about it. “Why, sure. Just a minute.” And the county clerk called up someone and made the arrangements. So we got over at this mine, and they took us down in one of these chutes you know I don’t know what the level was and we got off this vertical level and went on through, and this guide told me: “You being a young man, do you have a knife, a pocket knife?” I said, “Sure,” “Well, you see that little streak along there?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “That’s pure gold. Dig out some.” So I dug out maybe an inch or so, “Now put it back there.” And so I put it back there. “Now the next fellow that comes along will be able to do the same thing.” All right, so he gave us a very nice, although short, tour through that particular part of the mine, but the rest of it was having water trouble, so we didn’t go any further. We went back up to his office, and he gave us each a little gold nugget. I don’t know what’s become of it. I know I kept it for some years as a treasure. Later on we took him and my mother up to Yosemite and then went on over the Tioga Pass.
DeVorkin:That’s quite a ride.
Aitken:It was. Dad didn’t know anything much about an automobile. He never had one. So he wanted to pay the way. “Well,” I said, “that’s very nice of you, but you don’t have to because I’ve got plenty of money for it.” “Well,” he said, “I’d feel better because it’s my trip you’re taking me on.” “All right,” I said, “all right.” Well, we stopped up there at the top of the grade because I wanted to get enough gasoline so I could get down to the next gas station.
DeVorkin:Down on Mono Lake?
Yes. So I just wanted five gallons, because I knew it would be high. And Dad had heard me say, “Fill it up,” so he said “Just fill it up.” The man said “Fill it up?” And Dad said, “Yes, sure.” And you should have seen Dad when he got the bill. It was something like $10, something like that. So I said, “If you don’t mind, Dad, I’ll run the gasoline.” “Oh?” I said, “Yes. We could have taken three gallons, and that would have gotten us down to the station on the flat, and the price down there will be ten cents less a gallon than you’re paying here, maybe more.” “What’s the difference?” I said, “It hurts me and it should hurt you to pay more than you should.” Well, all right, I had a blowout, a back tire. The thing swung and almost got out of control, but it didn’t. And so I put the spare on and threw the old tire in the trunk and stopped down at a service station down the line — a nice big place — and I said, “I’m going to look up tires,” Well, while I was gone, Dad looked up tires, and he not only got himself one tire he got himself a pair. He (the salesman) put them on and then he (Dad) looked at me and said, “See? Look tires.” I said, “Yes - $35 apiece?” “How did you know?” “Well,” I said, “that’s what I paid for them originally for this car.” “What are you going to do about it?” I said, “I was going to buy a second-hand tire.” “What’s that?” “Oh, I suppose around $10, maybe 15.” “Can’t you repair the other?” “No, the other one is shot. The casing’s shot, so I can’t do any thing with that. But,” I said, “I can take one of these now for a spare, the other tire that’s on for a spare.” And he had two brand new ones. And I said, “Really, Dad, I don’t mind you’re paying.
That’s all right. But when it comes to things that I know that you can’t possibly know,” I said, “please let me take care of it. You can pay the damage if you want to.” “All right,” Well, he kind of sat back on that. We got down to this place, some place along the line, one of the bigger towns, — I’ve forgotten the name of it; it doesn’t make any differences — and got a nice room for the two of them and a connecting room. Well, that was fine. Dad wanted some hot water for shaving the next morning, so he asked for hot water. “Well, when you’re ready for hot water, just let us know and we’ll send some up.” Well, that was unusual with him, but that was all right. And that night for dinner we had trout, and Dad didn’t care for wild things, but this thing was cooked with a certain sauce, and there wasn’t anything more trout to it than the man in the moon so far as I was concerned. It was just fish, and I don’t mind fish. But he said, “Is this trout?” I said, “All right, you can call it trout if you want. You want to know what I call it?” He said, “What?” I said, “I call it fish.” He said, “What’s the difference?” I said, “There’s all the difference in the world between trout and fish.” Well, we never did settle that argument or discussion.
DeVorkin:That stemmed all the way back from his feelings about it at the observatory I guess. This was just a lifelong feeling with him.
Aitken:Yes. As I said before, he didn’t care about the wild taste of game. Well, we all have our idiosyncrasies without a doubt.
DeVorkin:Sure. Getting back to the Lick Observatory and your recollections of the people there, were there any idiosyncrasies among the other astronomers that you might recall — Campbell?
Aitken:Dr. Tucker with his horse.
DeVorkin:Dr. Tucker had a horse?
Aitken:Oh, boy! And I think it was a Morgan, a Morgan bred, one of those saddle Morgans, a beautiful animal, and he would walk, trot and canter. Maybe it was a five-gaited or maybe it was a seven-gaited I don’t know. But anyway the sun rose and set as far as we were concerned on Dr. Tucker’s horse. He kept it in the barn, and, by golly, every day or so we’d go down and look at it to make sure it was all right and take a ride maybe, something like that. (interruption)
DeVorkin:We were talking about Dr. Tucker’s horse, and you recalled it as a strong impression of him.
DeVorkin:He rode it around the mountain a lot?
Aitken:Oh, quite a bit, yes, quite a lot. It was a common sight to see Dr. Tucker riding that horse. He took good care of it, and he was a horseman without a doubt. The other interesting thing about the astronomers I think is the first White Steamer automobile that Dr. Curtis had. And that particular automobile had the steering wheel and inside throttle made up of a wheel and the usual brakes and all that, and of course it was fired with a regular fire and a steam boiler and all that sort of thing, a very powerful machine. And he took my oldest brother down for an emergency appendectomy down to San Jose once in it. Well, we rode back with him once from town, my brother and I, and every little while the thing would backfire. And when it would backfire it would go “whoo, whoo, whoo,” and he’d say, “All right, boys, we’ll take our caps off and beat out the back fire,” you know, in the back seat, one on each side. And when it stopped the whooing, why we knew we had the backfire out. It might occur once or twice on the way. All right, so he had his White Steamer and he got a lot of fun out of it. And then Dr. Wright decided that he was going to buy a White Steamer. The roads weren’t any better then than they were in the horse days, but then nevertheless he decided. Well, that poor fellow: the first time he got into the thing to go home from the observatory, instead of turning the wheel to turn the car, he turns the throttle and he went right into the building.
DeVorkin:He went into the building?
Aitken:The main building. I think it worried him more than anything else. There was no damage to the building to speak of, and the car wasn’t hurt too much. He might have slammed on the brakes and sort of eased into it I don’t know. But anyway that was the talk of the place for a while, how Dr. Wright had gotten a hold of the wrong wheel.
DeVorkin:That’s marvelous. Dr. Campbell also had a car you mentioned, or was this later?
Aitken:Let’s see: I don’t remember his car. Of course, he was a favorite of Mrs. Hearst.
DeVorkin:William Randolph Hearst’s wife.
Aitken:I imagine so, and she was always making things easier for him. She helped out with several of the eclipse expeditions along with others that financed those things and was quite a benefactor. I don’t remember whether she gave him that first automobile or not. But anyway he turned up with an automobile. I don’t know the variety of automobile. I had no connection with it except the one time when the rifle bullet went through the windshield and I think was the main cause of the area being put on a game preserve.
DeVorkin:You were still living on the mountain when that rifle bullet incident happened?
DeVorkin:This was before 1912?
Aitken:I think 1935, before 1935 — put it that way. I don’t know of any closer date than that. You can probably find out a closer date by trying to find out the date at which the place was made a reservation, a game reservation.
DeVorkin:That’s true. Let me fix the dates that you were on the mountain continuously as a child.
DeVorkin:And what was your contact with the mountain after that? You came up continuously?
Aitken:Well, as if you would go to your home. That’s what it made me feel like. Even after we were married, my wife and I decided we had two homes. One was our own home, and the other was a home at the Lick or back east where she came from, back in Pennsylvania. That’s another story, by the way. You might want that in there because she was almost an astronomer, right next door to it. The last time I was up there was possibly in the late ‘30s. My younger brother has been up there quite often.
DeVorkin:This is Douglas.
Aitken:Yes. He used to get a couple to go with him and they’d go up after these big pine cones with a trailer behind them. They’d fill the trailer with cones. Pine cones big, so big (over l0 inches long). There were certain places where you’d find them just galore. And you’d have to wait until after the first big rain or big storm or something like that before that would occur. (pause in recording)
DeVorkin:Okay, this is after a pause, and now we’re in Mr. Aitken’s own apartment, and you have a number of the leaflets with you.
DeVorkin:We were talking a little bit when we finished just a few moments downstairs with some recollections that you had of Campbell and some of his idiosyncrasies and some of his characteristics. Could you continue on with him, or give us some idea of your recollections of Campbell as a person or how your father and Campbell got along?
Aitken:Well, I can take that latter part, but it’s what I’ve heard between my mother and father, and so it might be in the category of hearsay.
DeVorkin:That’s perfectly all right.
Aitken:Dad resented — I think I can put it that way — that he had to defer to Dr. Campbell’s ideas when Dr. Campbell was more interested in the University of California and more tied up in it than he could possibly be with his observing. I think Dr. Campbell really thought that he would have enough time from his University of California assignments to be able to come up and carry on some more of his observatory work. He kept his director’s house practically intact and his office practically intact, so that he could move in there at any time that he wished and carry on his own observations in radial velocity and with his spectroscopic work and other things in which he was vitally interested and wished to tie up because he realized along with the rest of us that he was getting older and felt the need of tying a knot or two I suppose. But, as far as I know, he never was able to carry on that idea of his, and he began to realize it I suppose within a year or two after he took over the presidency of the University, and so he dropped the associate director concept and Dad was made director, and that is about the progress. Now, the length of time that that took place, I’m not sure. But I think it was within a couple of years I think. Because I think Dr. Campbell realized that the decisions up there were definitely for that place and that a person on the job was much more able to decide what should or should not be done than he could from where he was, and the fact that he was rubber stamping it practically was nonsense. I think he came to that conclusion himself.
DeVorkin:He was able to understand. He did not want to keep control when he thought that it wasn’t as effective as it could be.
Aitken:He found he couldn’t possibly carry on the observing program that he visualized. He couldn’t control it. He figured that he could carry on both jobs and do an adequate job of his presidency of the University as well as keep on his directorship of the Lick Observatory, together with tying up whatever loose ends of his program remained. Well, that is the way I look at it now. At that time, of course, I was absolutely at a loss to make any decision at all. I felt that was an adult problem, I think, and that I should allow them to resolve it. I don’t think it affected Dad any as far as the physical conditions were concerned. I think it was just one of those things that, as he would discuss it, and as I would express at the time is that this was something that you had to ride through with or get along with — just as if you have a disability, you have to live with it, like I have to live with a heart pacemaker, for example, that sort of thing. Well, all right.
DeVorkin:Were there any other instances, let’s say during the ‘teens with research or with the emphasis on research, other than being spectroscopic or visual, that your father ever talked about, priorities at the observatory?
Aitken:No, no priority as far as the general staff was concerned. He, of course, had to okay the various programs, but he was primarily interested in the visual binary star process, and he was very much interested to find someone who would take on where he left off. You see, he wanted his three boys to follow after him. He was very anxious that we should.
DeVorkin:Why didn’t you?
Aitken:Well, he told me, “Now, I would be tickled to death if you would go into astronomy, but I would like you to go into something else that would pay more in the beginning than astronomy would.” He said, “You have to be really sold on the subject in order to find any pleasure in it. If you find something which you think you can’t do without and still live, that’s the thing you should do regardless of what it is, even if it’s hewers of wood and drawers of water or what-not.” He said, “I’ll tell you this right now: I’ll give you $250 cash if you ever make Phi Beta Kappa.” Well, all right.
DeVorkin:Did you make Phi Beta Kappa?
Aitken:No. My sister came the closest to it of any one of the four of us, but she fell in love with this Dr. Young, a Canadian astronomer. I don’t know just what observatory he was in - I think Toronto. Isn’t there an observatory near Toronto?
DeVorkin:Oh, yes, a very large one.
Aitken:That might have been there. But they separated during the First World War, l918. So she and her two youngsters came down and stayed with my folks for a period of time until the procedures were all settled. She didn’t have a particularly pleasant life from her description, but then that dear girl felt she should help some of these poor people that couldn’t help themselves. That was her aim in life. Her last husband was a ne’er-do-well if anybody was didn’t have any job to do, didn’t want any job to do; all he wanted to do was to be supported, one of those worthless people. But she was all for that. That’s what she was made for, I guess I don’t know. She was a wonderful person, of course, and brilliant. Her daughter Marjorie, for example, was a straight “A’s” student at California in chemistry, physics and that sort of thing; got her doctorate in one year, something like that, an IQ of a hundred odd. She was one of Dr. ”X” exceptional students in California.
DeVorkin:Getting back to the Lick contacts, the direct contacts with Dr. Campbell at Lick and your father’s relationship with Campbell, I know that the relationship started very early, certainly at the turn of the century, and I was just wondering if you have any recollections of your father talking about Campbell’s work because I know that around 1910 your father gave one of his first major public lectures on Mars, and a lot of this dealt with Dr. Campbell’s research on Mars, something that he was very very excited about.
Aitken:You know the reason for that? It was because of Dr. Lowell.
DeVorkin:You mentioned Dr. Lowell.
Aitken:Yes. He came up, as you undoubtedly know, with the idea about there being life on Mars and came up with articles in magazines and newspapers with drawings of the possible animals on Mars and how they lived and all that sort of thing. He had quite an elaborate group of articles I don’t know how many. And I was just wondering whether that talk on Mars might have possibly stemmed off from that heated discussion, because that raised a lot of row among the astronomers.
DeVorkin:Do you remember any of the discussions?
Aitken:Just that there was such a thing as life on Mars in as much as there was an atmosphere that could support life on Mars. To be sure there were markings on Mars that might have been made by canals of water, but how to be assured that they were canals that had contained water? Might it not have been lava flows or something of that sort that were from the volcanic action? Because you remember at that time meteorites had been a very very prominent study amongst some of the people. They examined the one that was in Alum Rock Canyon in San Jose, for example. And they found one down in was it Arizona, where the big crater is?
DeVorkin:Yes, the Barringer crater.
Aitken:Yes and other meteorites and where they came from and what they were about and what they were composed of and all that. And what made the little pockets, the sort of craters on the moon that always disturbed them. So that in connection with what they didn’t know about Mars except for shall I say imaginary concepts perhaps? It couldn’t possibly be based on any facts as far as the average astronomer was concerned, I imagine, from the way Dad talked about it.
DeVorkin:I’m interested in any of the specific things that your father said to you, whether he mentioned Lowell specifically or Campbell.
Aitken:He mentioned Lowell.
DeVorkin:What did he say about Lowell?
Aitken:Just that he couldn’t imagine where he got all that information, that he didn’t see how it could be arrived at. He evidently had difficulty trying to ad just himself to that concept. I don’t know whether he had any personal contact with Dr. Percival Lowell or not, but I do know he felt very strongly on the subject of arriving at a point of view without a particular scientific background as far as he knew. He said, “The only thing I know about Mars is what I can see through the telescope or what we can find pictures of” and all that sort of thing. “And, of course, we can’t see individuals. And, of course, we can’t tell whether there’s water up there or not. We don’t know. We just have to guess. And we don’t know what causes that peculiar situation around Mars, the area around there that has a sort of a halo type thing occasionally. We can’t quite describe what that is we don’t know.” And, of course, with present day knowledge we have a pretty good idea of what that is all about. Your radio astronomy, for example, and your walk on the Moon and one thing and on another has helped a great deal in some of that; and it has definitely come to the point that there might possibly have been individuals living there some time in the past. That has been approached several times by people in writing articles. I’ve read it myself in magazines and so on based upon these observations. Whether they’re scientifically accurate, I don’t know.
DeVorkin:Did your father ever talk about Campbell’s spectroscopic work, the work that he did to try to find water?
Aitken:Just mentioned it was all. Dad wasn’t too interested in spectroscopy as such. He realized that that was a branch that was very important, and he knew about the spectral lines and the sodium lines and the other lines in there that I of course got acquainted with later on in my physics work. The actual spectroscopic work in his opinion was a bother, because he always had to worry about whether they’d put that eyepiece on again after they’d taken the big Mills off, because he said, “That isn’t correctly oriented with the rest of the instrument.” He said, “It’s a bother and I have to worry about it.”
DeVorkin:This is his own filar micrometer.
DeVorkin:Each time it was taken off.
DeVorkin:Did he ever talk about how the time was divided up between the micrometer and the Mills Spectrograph?
Aitken:No. He was willing to adjust himself to other persons’ interests, as long as he got his program the way he wanted it. And being in the senior astronomer class, he could. Dr. Tucker had very little to do with the 36-inch. He worked with his meridian circle and was just enthused with it and did a lot of excellent work in that field without a doubt. Dr. Curtis on the other hand was more interested, I think, in photographic work than he was in the spectroscopic work, because he was — I shouldn’t say continuously — working quite a bit with the Crossley when it was set up.
DeVorkin:Did any of these astronomers ever — I shouldn’t say complain; it isn’t the right word talk about how it was to observe all night and to work on these telescopes? Did they ever say they preferred to do something else?
Aitken:No. Dad mentioned several times when the fact of the night work, particularly during the winter time — that he rather begrudged the fact that he’d get up there and get the telescope all set up and find that seeing was absolutely worthless, That is the main idea, because he’d go fix up these big felt boots and all that sort of thing in order to stand the cold in the dome because of course he couldn’t have the temperature in there. The temperature had to be kept as near the outside as possible, So it was almost untenable as far as sitting still and looking, is concerned and as far as taking notes was concerned, It was extremely difficult, I found that the only time I tried to help by recording for him,
DeVorkin:That’s right, you did record for him. Do you remember when this was?
Aitken:No, it was after I became a teenager.
DeVorkin:The approximate year then would have been in the teens.
Aitken:In the teens, yes.
DeVorkin:Could you recall the night of observing, how your father set up the telescope?
Aitken:No, all I know is that the time he allowed me to look through and tried to get me to adjust the spider threads.
DeVorkin:How did he talk about the threads and how to adjust it?
Aitken:He said, “This you’ll turn just a very slight amount because it’s a micrometer, which means it’s a (precise measuring ruler).” I didn’t have enough knowledge to get a hold of that. “But,” he said, “don’t turn it too much. Just turn it a little bit, and the same way with the other adjustment, because it’s the distance between the two that has to be read, because one line crosses one star and the other line crosses the other to intersect it exactly. And you have to get that exactly. It takes pretty good eyes to see that.” he said.
DeVorkin:Did he check your observation when you made it?
Aitken:Yes. He looked through and he said, “You’re off” whatever it was.
DeVorkin:How did you feel about that?
Aitken:Oh, it didn’t bother me any, because I realized that it was a very delicate instrument. I had just begun to get acquainted with microscopes.
DeVorkin:Oh, in your own schooling?
Aitken:At that time, I had my own little lens that I used — a little, small eyepiece. I used to look at writings and things like that to see how they magnified. I was very much interested in that part of the thing. That’s the only type of microscope we had. We got interested in radio early with the cat whisker and the crystal and would stay up all night trying to adjust it. We used my mother’s clotheslines for our aerial and ran our lead-in wire from those clotheslines, you know. I remember one night we went up to the observatory and talked to the photographer up there and got a dozen photographic plates that he was no longer using, old ones, and rigged up a condenser.
DeVorkin:Using the glass plates?
Aitken:Yes, the glass plates. And we didn’t have any way of testing its conductance or anything like that, but we rigged it up and with our earphones we got a message.
DeVorkin:How did you learn how to make this?
Aitken:POPULAR SCIENCE magazine.
DeVorkin:Were you partially off the mountain by that time going to school down in San Jose?
Aitken:No, I was still up there.
DeVorkin:This was still before 1911.
Aitken:That’s right. And you can understand that because the signal we got was from Mare Island — it was short wave — so it wasn’t easily picked up on the cat whisker. It was very blurred, but it was a noise; and we of course concluded it must be Japan, some place like that.
DeVorkin:Some place really exotic.
Aitken:Oh, yes, it had to be. It couldn’t be Mare Island. All right.
DeVorkin:What about this observing night? Did you watch your father observing?
Aitken:Only just that once.
DeVorkin:Did he seem to really like it?
Aitken:Oh, goodness, he was just glued to it, particularly when he found a double star that he’d never seen before.
DeVorkin:How would he react then?
Aitken:Very intense. He had to get these measurements down so as to get his orbit, the orbit of the two; because if they were close enough to his satisfaction, whatever the degrees were – I’ve forgotten now, but it was a very very small degree differential between them — then he’d be willing to include it in his list of double stars. I think he set that area in his own mind as to his range because he had this big double star catalogue by Burnham to use as a guide, and he went on from there, and of course who was it — Schaeberle who showed interest?
DeVorkin:Yes, Schaeberle was there then.
Aitken:Yes, but I don’t remember whether Schaeberle showed an interest or not, but one of the younger fellows did. I can’t place his name.
DeVorkin:One of the other astronomers on the staff?
Aitken:I think it was a fellow, one of the early fellows. But I don remember the name doesn’t come to me at all.
Aitken:Just the idea, that there was a possibility. You see, Dad was looking for someone to take over.
DeVorkin:This was later on in the ‘20s or ‘30s.
Aitken:Yes. Someone to take over because he realized that his age was coming on and he’d have to retire pretty soon. He didn’t know just how soon, of course. He had a little heart difficulty even then, so that he had to be real careful about climbing hills and things like that.
DeVorkin:Jeffers had something to do with the double star work, Hamilton Jeffers.
Aitken:The only thing I know about Jeff was his connection with the radio. That’s my only connection with him.
Aitken:Short wave. I think he had a first class set that he built himself. I rather imagine that was it — I don’t know. I know I went up there once or twice with him, and he had post cards from all around the world where he’d contacted people. Jeff and I were quite friendly. As I mentioned before, we played tennis together. That was when I was about college age or later.
DeVorkin:And you’d come up and visit and play tennis.
Aitken:I’d come up and visit.
DeVorkin:Did you visit mainly on the weekends?
Aitken:On weekends, yes, entirely or Thanksgiving and Christmas, that sort of thing.
DeVorkin:Did Hamilton Jeffers ever talk about working with your father? Because he did do a lot of double star work about that time.
DeVorkin:I believe so.
Aitken:Well, he might very easily have. I didn’t know anything about it.
DeVorkin:Did you know the Trumplers?
Aitken:Very much. Either he or his wife were going to be interested in giving us French, teaching us French, but we didn’t get around to it.
DeVorkin:This is already in the ‘20s.
Aitken:Yes. But we didn’t get around to it. He and his wife were quite friendly to everybody and seemed to be a part of the community. I think he fitted in very well. He had his own program. I don’t know what it was.
DeVorkin:Observing clusters of stars.
Aitken:Is that was what it was? But anyway his wife was a real Frenchwoman so far as I know.
DeVorkin:Oh, she was French in her background?
Aitken:I think so. At least all the French ladies of her approximate age that I ever saw looked exactly like her, so I gather from that that she might have been I don’t know.
DeVorkin:Well, that one experience that you had with your father observing, that wasn’t the only experiences you had with the telescope. Didn’t you help your wife-to-be observing too?
DeVorkin:Give me a little bit of information about her background and how she came to astronomy.
Aitken:Yes, I can do that quite easily. She was exceptional so far as mental ability was concerned — top honors as a high school graduate with a scholarship to Swarthmore in mathematics primarily. And when she got there in Swarthmore she ran into Dr. Miller, and he wanted her to help him out with his mathematics courses and put her on the basis of a faculty assistant. And from there, why the transfer to astronomy was very very easily made, because of course he was an astronomer anyway and he had a telescope there — I don’t remember what the size was; it was a pretty good telescope.
DeVorkin:A 24—inch refractor.
Aitken:24. And so she learned a little bit about astronomy there, and she was doing so well with it that she took off part of his observing program and worked on it for a while.
DeVorkin:What was her name, her maiden name?
DeVorkin:Her first name?
Aitken:Yes. And she did very well with that and, as I say, made her Phi Beta Kappa and of course the Sigma Psi came along a little later. And Dr. Miller said to her: “Now, you’ve gone just about as far as you can in astronomy here and you are evidently slated for that particular type of activity. What do you feel about it?” Well, Madge said that she thought she would enjoy it very much. She liked the mathematics part of it particularly, and so he had her make out an application to the Lick Observatory for a fellowship, and she sent some kind of a resume, whatever it was, that she was doing at the time, and was accepted as a fellow up there in 1922. It might have been earlier, ‘2l, ‘20, somewhere in there. And I got back from the service in about 1920, and like a good many of those combat people were just simply lost for a period of time. They all are. The change from this type of activity to an entirely different set of objectives and set of ideals, and you get away from the point where people are telling you what to do and you have to do it to a point where you have to decide what you’re going to do yourself, whether you’re going to take orders from somebody else, and you have to live independent.
DeVorkin:How did your father feel about your going into the war?
Aitken:I think he was somewhat influenced by my grandfather, Grandfather Thomas, my mother’s father. My mother’s father was, as I told you before, on the staff of General Hooker, I believe it was, as an officer; and he was of the opinion and my mother was of the opinion that our family should be represented in the First World War. Her grandfather on her mother’s side or her father on my mother’s side was also in the war, in the Civil War, and various relatives back in the l86l-65 era were on the Union side, as it happened, but from Illinois primarily. That was where my mother was born. So I think she rather thought it was the thing for me to do.
DeVorkin:And your father also?
Aitken:I didn’t quite dare talk it over with my father at all. I didn’t talk about it with my mother either as far as that was concerned. I don’t know how Dad felt about it at all until he got mad.
Aitken:And when Dad gets mad, you know he’s a Scotsman. He didn’t get mad very often, but when he gets mad, why there he is. I wrote as often as I possibly could home, and I knew the letter was going to be censored, so I’d describe the agricultural conditions, and of course I’d been trained in agriculture. I graduated from an agricultural school and all that sort of thing, although it wasn’t a degree type of institution. Nevertheless it was a first class school where when I graduated from there in 1917, I immediately stepped into a training program for a superintendent of a ranch, the Green ranch, and I could have stayed there. I didn’t need to go into the service because I could have had an exemption, but when all these four or five friends of mine who all graduated at the same time and did the same thing were going to go into the service, I just had to go along.
DeVorkin:Your father was very mad?
Aitken:I don’t think so.
DeVorkin:Because he had gotten mad at one point.
Yes, well, that was a long time after that. Of course, the organization I was with — the Marine Corps was continually in one area or another used as shock troops attached mostly to the French, because we were big fellows and very well trained and we were going to lick somebody. We didn’t know who, but we were going to lick somebody. Well, the French people liked that and we were the type of thing that your general and commander is looking for. And he found them in that group, because we went through some pretty hellish things. Well, after the Armistice, since I hadn’t gotten so many letters, any letters at all, from home — as I say, Dad got mad. So I understand that he wrote three different letters, one to the Congressman, one to the Senator and one to the President of the United States — all directed along the same line, that these boys that had gone overseas to fight for their country should get a little help from home once in a while whenever they could, and the best way was by letters. “My son has been over there (six months, eight months, whatever it was) and has not yet received a letter.
So what’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you want to take care of your people?” It was that kind of letter, you see. Well, all right. At the time that this went on was after the Armistice, and I had been ordered along with 125 others who were changed by their running through this so-called mill where they were reclassified from “D” classification up to a “B—C” classification, “D” and “F” meant States, “D” and “C” meant a gradation of activity. “A” was front line service. So I was changed from a “D” class to “B”, because I was in fairly decent shape in comparison to others in the group that were going through the mill at that time, and they needed men that had had good training to police the classification camp where the people were being processed for States-side and American boys that had been prisoners for AWOL and murder or what-not had to be reclassified to three different places: States detention barracks and a second type of detention barracks that wasn’t so bad. Two hundred men at a time would come down through processing. Well, all right.
DeVorkin:You were involved in policing them?
Aitken:Yes. And, you see, there were 125 of us and not a single one of us showed any ratings as a corporal or a sergeant or anything like that. We were all privates as far as anybody could tell. Nobody would admit to being anything else, because it meant responsibility, and no one was going to take any responsibility. Well, all right, but those of us who were in the private range — and I was one of those — knew who the corporals and sergeants were in the group. All right. Well, this captain that was put in charge of us was a floor walker type that had gone through officers training camp and had gotten himself an officer’s commission. But he had a little blond nurse “tied out” up at the camp hospital, which was about six kilometers from where we were.
DeVorkin:Where was that?
Aitken:Near St. Angon, France. St. Angon was about 200 miles south of Paris. Well, anyway, the camp hospital was a hospital, of course, and he had quarters up there, which was all right because he could get a command car or a side car with a driver to come down any time he wanted to, so that he came down this day that we’d just landed.
DeVorkin:Well, it’s very interesting material, but I think we should deal directly, considering we don’t have too much time left, with the lectures your father gave.
Aitken:I remember that one that I talked about, about the dark?
DeVorkin:That’s right. Which one was that?
Aitken:This one here.
DeVorkin:“Driving Back the Dark.” And that would be the Leaflet 101, June-July, 1937, Astronomical Society of the Pacific. That’s very interesting. What did he say in this?
Aitken:Here. You’ll be interested in that tribute.
DeVorkin:“The Name on the Office Door. The Tribute to Jose Costa.” That was Leaflet 268, 1951. Do you know anything about this? Did your father ever talk about these topics to you directly?
Aitken:No, No, excepting to be sure that I had some.
DeVorkin:He always gave you the leaflets. And Canopus — he was very much interested in Canopus for a Southern Hemisphere star. Oh, yes. This is Leaflet #141.
Aitken:He quoted that quite a bit.
DeVorkin:Well, what were some of the stories that you recollect your father talking about?
Aitken:Astronomical or otherwise?
DeVorkin:Well, astronomical and otherwise that you might recall.
Aitken:He used to tell us fairy tales from the Germanic standpoint but of course in English, and he used to read a lot of various books such as the YALE REVIEW and the CENTURY AND HARPER’S and that sort of thing, and read poetry to Mother, all those things. And, of course, we were on the outside listening in to all of that, and although we didn’t understand half of it, it was a quiet hour so far as we were concerned; and we thoroughly enjoyed that. But as far as any real stories are concerned, I don’t remember any real stories that he told us, either he or Mother, any real stories. They must have done it, but I don’t remember any of them.
DeVorkin:Okay. Are there any aspects of your contact with your father as an astronomer or with other astronomers that we haven’t talked about yet? Well, we were in the middle of talking about your wife’s experience and your observing with her. Could you recollect a little bit of that?
Aitken:Yes. She was interested in the perturbations of Algol, and that was on the 12-inch. I think that was going to be part of her dissertation — I don’t know. But at any rate, she asked me one night after we’d talked around and discussed various things to come out walking with her to the various places I liked to go, showing her various places around there within hiking distance.
DeVorkin:This was on the mountain.
DeVorkin:Did you meet her at first on the mountain?
Aitken:Yes, at a card party.
DeVorkin:Who gave that card party? One of the astronomers?
Aitken:No, I think it was the machinist – I’m not sure. But at any rate it was one of these Whist, the old time Whist parties, and they invited quite a number of people: Dr. Tucker an avid Whist player, and Mrs. Campbell, and somebody else. I don’t remember who the third one was, but I was put there at the same table, so there were four of us there, and of course I was quite young.
DeVorkin:This was in the ‘20s.
DeVorkin:When you would have met your wife.
Aitken:Yes, and she was there, too. Some of the other young people of the observatory, the young fellows, were there too. It might have been one of the young astronomers who was putting it on — I don’t know. We had a good time, but she had mentioned the fact that she didn’t like men with pinch glasses. See, I was wearing these little pinched eye glasses with this thing over my ear and all that. She never did like men with that. Well, we’d gotten to know each other pretty well by that time anyway, and so I asked her about it the next time we were out together, “Well,” she said, “I just meant a certain person that had those.” She had very strong aversions to certain people that she had met, which I had to agree with because she described to me some of the things.
DeVorkin:Were these astronomers?
Aitken:No, just fellow students in the college there. She didn’t like these people that were arrogant and had a tremendous ego.
DeVorkin:Do you remember any of these students?
Aitken:Oh, who was that? Drew Pearson was one of them, and one that she didn’t particularly care for.
DeVorkin:Were any of them astronomical students of Leuschner?
Aitken:No. I have one interesting comment about Dr. Leuschner. Well, anyway she asked if I wouldn’t record for her at night.
DeVorkin:This is your wife, yes.
Aitken:Yes, and handle the mechanical end of the observing, adjusting the chairs and the wind screen and turn the dome, and check the clock and that sort of thing, which I could do. When it came to recording, of course I could take down numbers as well as anybody else. Well, we spent a very pleasant two or three hours, whatever the length of time it was, on that type of thing, and she seemed to be pleased with the general outcome, and then she had to resolve the results of course. And then a little later on, we went on with it. Well, anyway, to make a rather long story short, we decided that we’d probably make a good couple and announced our engagement. She had finished almost the entire work as far as the scholastic work was concerned towards her doctorate. And she was well on her way towards completion. And Dr. Campbell told her there was no place for a married woman in the field of astronomy.
DeVorkin:That was his attitude?
Aitken:And said that he realized that it was a foregone conclusion for a young lady and a young man to possibly get married but he couldn’t see that there would be any point in having anybody in the astronomical field carrying on with a husband who didn’t know what he was going to do yet, which I didn’t, and that she had to decide which path she wanted — whether she wanted to go on in the field of astronomy, which would mean that she’d have to bypass me, or whether she wanted to bypass astronomy and go with me. And she chose to go with me. I don’t know that she’s ever regretted it to this day.
DeVorkin:How did she feel about that sort of thing at the time?
Aitken:At the time she was badly disturbed.
DeVorkin:Didn’t she feel that she could do both at once?
Aitken:She felt that she had gone so far with her work and had done so well with it and was so very much interested in it that it was just like being torn between two fires as far as I was concerned, because I wasn’t anywhere near as close to becoming an astronomer. In fact, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was doing all kinds of things during that year, from skinning mules, tending mules in a single line to plowing to running a harvester to digging ditches to being a fry cook — I don’t know what else: all kinds of things.
DeVorkin:This is after you graduated?
Aitken:Yes and after I got back from the service. And during that year before we got married, see. I still had to complete my educational requirements for the state teaching credential of California. During that period of time I got a letter from a girl-friend, this Margaret Curtis, the daughter of Dr. Curtis, who at the time was teaching English in a school in Glendive, Montana, which is on the far eastern edge of Montana, saying that there was a position open in the agricultural department of that school. The man was leaving at the end of that semester and she knew that I had an agricultural background. Why not write and apply for the position? Well, gee, $200 a month, boy, was more money than I ever thought was in the world. I sat down and wrote what I thought was the right kind of an application to that particular address and sat around waiting for a favorable reply. Well, I got a telegram from the state teacher coordinator at Bozeman, Montana, saying, “What do you mean by going over my head and trying to get a position here in a place that I’ve already picked a man out for? What kind of a guy are you anyhow?” See? And that made me mad. So I guess I sent a hot telegram back. I don’t know what I sent back. I guess I sent back some kind of a telegram. And he returned the telegram: “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, come and see me.” He said, “Take this train here and take this train here and I’ll meet you at Helena.”
DeVorkin:That was quite a distance.
Aitken:Yes. So I said, “Well, all right, why not?” I asked Mother about it, and she said, “I have no objections. You’ve got money.” I had some money left over from my service, and so they said, “Go ahead, try it out. Maybe you’ll find something.” Well, Abbe met me there at the depot. He was a bachelor. He took me to his digs and fed me a highball and talked with me for about ten or 15 minutes — we talked back and forth — and he said, “Just what is your experience?” So I told him. “Oh, is that so? Well, now, I’ve got just the place for you.” He said, “You’ll have to pass the examination of course in order to get your credentials, but that’s easy because it is the same examination given to all teachers, including the grade teachers from primary grades up to the high school.” He said, “That only requires 80% average in a three-day period of examinations covering all the subject matters like history and English and Spanish and whatever it was.” Well, all right, I got along all right except for the principles of education and he shot at me: “How would you teach a first-grade child the sound of the letter ‘m’?” Well, I had no idea what the book said about that or how to go about it, so I answered it – “make a noise like a cow but leave off the ‘oo’.” Well, one of the fellows that was correcting the papers told me afterwards, “Say, your name’s Aitken.” I said, “That’s right.” He said, “You know, that answer you gave to that question? We’re going to put that in our next book, because you’re dealing with a farming community and the youngsters know the sound of a cow. We thought that was fine.” He said, “That one thing passed you in that.”
DeVorkin:Did you get the job?
Aitken:I got the job and the credential and was in charge of the boys’ and girls’ club work.
DeVorkin:So you and your wife moved?
Aitken:No, I wasn’t married then. That was before I got married. That was early in ‘22.
DeVorkin:I see. But then you were back at Lick then.
Aitken:Yes. I came back to Lick and then went to Montana almost immediately.
DeVorkin:With your wife.
Aitken:No, before we were married. We didn’t get married until ‘23.
DeVorkin:Did you go to Montana after you were married?
DeVorkin:So you didn’t stay in that job then.
DeVorkin:Why didn’t you stay?
DeVorkin:You had a breakdown. Physical?
DeVorkin:From the war?
Aitken:Yes. Those crazy kids in the study hall: one of them threw a box of blank .22 cartridges into the big stove in the middle of the room. Well, that set me off. I went and told the principal about it and just broke. I had a nervous breakdown for the moment and of course lost the job. So I went back to Abbe and told him about it. “Well,” he said, “I think a highball will help you out a lot.” And he said, “I don’t think you’re made for that anyhow. There’s another job for you.” He said, “It just came in the other day, and I’m looking for a young fellow that’s got your credentials and has your abilities.” It was up at Flathead Lake in Montana in charge of the science department, being the science teacher. He said, “That’s the very place for you. You’ve got the background. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do it.” So I went up to this new position.
DeVorkin:This was still in 1922.
DeVorkin:Well, the important thing, since we don’t have too much time, is to get back to your wife and then the last few things.
Aitken:All right. Then I left there because I wanted to come to California, and that’s when I met her, when I got back from that time. I went down and finished my work in the education department at California at the same time she was down there doing some work under Dr. Leuschner.
DeVorkin:And this is when you met Leuschner? Or had you met Leuschner before?
Aitken:No, I met him there. The one thing I can tell you about him is his ability to roll his own cigarettes using Bull Durham tobacco. That set me right up because I used to do that quite a little bit when I was in the service, you see, and afterwards. But that one thing rather endeared me to that gentleman, because he was such a down-to-earth person. The reason he talked to me about it was because I was coming pretty close to flunking the course in the first year of astronomy.
DeVorkin:Oh, you took a course from Leuschner?
Aitken:No, Dr. Crawford.
DeVorkin:And you almost flunked out?
Aitken:I almost flunked out because I didn’t study because of course I knew astronomy. You know? Well, all right. I think that bothered Dad more than any other action that I ever did, the fact that I almost failed that course. I got by.
DeVorkin:This was about 1922?
Aitken:About 1922. You see, we didn’t get married till ‘23. That year or half a year there at Cal was one of the highlights, of my experience. I didn’t get a grade below “B” — mostly “A’s” and “B’s.” I’d found my place all right. I was a long time in getting there.
DeVorkin:That observing that one night with your wife — you mentioned that she was using an interferometer. Do you remember anything about that machine at all?
Aitken:No, Just the fact that that’s what she said it was.
DeVorkin:And she was measuring precisely the position of Algol.
Aitken:Of Algol. She called it the perturbations of Algol.
DeVorkin:And so she really had to measure it over many nights’ time.
Aitken:Yes, that’s right.
DeVorkin:And she was trying to determine whether it was visibly shifting in position.
Aitken:That’s right. As I say, I think that was connected with her possible dissertation.
Aitken:As a problem was set up for her probably.
DeVorkin:Do you recall what kinds of measurements and what kinds of numbers she had you measure?
Aitken:No, as far as I was concerned, it was all numbers.
DeVorkin:Did you ever keep any of those records?
DeVorkin:Okay. Well, all right, to sum up: I’d be very interested in your general recollections of your father as astronomer if you can give me.
Aitken:I would say the intense attitude he had towards this particular type of work: it took the place of any other activity in his mind. He was very glad to enjoy his family and we really looked up to him, of course, as we should. But it was his one aim in life I do believe was to revise this catalogue.
Aitken:Burnham’s catalogue. And he published Binary Stars, a book over there. And he revised it two or three times.
DeVorkin:The Binary Stars. That’s right. This is his famous book. This first came out about 1920.
Aitken:Yes, and then this was a reprint of it. (hands book over from shelf).
DeVorkin:That’s right. I have this, in fact, I used it in one of my own courses.
Aitken:And the people that published this wrote to me about it and wanted to know if I’d release the material. They said, “Your name is on the list as the one who should release it and should act on it,” and all that. So we came to a decision on costs and all that sort of thing and we carried it on through, and then I sent a copy of this to the Lick Observatory, two or three copies in fact and one or two copies to other places that were suggested to me to send it to.
DeVorkin:Well, this certainly is the most important book on double star work that came out. Your father is certainly very well known for it. And in here he mentions the help of Dr. Campbell and Dr. Curtis and Dr. Moore and Reynold K. Young.
Aitken:Yes, Reynold K, Young was this brother-in-law, yes.
DeVorkin:He was the one who went to Toronto?
Aitken:Yes, I think so.
DeVorkin:Okay. Well, at the end I noted before we started taping that you had some stories that were purely hearsay about Campbell. Do you have any others that we haven’t talked about yet?
Aitken:The hearsay was his relation between Mrs. Hearst and himself. It was a very interesting relation from the standpoint of what she was interested in doing and I think he felt that he could refer any financial problem of the observatory in general to her and that she would at least consider it. I think he felt very definitely on that, very strongly on that. I don’t think he was looking ahead to anything personal at all in it, although he did get some personal help from her in gifts like an automobile or something like that, you see. But I don’t think he expected it, and I don’t think he particularly cared about it, cared about getting that type of things I don’t think he cared for that type of assistance. It placed him in a very peculiar position, because he wanted her to finance various eclipse expeditions or establish a fund for some particular instrument or addition to an instrument or a particular instrument that he thought he ought to have or a program maybe. He always had something going, always. The Eclipse Expedition down to Flint Island, for example, was one he wanted particularly to go to, because that was the only place that you could see a total eclipse at that time that was avail able where a government gunboat would take him in and all that sort of thing. Dad said, Last morning you had a smile and a prayer … Coming in on a smile and a prayer. The row boat and coral reef did wait for large enough wave to carry over reef. “You and Bliss Perry would have got along fine.”
DeVorkin:That’s marvelous. What about later in the 30s when Campbell was president of the National Academy of Sciences. Did your father maintain contact with him?
Aitken:Professionally, yes. Undoubtedly he did.
Aitken:Personally, no, I donut think so.
DeVorkin:I see. So you had no contact with him in your later years.
Aitken:No, you see, Dad went into they called the AAS — the Astronomical Astrophysical Society. He was also interested in the Astronomical Society, of course — both of the Pacific and the International.
DeVorkin:Yes, the IAU.
DeVorkin:And how did this differ in his relationship with Campbell?
Aitken:They were definitely interested in each other from the standpoint of their particular needs and desires and points of interest. Personally, I think that Dr. Campbell admired Dad, and I think very definitely that Dad thought Dr. Campbell was very good in his particular field.
Aitken:Spectroscopy. I don’t think there was any jealousy at all anywhere among those astronomers. They each felt that other fellow had his right to his own procedures, and if they could be of help to him, so much the better. I really think that’s what their entire attitude was. We had a very comfortable situation among the astronomers there, I think. I don’t know of a single instance when there was any either personal or scientific differences expressed or even implied. Personalities, of course, will sometimes grate.
DeVorkin:Were there any outstanding differences in personalities?
Aitken:Of course, there were. But I don’t think that was too effective. Sometimes the wives got excited. But I think that’s another item of personality. Nothing you could put your finger on, no.
DeVorkin:I see. Okay, we’ve spent a long time together, and I really thank you for these hours.
Aitken:Well, that’s fine. I’m very glad if I’ve been of any help at all. It hasn’t been any particular difficulty for me to repeat those things that I happen to know or happen to guess.
stability of the earth’s atmosphere to allow fine objects to be seen clearly, such as close double stars.
The Mills Spectrograph