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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Douglas Carryl Aitken by David DeVorkin on 1977 July 23,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview centers around experiences as a child on Mount Hamilton (Lick Observatory) just after the turn of the century; schooling on Mount Hamilton; father's observing with 36-inch refractor; Lick public observing nights; general life on Mount Haiilton; Mrs Phoebe Hearst's support for private schooling; father's recollections about Lick astronomers; World War I.
What I would like to start off with would be your earliest recollections on the mountain, how life was for you and for your family, and some of your recollections of the people that you know, especially the other astronomers when you became aware that the mountain was an observatory, that sort of thing.
Well, my earliest recollection. When I was about four years old, we were moved from our old house on the "flat," which is at the foot of the "chicken walk," over to a new house which was built for us, close to Kepler Peak, approximately half a mile from the flat. The "chicken walk" was a wooden walk 3 feet wide made up of heavy planks laid lengthwise up the hill from the "flat" (a level open space in front of the house) to the dormitory and the main observatory buildings. Cross pieces were nailed across the planks about 18 inches apart and a hand rail was mounted along one side.
The planks with cross pieces resembled the runways built from the ground up to the roosts in a chicken house—thus the name "chicken walk." The reason I remember that particular time is that I was supposed to come down with the measles, and they hurried up and made a room ready for me, with a stove in it and a bed made up, for me to go to bed in when I had the measles. I distinctly remember that—that old flat-topped stove, and the hurry and bustle, because I was supposed to come down with the measles right away, and had to have a place to stay. So that's my earliest recollection. After that, I think my next recollection, and I don't remember the year, but it was when a forest fire approached close to the top of the mountain. I can't remember the year, but it was very very early. I was probably about five or six at the time.
You were born in 1898?
So that would make it 1902 to '04.
Yes, Just after we'd moved to our new home. The fire came up fairly close to the top, but never did reach the top. It burned out before it got there. But there was a lot of fear in my mind at that time of forest fire. Then the next recollection that I have, that would be of any interest, was the 1906 earthquake. It woke me up, tossed me around the bed, and my brother and I got up immediately. Dad went right to the observatory immediately. But there was nothing, no damage there.
Did he say anything to your mother, to your family?
Yes, he said, "I've got to go up on top and see what's happened."
Did your mother want him to stay?
No. Earthquakes didn't worry her.
And it didn't worry the boys at all. We didn't have any fear of earthquakes whatever. In fact, the barn had burned, several months before that, and was in the process of being rebuilt, and we boys were very much interested in getting the shingles that were left over to make arrows with for our darts. We had noticed a bale of shingles, or part of a bale of shingles, on the edge of the roof, high up on the barn. And we thought: "My goodness, if that bale of shingles fell off the barn and broke, we'll have a lot of pieces of shingle for our darts!" (laughter) But anyhow, we didn't know anything about the earthquake or what had happened. We had no communications with the town at all. the telephone line, the one and only telephone line—it was down. And also the exchange at San Jose was wrecked. So we bad no means of knowing what had happened anywhere around us. We were completely isolated.
How did people feel about that?
Well, they were concerned about what might have happened in the valley. And then, later on in the afternoon, we could see smoke over San Francisco. And by late afternoon, a huge cloud of smoke appeared in the sky over San Francisco. And it was a preculiar shape. It came up in a funnel shape, small at the bottom and spreading out in a large flat layer, as it reached the upper layer of the atmosphere. And through the base of it, we could see Mt. Tamalpais. And there was some discussion and some conjecture that possibly Mt. Tamalpais had erupted.
People thought that was possible ?
That was possible. There was some conjecture about that. We couldn't tell. We had no knowledge of anything, understand. We knew it was a tremendous earthquake. The seismgraph needle on the big three foot glass disc; which was the old seismagraph, with north and south pens resting on it—the disc turned slowly through a lampblack film on the plate—the pens had gone clear off the plate.
Who took care of that, did you know at the time ?
No, I wouldn't know who took care of that at the time.
But your father had nothing to do with it.
No, nothing to do with it at all. He was greatly concerned about the possibility of the clocks being disrupted, and whether or not any damage had occurred to the telescopes. Nothing had been damaged at all. No damage. But that night, we could see the fire in San Francisco. And we couldn't turn the big 36" telescope down—it wouldn't go low enough. But the 12 " telescope would go low enough. So we turned the 12" down and watched the fire burn. And naturally, the lens inverted everything, so we saw buildings fall up and flames sweep down—which was a weird, weird sight.
You could actually see that.
Oh, very plainly. And it reminded me of some of the themes in Dante's INFERNO. We had an illustrated book of Dante's INFERNO at home in the library. Just weird, fearful scenes. Then the next day, one of the young men on the mountain had ridden his bicycle to San Jose during the day. He couldn't telephone back up again, but the stage came up the next day and brought us news. The stage came up that day of the earthquake, but he had left San Jose before 7 o'clock.
So he didn't know anything about it.
That morning. All he knew was that they'd had a big earthquake,and the rumor he had heard was that everything was down from Third St. to the Ferry in San Francisco. And San Jose was badly wrecked. He said Stanford University was wrecked. This was the first information we had, we didn't know what was going on at all.
How did people react? I mean, did you see any crying ?
There was no hysteria?
No emotion. No emotion shown particularly. Interest, tremendous interest—but no particular emotion. Because few of them had immediate relatives in that area. In fact, I don't know if anybody had immediate relatives in the area. And they weren't particularly worried. I mean, from the personal contact point of view. But they didn't know what had happened, and it wasn't till the second day after that that we got any real true information, about the fire and earthquake. Then of course we got newspapers, a few, and we got more information. But the fire we could see burning for several nights. Weird sight.
Did you prepare for people coming in, refugees, from San Jose?
No... No one came up there from San Jose at all. It was too far, way too far.
So you were relatively isolated.
Completely isolated. We were 26 miles from town, and by horse stage it was a six or seven hour trip. And there was nothing for them to come up there for. There was no store there of any kind, no accommodations of any knind. There was no personal contact at all. Then, let's see, after that—well, when I went to school up there, I could already read, somewhat.
Your mother and father had taught you?
My mother and father had taught me, and my older sister had taught me a great deal. The teacher was a new teacher out of San Jose Normal School, and she was inexperienced, and after I had been in school about two weeks, she came over to the house one day. She said, "I don't know what I'm going to do with Douglas. I gave him a pen and a copy book, and he just scribbles all over it. He doesn't know what to do with it." My mother said, "Well, that's what you're there for. You're there to teach him."
Your mother said that ?
Yes, to the teacher.
What about your father ?
Well, most of the contact was with mother about schoolwork. So I came home one day shortly after that. I told Mother, "Mother, I don't like that Miss Potwin," (the name of the school teacher). "I don't like that Miss Potwin. When I'm sitting in my seat doing nothing at all, she says, "Douglas, what are you doing?'" So I didn't like her. But I grew to like her very much before she left finally. We read a great deal at home in the evening, because there were no amusements up there of any kind. No outside movies or drugstores or anything of the kind. There was nothing on the outside at all. We had to create all of our own amusements and all of our own occupations as youngsters.
The result was that we read a great deal, far more than any youngsters that I've run across, because that was the accepted thing to do. I mean, we didn't have anything else to do. And Mother and Dad were very much interested in classics. They read a great deal, both of them. Of course, Dad was more interested in scientific work, but he read aloud a great deal, to his family and to his wife. He read scientific articles and semi-scientific articles. And my sister read a great deal of poetry and classics to me. Then later on, when I got to reading myself pretty good, why, I read them. We read all of Dickens and all of Scott and Thackeray and Gibbon's RISE AND FALL OF ROME, and all the classics at that time — and a great deal of poetry: Tennyson, Scott, Longfellow, and many others.
What scientific articles did your father read to you ?
Oh, anything. We took the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, the magazine, and he read that to us frequently— in fact, every time we got a new issue. And of course the SATURDAY EVENING POST, and that had some scientific articles in it, and the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC was a standby. Articles in that were read to us. Mother did a great deal of sewing, because of course, that was a need thing up there. You had to mend clothes. She made all of the kids' shirts, Our income was extremely low. Astronomers were paid very little at that time. Very little.
Did you know this as a child ?
Oh yes, sure, We knew it. Because we couldn't afford things that we might want.
What sort of things did you want, for example?
Well, for example, we wanted hip boots in the winter time. And we couldn't afford it. So we got 35 cent canvas legging, Army leggings from the Army store, and painted them with paint, to make them waterproof, and wore overshoes and canvas leggings in the snow. As youngsters, we wore full length balck stockings and knickers. That was the regular dress at that time. And when the knees on the stockings wore out so they couldn't be darned any more, Mother would cut them off below the knee and turn them around and sew them on again, and we had the darned place in the back.
That's pretty smart.
We made do for everything. There just wasn't any money.
Did it seem slightly strange, because here your father was using some of the biggest, best, most expensive telescopes in the world ?
No, beciuse all that was observatory property!
How did your father happen to come to the observatory?
Dad left a job as a teacher of mathematics and physics at College of the Pacific, and came to the mountaintop, primarily because he was turning deaf.
He was turning deaf even at that time ?
Yes at that time. And there was no cure for it. The doctor told him in a very short time he'd be totally deaf. And no one wanted a deaf teacher. So the research job at Mt. Hamilton was available at that time. He went up in the summer of 1894, I believe it was, to visit the observatory, and make himself acquainted with the astronomical work, so he could use it in teadhing.
He was interested in astronomy before that, wasn't he?
Yes. Very definitely.
Do you know how he got interested in astronomy?
Well, they had a little observatory at Williams College in the East, where Dad went to College, and he played around with that a good deal.
Did he ever tell you how he got interested, or what interested him most?
Well, what interested him the most was the fact that it was research, and he definitely liked research. He was interested in research of any kind, any scientific research. And when they offered him a job up at Lick as an assistant astronomer, in research, he took it, because his deafness would not interfere with the work at all. In fact, it was an asset, because he was able to concentrate more, since the surrounding noises did not annoy him.
Did he go to school after Williams anywhere?
No. He came directly out here from Williams, and took a position as mathematics and physics teacher, and I believe taught a couple of courses in astronomy also at that time, both at Livermore and at College of the Pacific in San Jose.
He was at Livermore also.
Did he ever talk to you, though, directly, about what fascinated him most in astronomy ?
Well, of course, his work was double stars. And he talked a great deal about this interesting subject. He was interested in physics research. and in astronomical research, of course, and mathematics fascinated him, and we boys learned mathematics very early. I mean, we became acquainted with mathematics very early, but he would read to us in the evenings, some scientific article, some research article, and anything he could get his hands on, and would read it aloud to us. He read a great deal. Also in the evening we played chess, and we learned to play cards, games of different kinds, and listened to fine records on the phonograph. We particularly enjoyed grand opera, religious and military and light opera.
When was this ?
Oh, very very early, 1907 through '11, along in there. In fact there never were enough players, never were enough players to make up two or three tables of whist. So we boys filled in, with the grownups, whenever it was necessary.
Who were the ones who played whist ? Any of the other astronomers ?
Yes, all the astronomers. Dr. W.W. Campbell was a good whist player. Very good. And Dr. H.D. Curtis played it, and R.H. Tucker was an excellent whist player.
What were your first impressions of the other astronomers—Campbell, Curtis, Tucker. What were their personalities ?
Oh, they were very dignified. We had a great respect for them, all. And the mountaintop was a highly scientific community. Everybody on the top was in the scientific mood, so to speak. There were no excesses of language at all. We never heard any swear words as youngsters, at all. Astronomers didn't use them. And astronomers' families didn't use them. Everything was kept on a very high level, all the way through.
Was there religious instruction ?
Yes. We had no church, of course, and no formal Sunday School, so as a youngster we had Sunday School at our house, and all the children on the mountain came over to our house for Sunday School. Mother played the piano, and various other mothers took classes, divided the youngsters up into classes, and we had hymns and prayers every Sunday morning. We got a curriculum from San Jose, from one of the churches in San Jose—I think it was the Congregational Church, a Sunday School curriculum. And we studied the lessons as they were listed, and had Bible study and Bible recitations, and we were great on learning, committing to memory parts of it. We committed to memory large parts of the Bible, especially the Psalms, and I committed to memory a great many poems. I can still recite them by the yard. My sister was quite literary. She learned to write poetry. She wrote a good deal of poetry, and some of it is very good, inspired primarily by the surroundings of the mountaintop. I learned those too, and learned to write a little poetry with it.
Was one of the ones about the water coming up to the top of the mountain ?
Yes. She wrote one about the fog and the water, and she also wrote one that was inspired by a sunset, because the family had dinner frequently on the west porch of our house and watched the sunset—frequently, all summer, pretty nearly every night. And she wrote this one, it was very short: The purple shadows in the canyons fall. The sun is slowly sinking in the West. A deep pervading hush is over all. This time of day is best. I hear a night bird calling from afar, and faintly distant in the Eastern sky is seen the blue-white evening star— The night is nigh. The sun sends one last parting ray, Gilding the waters on the distant tide, The last shaft of departing day, And now: comes eventide. The shadow of the earth climbs swiftly up the Eastern sky Topped by a thin line of rosy sunset glow, Pulling up a canopy of stars behind it, And leaves the world in darkness here below.
The last verse of that I wrote myself, but the rest is hers. Anyhow, she wrote a lot. And the whole atmosphere of the house was on a very high level of literary and moral tone, all the way through. We grew up segregated, you might say, from the rough and tumble world, up there. We had no childhood disease up there. Only rarely did we ever get sick. I had measles when I went to high school. Had to stay home a year because I had a very bad case of them. I had mumps when I was in college. And we had to postpone our wedding for ten days because I had chickenpox. See, childhood diseases were unknown up there. We had many bouts with broken bones or bad cuts, things of that kind, from falls, and our mothers, all the mothers on the mountain, took care of those themselves. We almost never had a doctor up there. In fact, it would have been impossible to get a doctor to come up there—at $50 a trip—we didn't have any $50.
That's what they wanted ?
$50 a trip. And $50 in those days was $50.
Did you go down to doctors ?
We went down to San Jose once a year, for a visit with a dentist. And all our clothing, such as we had, shoes that we had to buy, we bought by telephone or by written note, sent down by stage driver. Summer time, we went barefoot all the time. There were rattlesnakes galore, but nobody ever got bitten. No. We hunted the rattlesnakes, a lot in the summertime, we boys. The deal was, who got the biggest rattlesnake ? I got one 5 feet 1 inch long. That's a pretty big snake. We went fishing in all the creeks around, and we hunted quail, rabbits, tree squirrels. Lots of them around. The place was wild. Summer time, we'd go out and get blackberries, wild blackberries and wild elderberries, and Mother'd make jelly and jam. We just hiked all over that area, literally covered it. Every Saturday we went out and spent the whole day hiking on the mountain top. We thought nothing of a 15, 20 mile hike. Didn't mean a thing to us. And our physical condition was such that, as we grew up, we reflected that early outdoor life, because all of us have been in good physical condition all the time.
Well, now, recollections? The observatory was a very no-no place, for the children. They were strictly ordered not to touch anything, or defile anything or break anything or anything of the kind. They had to be very very carful, very quiet, when they were in the observatory. There was no playing around at all. All the playing was done down on the flat in front of our old house, the only flat place on the top. The children were all, workmen's children and astronomers' children both, all taught to respect, highly respect, all the astronomers. They were the tops, and we respected them all. Liked them all. Nobody up there had any hard feelings against anybody else. There was always a very good rapport between those people. In fact, when one of the new women came, up there and came over to the house one day, and was complaining about being lonesome and worried and so on, my mother said to her, "Well, when you live on Mt. Hamilton, you've got to be good friends with yourself." That's a very philosophical attitude to take, because it's true. If you're going to live up there completely isolated, you'd better be good friends with yourself, or you won't be able to stay there.
That's very interesting.
But the men were always very cooperative. They helped the boys in various ways. They helped them make skis in the winter time. Some of the younger men showed them how to ski. And we played tennis. We had a tennis court right next to our house, to play tennis there, and we had tennis tournaments. The boys would play, and play right up in the tennis tournaments, right along. They eliminated very early, but nevertheless they played in the tournament. And we had a golf course, which was down about three miles below the observatory.
Around the brickyard ?
Where the brickyard was. And we didn't have to have any artificial bunkers there. There were plenty of hazards without that. What with trees and snake holes and a bunch of grass and so forth and ridges, divides. In fact, the 8th hole, you drove from up on the top of the one ridge, across a gulley,and the hole was on top of the next ridge. And if you landed on the side of the ridge anywhere, why, you rolled to the bottom and you had a heck of a time getting it on top again. Anyhow, we played golf. And every year, we burned the golf links, because the grass would get so tall, and you couldn't play, and when it got dry, the whole mountaintop would go down to the golf links, and we'd string a trail all the way around the area which was to be burned, and people would walk around and stay about 20 yards apart, and each person would have an iron pole or an iron rod, with a wad of rags on the end of it, dipped in kerosene, and a wet gunny sack.
Then we'd walk around, walk along, in a complete circle, walk around the place around and around like that, setting fire ahead of us as we went, and then as it burned a little bit, burned out to the right and left, then we'd beat out the outside edge, and let the inside edge go. We'd walk along very carefully, and let it go until we had at least a three foot space of burned area, and then walk on, keep on going, walk on around that way, until the fire all centered finally in the middle, and burned itself out. Then we'd go around, be sure there were no sticks or branches that had been smoldering there—beat those out, too. Then we'd have a baseball game and a picnic.
Did the astronomers help out in the burning ?
Oh yes, definitely. All of them. They all were down there. The whole mountain top was down there. All the boys and all the men, and the women fixed the picnic.
Oh, that's nice.
Then on the 4th of July we always had a big barbecue. The whole mountain again cooperated on this. Some of the men would go out and kill a deer, July 1st was the deer season then, go out and kill a deer or maybe two, and the wood cutter would open up a trench—we had a regular barbecue trench there. It looked like a grave, about six feet long and two feet wide and about four feet deep.
Where was that ?
At the brickyard. And there was a tennis court there, too. They set up sawhorses with boards across them for a table. The wood chopper would build a fire the day before, in the pit, and keep feeding it all that day and all that night, with oak, and by the morning of the 4th or noon of the 4th, he'd have a huge deep bed of coals in there, and stretch a heavy wire screen across the top of it, and lay the deer meat on there, chops and steaks on top of that, and barbecue them. The women would provide potato salad and sandwiches, and we'd have olives and pickles, and coffee for the men and milk for the youngsters. Then we'd go and have a baseball game, between the men and the boys, and we'd have our picnic.
You mean, the men on one team and the boys on the other ?
Men on one team, boys on the other team. And the boys would have signals galore, you know, all made up, how they were going to do it, their strategy; and the men would just come down and play, see. And of course the boys would always get beaten, but nevertheless, it was a lot of fun.
Who took which positions on the men's team?
Well, Dad pitched a couple of times, as I remember it. Dr. Campbell was umpire. And Dr. Curtis was a catcher. He was a rather short heavyset fellow. He was catcher on the men's team. And Sebastian Albrecht played 1st base. Let me think, who else played on that team ?
No, Tucker didn't take part in the baseball game. At that time, in those early days, those real early days, Tucker was still down in South America. He was down there for a while. He didn't get back on the mountain until about 1908, I think, or thereabouts. I'm not sure just when, but it was a little later. I'm not sure. Let's see, who else played down there?
Some of the men like the machinists ?
Oh yes, Bachman played 3rd base. I remember that. But I don't remember who else played. Bachman was a machinist. Oh, Hoover was the carpenter foreman, and he played 2nd base.
How about Vogt, was he still there ?
No, Vogt didn't play. I don't remember him playing.
Any of the women play?
No. None of the women played.
Any of the girls play ?
The girls played on the boy's team because there weren't enough boys. But the men had a short team, didn't have enough to make a nine man team. Neither did the boys, as far as that's concerned. We played a short team. On the other hand, nobody hit very far, and it wasn't too bad. We had a good game. And lots of excitement, running, so forth and so on.
Did you ever sit down with your father and with the other astronomers and boys, and did they ever talk about the way the observatory was at even earlier times, like in the nineties, late eighties, with E.S. Holden, James Keeler ?
Yes, Dad used to talk about Holden and Keeler a lot. In fact, Keeler was a close associate of Dad's on the double star work, at first. Then he left and went to Allegheny, yes. And Dad continued on the double star work. But I can well remember his referring to Burnham's work.
Yes, Burnham, sure. Your father continued on Burnham's work directly.
What were your father's recollections of these older astronomers ?
Oh, he thought that Burnham was one of the very best. He liked Burnham's work very much. He referred to it constantly, as being a sort of forerunner of his own work.
Did he ever say anything about Burnham smoking cigars and drinking wine?
No. No, he didn't mention that. But Tucker smoked cigars, constantly. I remember that. Long cigars. Smoked them all the time. And one of the main reasons why I remember that so well is because, not only did he smoke cigars, but he was good enough to always give us boys cigar boxes. And in those days, cigar boxes were made of cedar, and we would take them and clean off the paper very carefãlly, the seals and everything off them, and then make Christmas boxes out of them. Because we had to make all our Christmas presents. And we had what they called a burning machine, a little gadget that had a pen that would be hot on the end, and we'd burn designs, trace designs on the tops of the boxes, and give those for Christmas presents-handkerchief boxes, glove boxes and what not.
That's nice, What did your father say about these other astronomers, about Burnham or Keeler or Holden ? Did he have any particular stories about them ?
No, I can't remember any particular ones. No, I can't say I can remember any particular stories about them, I know they were discussed a great deal, I mean, their names were constantly in his conversation, But I can't recall any anecdotes about them.
Well, what were the feelings about Holden and about Keeler ? And Barnard and Burnham and all of those very famous names ?
Well, I think they were OK. There was no rancor of any kind, I remember.
Did your father ever talk to you about Director Campbell's work ?
Oh yes Yes, His work was somewhat different from Dad's, of course, and there was a little early discussion about Dad's work, I remember, When he first went in, he had to specialize in something, because all the astronomers who were up there, who were part of the staff, specialized in some particular type of work, And Dad chose the double stars, because that combined both the astronomical work and the physics of the mutual revolutions of the double stars. There's a lot of physics in that, too, So he liked it.
There's a lot of mathematics in it.
A lot of mathematics, In fact, mathematics was my minor and college— chemistry was my major. Anyhow, Tucker was principally involved in meridian circle workthat was his specialty— I can't recall Curtis,
Henry Crew was not there any more ?
Neither was Schaberle ?
Schaberle, no, I remember the name, though, very well, He was when I was real young, I don't remember him at all, Dad was also much interested in comets, He plotted the orbits of several comets, especially Halley's Comet,
Do you remember Halley's Comet ?
Oh, very well. Very very well.
Where you given a look through the telescope ?
Oh yes, many times, and also, I can remember it because we boys slept outside in the summer time. We always slept outside all summer long.
On the flat next to the house ?
There was a little oak tree flat across the tennis court from our house, right where the 120-inch is now. I think some of the oak trees are still there, perhaps. No, they're gone now, that's right, beciuse that place covers the whole thing. But we slept where the 120 inch is now, with just a little grove of oak trees, and we'd sleep out there under the oak trees. I can well remember seeing the head of Halley's Comet close to the horizon, and the tail clear up almost to the zenith! On moonless nights it was a beautiful sight. And of course, there was all the discussion about passage through the tail. I can remember that very well.
Anybody worried about it ?
No. Nobody up there was worried about it. In fact, Dad wrote an article, I believe for the MERCURY, saying what little danger there was of any kind. You didn't have to worry about it a bit.
For the SAN JOSE MERCURY ?
Yes. I think you can find that in there. I think you can also find an article in there about a reporter who talked to Dr. Campbell,who was the director, about the possibilities of injury to people by the Earth's passage through the tail, or possible collision of the comet with the earth, and he referred them to Dad. And in his article he said, Dr. Aitken had plotted the orbit of the comet and it would pass way way distant from the earth. I've forgotten the mileage now. And so that there was absolutely no danger of any collision, and that the fact that they were going through the tail of the comet would have no affect whatever. The density of the tail was so low that it would be impossible to even identify any particles of the tail. So no one on the mountain worried about it.
None of the kids ?
Did you ask your father about it ?
Oh yes, we talked about it, at length, because it was a very prominent subject at that time. And we talked about it at home, and Dad reassured us that there was no possible chance of any difficulty. We didn't worry about it a bit. In fact, we were very much interested in seeing it, and watched it as long as we could. We'd go up and look through the telescope at night and watch it in the telescope. In fact, when I was a little baby, they tell me—I don't remember this, of course,—they tell me that I wouldn't sleep at night, a lot of times. But if they moved my crib close to the window, where I could look out at the sky, I'd go right to sleep. The stars have always been of great interest to me. So, it's a setup where we were so close in contact with astronomical subjects and astronomical discussion that it was second nature to us all. Although none of the family ever went into astronomy.
When did you first look through a telescope ?
I can't remember, I was so little..
Your Dad took you up?
Oh yes. We went up every Saturday night. Saturday nights were open to the public. And we'd go up every Saturday night, every Saturday night, and watch the visitors. We knew all the stage drivers. And later on, when automobiles came up, we'd pick up a little side money by bringing buckets of water around for them to fill their radiators with, because there wasn't any water available. They'd come up there steaming and boiling, and we'd stand around—they'd drive up with the car and say, "Boy, do you have any water around here?" We'd say, "Yeah, we can get you some." "Well, get me some." -We'd go and get a bucket of water, which we had stashed around the corner, bring it over to him, he'd pour it in his radiator, and then he'd give us half a dollar.
Half a dollar ?
That's a lot of money.
Well, people who drove automobiles in those days had money.
Oh yes. That's what it really meant—if you had an automobile, you had money.
Oh yes. Definitely.
Like having an airplane today.
That's right. We'd go up, and we kept what we called an "Auto Biography." We listed down the name of the car, the time it took to get from San Jose to the mountaintop, the kind of car it was, how many cylinders it had, and how many people it had in it. And we kept that, a real record book, for a long long time. We called it an "Auto Biography." (laughter)
Max mentioned that. Do you have a copy of that ?
Yeah, I think I have, but I don't have the least idea—I have a lot of papers upstairs and I probably have it upstairs somewhere.
What did your father and other astronomers ever say about your making a little bit of money on the side ?
Oh, they didn't know anything about it.
Did you help out in other ways ?
Oh yes, we cut wood. And there wasn't any way to make any money up there, for the boys. If we wanted fishing tackle or cartridges for our guns, why, it was a serious problem. So the little money we had, from that once a year contact in San Jose, we'd save it up all the way through. Then we'd buy fishingtackle we wanted or cartridges, what- ever we wanted, the money we had was ours.
Do you mean the only time you went down was for your dentist appointment ?
That's all. Once a year.
Once a year. Did you ever start feeling that you'd like to see more of the world ?
Not then. Didn't interest me at all.
This was all around 1910 ?
Earlier than that. From 1906 up to 1910. I went to high school in San Jose in 1911. I lived in the dormitories, at the high school—the College of the Pacific was located in San Jose, Santa Clara actually, and they had College Park Academy attached to it. College Park Academy was part of the College of the Pacific. That was a high school.
This is the one your father had taught at.
Originally, yes. Years before that.
Did others, like, did the Campbell children go to that high school?
No. When they were ready for high school, they went East, to Hotchkiss. Mrs. Phoebe Hearst paid their expenses to go to Hotchkiss.
Oh ? How did she come to do that ?
Well,she was a great friend of the observatory, a benefactor of the University of California, and was quite interested in the observatory and had met the Campbells numerous times, and knew of the financial circumstances of the mountaintop people. So she graciously offered to send the Campbell boys to Hotchkiss and Harvard. Hotchkiss is the preparatory school for Harvard.
So they were both in Boston ?
I guess so. I'm not sure. Anyhow, they went to Hotchkiss. All the Campbell boys went to Hotchkiss. But the rest of us didn't have enough money for that, so we went to College Park Academy and then on to Berkeley High School, myself, and then to the University of California.
None of the Aitken or Campbell children became astronomers ?
Why do you think that was?
Well, probably because they were so close to it as youngsters that it was old hat to them, so to speak, and they weren't particularly interested in it.My sister was quite interested in it, but didn't follow it. But the whole family was extremely good at mathematics and scientific work. My major in Cal was chemistry, minor in math, another minor in psychology, and then of course my college career was interrupted by two years in the Army, and then I went to University of Colorado for one year while I was still in the Army, on leave from the hospital.
What was your injury ?
I was a victim of the 1918 flu, which went into pneumonia and emphysema.
Oh, that's the big flu.
Oh yes. I had charge of a company of draftees there who came from Texas, and I was teaching them machine gun work, and at morning roll call, they'd stand at attention, and half a dozen of them would faint. Oh, it was terrible.
OK, we're recording again. This is after lunch. After a delightful talk with you and your wife, and after I finished all my film, taking all the pictures. Did you ever observe with your father looking through the telescope?
Oh yes. Many times. He would tell us what he was looking at, and describe how he measured the double stars, and let us look through while he was measuring it, and wanted to see how he put the fixed line through the larger one, then moved up the movable line till it bisected the other one and measured the angle between them. In those days, we didn't have electric lights. He used what they clled a bull's eye lantern, which was a small lantern with a slide on it, to shut off the light. And the light was given by a candle, a large candle inside, that showed through a large thick lens to make a spotlight. And he would use that to read his circles, and then shut it off for the dark. There wasn't any other light in the room. Kerosene lanterns provided what light he needed. Then, of course, the dome had no heat in it, so on winter nights, he would dress in heavy wool clothing, and then he wore a pair of thick felt boots made out of half-inch felt, inside of heavy galoshes. That was to keep his feet really warm.
Where did you stand or sit while he observed ?
Well, we'd just stand and watch him.
On the floor ?
This was the 36-inch ?
The 36-inch. And sometimes he'd let us sit on the seat which went up and down there ladder, there, you know, the movable chair.
Can you recall much of the procedure he used to observe ? Did you—could you go through the steps, what he did?
Well, he would set it with a finder, first.
In the beginning of the evening, did you ever go over when he opened up ?
Yes, we did. We went over. Sometimes he'd have us lower the wind screen, in a slot in the dome.
How was that lowered ?
By hand. There was a heavy canvas roll, heavy cinvas screen. Similar to a blind, a window blind. It had a rope on the side that you would pull it up with or let it down with. And you would pull it up so that it just gave enough of an opening for the telescope to go through, to keep the wind out, and then lower it down,and we moved it when necessary to move the telescope. And he had to turn the dome once in a while.
How did you turn the dome?
With a hydraulic engine, in the basement of the dome.
How did that work?:
Well, the rainwater was gathered from the roof of the building, and it would run down by gravity through a pipe to the tank near the flat, near our old house, where the windmills were, which was about 60 feet below the observatory. Then the windmill would then pump the water from that tank, up to East Peak, Copernicus Peak, roughly a mile east of the observatory. From there it would run back by gravity, to the basement of the big dome, and there that 60 foot drop gave it enough power to operate a water engine, which would raise and lower the floor, with hydraulic rams, and a hydraulic engine to turn the dome.
And it worked perfectly all right ?
Yes, it worked fine.
What happened in winter ? Did it freeze ?
Oftentimes that pipe would freeze,and they'd have to go out and build fires along the pipeline to thaw it out.
Did your father do that ?
I don't remember. the workmen did that, the carpenter and the plumber and the electrician and so on, the other men, the mule driver, who would keep the line clear, and would have to build a fire sometimes. You see, you couldn't bury the pipe very deep because the rock was right there. Very thin soil. So they couldn't get it very deep. But they knew the spots where it would freeze, and they'd go out build fires along there, keep it thawed out. That's the only way—we had to turn the dome and raise the floor. And then the water, as it went through the motors, would flow back again down to the tank by the windmills, they'd pump it again hack up, you see—it was a closed circuit.
What would happen if there wasn't any wind on the mountain for a certain period of time ?
There was always wind. Some amount. Always enough wind. And the tank on Copernicus was a pretty good- sized tank, and also the one at Huygens (that's what they called it)—the one by the flat there. There was enough storage capacity so it didn't fail. And if it did run a little low on water, you could always replenish it with water from the drinking water supply, a spring called Aquarius down on the north side of the mountain. The water was pumped up to the tank on Kepler Peak, which was about 40 feet higher than the observatory, and pumped up there by a wood-burning steam pump.
So you could always get water.
They pumped water up to that tank up there, to store it up there, and whenever it ran low, they'd go down and build a fire and pump some more up.
Do you remember electricity being put in?
Oh yes. We had a parade, when first the electricity was turned on. the electricity didn't come from San Jose at first. We made our own at first, with a big one cylinder distillate engine, and a generator.
What kind of engine ?
What they called a distillate engine. They called it distillate then; it's probably in the nature of a diesel now. They called it distillate then, a one cylinder engine with a huge big fly wheel, and you start that engine up, and run it three or four times a week, and charge up a whole big room full of storage batteries. The storage battery room was about 20 feet long and about 8 feet wide and 10 feet high, perhaps, and the walls were lined completely with these huge glass storage batteries, open top storage batteries.
Did you ever go in there and smell it ?
Oh yes, and how. Terrible smell. The batteries were made of zinc and copper and copper sulphate solution, and this engine would charge the batteries, and then each resident's house on the mountaintop had a day on which they could use their electric washing machine or electric iron. The first day that the current was turned on in the houses, we had a parade, and everbody marched around in the parade, all the kids and young people marching in the parade around the top of the mountain there, the flat part, the gathering place, beating on five gallon kerosene cans with sticks, and singing a song to the tune of "Three Blind Mice." The song ran: "Coal oil lamps, coal oil lamps, see how they smoke, see how they smoke, the chimneys often get hot and break, ..." I don't remember the other words, but anyway, this song—as we paraded around—and then the electric light was turned on!
When was that ?
About 1908, I would say. That's a guess.. It was right around that time.
You mentioned a poem or a song about the water going up to the top.
Yes, I just barely remember it, but I don't remember the words. I don't remember the poem.* I could try to dig it up. I don't remember it. But Sister wrote a number of poems which were inspired by the mountaintop, and the colors in the hills around, and the fog and the wind. They never were published, but they're really good poems. And she wrote those when she was about 13 to 15 or 16.
And she was on the mountain at that time.
Yes. She and her brother Bob studied their whole high school course on top of the mountain there. They didn't go to high school at all. Mother and Dad taught them their high school work.
Why was that ?
Well, there wasn't any place to go. Downtown to San Jose was a long way away, and it was just impossible, finances and distance and time. So they just studied their work there. Mother taught them, and she taught me in my second year of high school too, English, history, and Latin, and Dad taught us German, mathematics algebra, geometry, solid geometry, both plane and solid geometry, and we didn't have the laboratory studies but we got the theoretical physics.
Did some of the other astronomers teach various subjects in the school ?
No, none of them. No. Dad could read and speak both German and Greek very fluently, and we learned a great deal of German poetry, German songs, and spoke German a great deal at the house.
This was all of course very early, before World War I.
Yes when I was a youngster * The windmill fans—around they go/When freshening breeze on them blow/ They pump the water to go to East peak/ With many a groan and many a squeak.
You have some interesting recollections of your mother entertaining Germans.
Oh my, yes. Naturally, we had to entertain distinguished visitors from time to time. These were usually entertained by Dr. Campbell, but sometimes he wouldn't be on the mountain and Dad would have to entertain them. We entertained one astronomer from New Zealand. Dinner was served and we had I think a leg of lamb and we had corn on the cob, as part of our dinner. And he was insulted.
Oh yes. He didn't say anything, but he looked very peculiar when we brought the dish of corn on the cob to the table, and he turned it down. After dinner, we got to talking and got to know him a little bit better, and in the conversation something came up about the corn on the cob, and my mother said, "Don't you care for corn on the cob?" He said, "In New Zealand, we only feed corn on the cob to the hogs. We don't eat corn on the cob."
Who was this ?
I can't remember his name. I was a youngster.
This was very early, before 1910 ?
Was his name Bickerton by any chance ?
I couldn't tell you. I couldn't remember. But he was quite insulted because we offered him corn on the cob. Another time, we had a formal dinner at Campbell's house. We didn't have any wine. But at a formal dinner at the Campbell house, they served wine. And before dinner, they had a small cocktail. Mother drank it, and she hadn't had any lunch. that day and it went to her head. She went toward her seat at the table, and the Englishman who was seated next to her, the guest, said, "Mrs. Aitken, are you all right?" My mother said, "Well, yes." "Can't I get you something?" My mother took hold of the edge of the table and said, "Yes. You can get me a steady table, please."' (laughter) Then she sat down and they gave her black coffee and she felt better. We never had any liquor at the house at all. Dad didn't smoke. None of our family ever smoked. But anyhow, that's beside the point.
That particular dinner party, and your experiences with some of the other families on the mountain, that interests me. What did you think of Campbell ? What were your impressions of Campbell ?
Oh, we thought he was a very very dignified executive type. He ran the mountain, and with no uncertain hand. He ruled that mountain with an iron hand. His directives were law. And everybody respected them. But he was very fair. We trapped, as I told you before, in the winter time, and I caught Mr. Tucker's dog in my trap one time. Of course, we didn't use steel traps. We used home made box traps, which we made ourselves, so it didn't hurt the dog any, except that he was confined for all the rest of one night and howled all night. Mr. Tucker had a hard time finding him, and when he found him, then he made a big complaint to Dr. Campbell, that Douglas' trap caught his dog. So at noon time, when Dad came home for lunch, he told me, and said, "Did you have a trap over on Kepler Ridge?" I said, "Yes." "You caught Mr. Tucker's dog." "I didn't know that." He said, "He complained to Dr. Campbell, and you're supposed to see Dr. Campbell this afternoon at 2 o'clock, in his office." Well, if you went to see Dr. Campbell in his office at 2 o'clock there was good reason for it, and you expected a good scolding.
Verbal. Dad said, "Now, if you happen to see Mr. Tucker on the way over, I don't want you to say anything to him. I don't want you to even argue with him at all. Just simply tell him, if he says anything to you, you say, "'Well, Mr. Tucker, Dr. Campbell has this matter in charge,'and then you go on to see Dr. Campbell." Well, I was afraid I wouldn't see Mr. Tucker, then, because I wanted to be able to say that. So on the way up, sure enough, I saw Mr. Tucker, and he called out to me in a loud voice, "Douglas, was that your trap over there on Kepler?" I very calmly and quietly remarked, "Yes, Mr. Tucker, but Dr. Campbell has this matter in charge," and walked on.
Do you remember what he said then ?
Mr. Tucker mumbled something and walked away. Then I got to Dr. Campbell's office and knocked on his door, and he said "Come in" and I went in. "Oh yes, Douglas. Sit down." He said, "Now, was that your trap over on Kepler Ridge?" I said, "Yes, it was." He said, "Well, you caught Mr. Tucker's dog." I said, "Well, that could be. But I don't think the dog was hurt, because it's a box trap, a catch-them-alive trap, and it doesn't hurt the animal any, and it couldn't have hurt the dog any. The trap was way off the trail." "Well," he said, " you caught his dog. I suggest that you in the future put your trap a little farther away from the trail and road. Maybe another hundred yards or so." I said, "Yes, Dr. Campbell, I'll be glad to do that." "Just do that. That's all." he said. To this day, I recall Dr. Campbell had a bright twinkle in his eye when he was talking to me, because he knew that Mr. Tucker was quite irascible about his dog. He had a dog and he even called the dog Duke, which is my nickname.
Did you have that nickname at that time?
My nickname was Duke when I was a youngster. I still carry it.
Yes, your wife refers to you that way.
Another time at a dinner, which is quite an interesting thing, an Englishman was sitting next to my mother, and he said, "Mrs. Aitken, have you ever been to London?" She said no, she'd never been to London. "What ? Why, how remarkable! Ever take an ocean voyage ?" "Why, Mrs. Aitken , how remarkable," and he went on in the conversation like that. "Well, you've surely traveled?" My mother said, "No. I've never done any traveling outside of California." "Why, how remarkable!" And that kind of burned my mother up, and she said—I can't think of the man's name, Lord somebody or other—call him Lord Jones— " Lord Jones, have you ever felt an earthquake?" "An earthquake ? Why, no." My mother said, "Why, how remarkable!" And nothing more was said.
When was that ?
I think that was tn 1908. We kids always got to go to the formal dinners. But we always sat at the foot of the table and were very quiet.
Did you experience the 1911 earthquake ?
What are your recollections of that ?
That was a sharp earthquake. Real sharp. And it moved the telescope three-quarters of an inch on its base. They used a huge hydraulic jack to push it back.
Everybody was worried ?
Everybody was worried. Badly worried. It ruined the brick dormitory. There were cracks in the dormitory from the roof to the ground, and they were wide enough cracks so that you could put your hand in, flat, clear up to your shoulder. The building was completely wrecked. If it hadn't been for the big iron tie rods at the roof, the building would have collapsed. It was a real sharp earthquake. And of course it ruined the dormitory at the College Park Academy where I stayed the year before. Part of it fell down, in College Park at San Jose.
Where were you by then ?
At that time, that was 1911, late in the year, after I got home. I can't remember what month it was. Anyhow I was home for some reason at the time. We couldn't use the dormitory after that. East Hall, they called it, right down at the end of the campus, the boys' dormitory. It was a three story brick building. The first floor was devoted to classrooms and laboratories, mostly laboratories. The second floor was laboratories accept for one apartment— one apartment for one of the professors. The third floor was the boys' dormitory part. We had big china pitchers and bowls in the rooms, for the wash stand, and one shower room on the floor for all the boys.
That's pretty rough.
One toilet room, one shower room.
Did you have showers or just baths on the mountain?
Oh no, all baths, no showers. Didn't have enough water.
Water was always scarce.
Water was always, not exactly scarce, but you had to watch it. You had to be careful. Sometimes in the summer time, early times, up to about 1912 or '13, when they built the new steel tank up on Kepler, we'd run real short in summer time. Water would have to be rationed. We'd be told,"No baths this week." Except babies. And no washing, except baby clothes. And of course, no gardens.
Which you didn't mind.
No. Gardens didn't worry us any at all. A comment on gardens- Mother would grow anything in the garden, to have flowers, anything she could get her hands on. And some way or other, some goldenrod started to grow there in the garden. And of course, goldenrod is a very beautiful flower. Even if it is the hay fever flower. But it didn't bother us any' as far as the hay fever's concerned. But a guest came up, and we were sitting on the west porch, and she looked out in the garden, and she said, "Oh!" And she jumped up and ran down the steps, and pulled up the golden rod, and threw it over the edge of the stone wall, down the canyon. Came back upstairs. "Terrible goldenrod. " My mother says, "Goldenrod?" She says, "Yes—that awful weed. I don't see how you ever let it grow in the garden. It's terrible." Mother didn't say anything, but it was one of her prize flowers that just went over the grade!
That's a sad story.
We had to watch that rock wall pretty careful, because there were rattlesnakes in it. A lot of rattlesnakes up there. One cold morning in late spring, Mother called up to me, she said, "Duke, there's a rattlesnake in the pantry." I went in the pantry and took a look and sure enough, there was an old rattlesnake on the floor of the pantry, about maybe 14 inches long, but it was a cold morning, and he was just lying there. So I went in the living room, got the tongs and picked him up, took him outside and disposed of him. Then I came back in again and she said, "How do you suppose that the rattlesnake got in there?" So I said, "Well, Mother, you know rattlesnakes lay eggs, and they lay about 20 eggs at a time, and I presume that rattlesnake was probably down in the basement somewhere and laid a bunch of eggs, and this is the first one that hatched out." Of course I was just kidding her. What actually happened was, I'd carried in a load of wood, and the rattlesnake was cold and the rattlesnake was in the woodpile, and I'd just picked up an armful of wood and carried it in and put it in the wood box, beside the stove, and when it got warm, the snake crawled out.
Did you ever have snakes in the observatory?
No snakes ever in the observatory. But my father, like I said, never saw a live rattlesnake, but one day we were off on a picnic, Mother and Dad and myself, and I had my .22 rifle with me, which I carried almost all the time up there just for the fun of it, target practice and so on. Mother was sitting with her back against the tree, leaning against it, knitting or sewing, and Dad was lying on one side of her, with his head on her thigh on one side, and I was lying on the other side with my head on her other thigh, and he was reading some scientific article to her and to me, and I was listening.
Do you know what it was ?
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY again. I don't remember the article. All of a sudden Mother said, "Duke, don't move, but turn you head very slowly, and look by Dad's feet." I turned my head slowly, and here was a good-sized rattlesnake right by Dad's feet. So I picked up my rifle that was lying beside me, turned very slowly and smoothly and carefully, till I had the rifle trained on him, and then shot him. And of course the gun went off close to Dad's head—and Oh boy! He jumped. We had not dared tell him anything, because being deaf we'd have had to shout to him loudly and he'd probably have moved quickly, and the thing could have struck, see. So when I shot him, then he jumped, "What's the matter, what's the matter ?" And we showed him the rattlesnake. Well, even at that—that was as close as he ever came to seeing a live rattlesnake. But that's pretty close.
That's close enough.
Talking about rattlesnakes, when I was six years old I was sitting on the back step of my next door neighbor's house, and there was a little back porch, little wooden back porch there, ground level, except for one step. This little girl and I were sitting there playing with her dolls. And her sister came out and sat down between us. And in just a few minutes, the attention of her sister was called—she noticed, that is, a shadow on the wall, on the side of the porch there, a moving shadow , and she turned and looked. And here right behind me was a rattlesnake, all coiled up, with his head moving back and forth. And his tongue sticking out and back, and out and back. She was sitting with one arm around her sister and one arm around me, so she screamed and threw us both to one side— and herself also—and the snake struck but missed us, because we were out of the way, and crawled down under the porch.
A carpenter was up on the roof fixing the shingles. He jumped down, and tore up the back porch plank and killed the snake. The next morning, I couldn't speak. And for two or three days after that, I couldn't say a word. Couldn't utter a sound. My mother was, of course, terribly worried, and she called the doctor in San Jose, on the telephone, the only one on the mountain, which was in the secretary's office. The doctor said, "Well, has he had any fall lately, struck his head or anything?" She said, "No." "Has he had any bad scare lately?" "Oh yes, he had this rattlesnake scare." "He said, "That was it. It temperarily paralyzed his vocal cords. And he'll outgrow it, but it will be a little while." Well, for ten years, I stuttered and stammered unbelievably. I couldn't talk at all hardly. And through grade school, I had a terrible time.
But the teacher knew about it and all the kids knew about it and I got along all right. When I went to high school, I could talk all right, but I still stammered a great deal. And whenever I got upset or nervous, I stammered. So many many times, many times I'd take a zero, a bad grade, in school when I was called on, because I couldn't talk. Finally I told the teachers about it, and then after that I had no trouble. When I went to college, I took a course in public speaking, and I told the instructor what had happened, what the score was. He said, "Well, we'll correct that," and he gave me voice exercises for a whole year. It cured me. One of the grade school teachers, I forgot to tell you, about the 2nd or 3rd grade, had me read out loud for an hour every day with my teeth closed. The reason for that was, so I'd learn to enunciate with my lips and tongue, and strengthen the vocal cords. But it worked some. After this course in public speaking I had no trouble at all. I've done a lot of public speaking since then.
Did your father ever consider possibly leaving the mountain because of all these dangers?
How did your mother feel about that ?
She never considered it either. She was right with Dad and the family. After the first few years, why, she enjoyed it thoroughly. She was part of the mountain.
Did other people ever consider leaving ?
Oh, quite a number of people came and went. Came and left. Couldn't stand it. But the isolation up there, and the solitude, gave us a tremendous opportunity for inner thinking. And you get out in the woods, out in the wilds there, and time and again, I've gove out and simply sat on the edge of a cliff, and just looked over the surrounding hills and canyons—just sat there for an hour or so. And just go out on a ridge, where there's a grassy slope, just lie out there on the slope and look at the sky, and the clouds go by, and just—think.
Did you learn the constellations ?
Did your father teach them to you ?
Yes.. We just automatically absorbed them, more or less. He taught us the constellations and then we just absorbed them.
Did he ever point out the planets to you ?
Oh sure, we knew all the planets by heart.
What did he say about Mars ?
Well, of course, Lowell was the Lowell Observatory, and the big thought at that time was the "Canals of Mars" and so on and so forth, a lot of discussion about that, at that time.
What did your Dad think ?
Well, he didn't believe there was any such thing as life on Mars. But on the other hand, who could tell ? There is definitely a difference in the Martian summer and the Martian winter, in the bands, and the size and coloration of them, the shape of them—so who are we to say what it is? We can't tell.
Did he talk about Cambell's work on Mars?
Yes. Of course, Campbell did a lot of work on the sun too. That was one of his strongest points. He was very prominant in solar observations, and the observations of the eclipses. He went to all the eclipses.
Oh yes— E.S. Holden had sent him to eclipses many times. Do you recall how Campbell felt about his own work or what your father said about .Campbells work?
No. No. They had mutal respect for their work.
But did he talk about it ?
No very much.
Because in later years, it became something of a controversy between Campbell and Lowell.
Oh, very definitely. Dad didn't enter that at all.
Your father did give a large public lecture at an ASP meeting in 1910, on Campbell's work, and I'm wondering if you have any recollections of that.
About 1910? No, I don't. An ASP lecture?
Yes. I have the lecture.' But the important thing is that I'd be interested to know what your father privately thought about Campbell's work and about life on Mars and about the canals.
Well, he didn't believe there was any life on Mars, at all. But he did think there might be some form of possible vegetation, due to the fact of the polar icecaps enlarging and growing smaller, and the Martian seasons, and the fact that the bands changed very definitely in the Martian summer and winter, which would indicate that there was some sort of vegetation. there, it would indicate that possibility.
Yes, that's right.
But he didn't think there was any human life or any life that we could conceive of.
He never talked about Campbell and Lowell
No,not to any point. If he did, it didn't make any impression. But he did think that Lowell was a little bit far out. In his theories.
Did you ever meet Lowell ?
No, I never met him.
After you went down to San Jose to start high school, I assume that during the summers you came back up?
Oh yes. And we often walked home on weekends.
It's only 20 miles.
20 miles up and 20 miles down. We'd walk home Friday afternoon after school, leaving right after school, about 3:30, and get home about 7 or 8 o'clock at night. Maybe 9. And then hike back Sunday afternoon.
That's a long hike. Did you do it alone ?
It was up the road you went?
No, took the trail. Took the trails across country. The road is about 26 miles, from the center of San Jose to the top of the mountain,— it was then, they've cut it down somewhat now. But the trail was only about 18 miles. 18 miles by trail. Because you cut across a lot of ridges. A lot of the switchbacks, we cut across.
That makes sense.
For example, from Smith Creek to the mountaintop is only 2% miles by trail, and 7 miles by road.
That's a big difference.But by the trail it's more vertical.
Oh yes. That's true.
So you really had to climb.
Yes,but that didn't bother us any, because our muscles were attuned to that. In fact, when my grandfather came up, my father and my grandfather and my brother and myself went fishing down in Sulphur Creek, which is 2000 feet down the side of the mountain, very steep. We boys knew the trail perfectly. On the way out, why, my grandfather and father were taking it dower, and we boys were going on ahead. In fact we got out of sight. And we got worried for fear they'd miss the trail, so we started back down again, to see them, and my grandfather saw us coming down, He said, "Stay up there. Stay up there! Don't you know any better than that ? Stay up there."
You'd just have to climb right back up again.
Didn't make any difference to us. Down or back or anything. We'd go down to the bottom of the canyon, then up the other side of the mountain on the other side, and have a picnic on top of the other mountain, then come back home again. No difficulty.
You were talking about watching your father observing with the telescope.
And I got you sidetradked. How did he actually use the telescope, do you recall?
Yes. He would get the telescope focused on the star that he as going to examine, first, in the finder, and then through the eye piece. It was a direct eye piece. It wasn't through the prism or the reflector, where you look down in it like you do now, but it was right directly through the eyepiece, in the eyepiece. He'd look in that. He always had both eyes open, Never closed one eye, And then, he had his right ascension and declination wheels— one wheel rough and the other smooth, and he would just move the telescope just a little bit till he got it just exactly right where he wanted it, got it just where he wanted it— then he would turn the vernier until he had his lines properly set, like that, Then he'd examine it, and then slowly move the other one up, and when he got it up to where he wanted it, then he'd turn on his "bulls-eye" and look at the readings on the side of the thing, He'd either call to one of the boys who was down below, or write it down himself if we weren't there, the reading.
Then he'd turn the thing all the way back, and do it all over again, He always took three readings, Every observation had three readings, and we recorded them in the book, He must have had hundreds of books,of these, plain paper books, plain books with a solid cover, hard cover, with plain paper inside, just filled with these observations-the name of the star and the time and the date and all the information on it, and then the readings. That was the way he operated,
Did he ever tell you why he was doing all that work ?
Yes, he explained to us, what the angle was, what he was measuring, how it was, and then he'd take the observations at special times a month apart to see what the rotation was of the double star, And that way, he could gauge its speed around the other one, figure its orbit around it.
Did he tell you what astronomers did with that information, at that time ?
No, We didn't go that far, as youngsters, Then also, on his observations, he would tell us about taking measurements of stars at six months intervals, Exactly six months intervals at the opposite ends of the earth's orbit—to get different angles,
Oh yes, did he do parallax observing work ?
Yes, And he told us about how to figure out the distances of stars, He explained to us the trigonometric of measuring the distance of stars and so on.
Oh yes, later on.
Yes. In that earlier day, they had a spectroscope. They didn't do any photography as such, but they took spectrograms.
A lot of times, they'd have to remove the spectroscope from the telescope on Saturdays, in order to let the people look through the telescope at night.
Oh yes, they had a big visitors! eyepiece.
Oh, Saturday night was a big visitors' night.
How many people would show up?
Oh, possibly 50 or 60 They would come up in big carry all stages, ahout 16 or 17 people to a stage, and of course the stages were built very high, and they'd run six horse stages. They'd leave San Jose in the afternoon,and have dinner at Smith Creek, and drive on up in time to see the sunset. And then, look through the telescope, and take a tour through the observatory buildings, of course, and then drive down in the dark. And of course, there were no headlights on the stages. All they had was two little tiny kerosene lamps, two lamps, that's all. So it's perfectly dark, and on moonless nights it was pitch dark. And the drivers simply let the horses take the road, and the horses would follow the road.
No accidents ?
No accidents. Never had an accident with the stage.
What about the cars ?
Cars ? Oh yes, we had frequent car accidents. They'd roll over the edge. We had one accident with a freight wagon just before they came to the watering trough, which was halfway between Smith Creek and the mountaintop, one of the freight wagons rolled over the grade, in a very steep canyon there, very steep canyon. The freight driver was a little bit under the weather from too much alcohol, and he rolled over. Rolled clear to the bottom of this thing. And it didn't hurt him at all.
He was lucky.
Well, I guess he was too drunk, so he fell limp.
Did your father ever try any photography there ?
No, He never tried that at all.
Did any of the other people ?
Oh yes, Quite a number of them did, N.H. Wright in particular. And I think P. Trumpler did a lot of photography. And the freight wagon was on the bottom with all the supplies, and they had to go down and carry it all up. That place has been known ever since as "Jack's Slide!" Just before you come to the watering trough, which is just halfway up the mountain. All of the urns near the mountaintop all had names.
What were some of the names ?
Well, one in particular—of course, the Horseshoe was obvious, just before you came to the top.. Then, the one that was particularly interesting would be the "Oh My Point." Now, the reason for that was that as you approached this particular sharp curve, around the edge of the ridge, the ground sloped away very gradually, but as you turned the corner around the ridge, it dropped off very steeply, down a couple of thousand feet. And people coming around that curve, sitting in a high stage, as they swung around the curve, they'd look over and say, "OH, MY!" So the turn became known as the "Oh My Point." (laughter) Then there was one curve that had a big rock corner on it, solid rock, with a peculiar scoop in it, on the top of the rock, just a dish-like scoop, and that was known as "The Pudding Dish." That was the name of that turn.
And then the turn just below the top of the mountain, just before you came to the fanlt,was always called "The Point." "The Crocodile Jaw" was the name of the curve right at the brickyard, where the road goes in and out in a very sharp angle—goes way in and way out again immediately— known as the "Crocodile Jaw." And another stretch of road just above the watering trough, where the trees met over 'the top of the road, and you went under the trees for quite a ways, was called "The Tunnel." Other than that—they all had minor names, but those are the only ones that are really woth remembering.
What about Joachin Murietta ?
Oh, Joachin Murietta, yes. We searched that area with a fine tooth comb, looking for Murietta treasure, He had a cabin. We used to go there for picnics on Sunday. The cabin was still standing at that time. You crossed the Copernicus Ridge, from Copernicus down toward Israel Creek, you crossed the top of that at the first little saddle, the first little dip in the ridge, and went down about a mile beyond that, and then you came to this deep spring, and an open grassy flat, a lot of wild rose bushes, and there big oak trees alongside it. And under one oak tree was his cabin.
Completely isolated. You couldn't see it from anywhere. And that was Joachin Murietta's cabin, one of his hideouts. We boys would go over there. We'd take a pick and a shovel and we'd go over there and dig and dig and dig, sure that he'd planted his treasure there, buried treasure somewhere. We even went over at midnight, when the moon was full, and dug at the shadow of the fork of the Oak tree, thinking maybe that was where he might have buried it.
Did anybody tell you that ?
No, that's a steal from Edgar Allen Poe's THE GOLD BUG. That was another one of the stories we read avidly. We read all those things, as youngsters.
Your parents let you go all over the mountain ?
Oh yes. All we had to do was be home at a certain time. Well, we had dollar watches, which were much bigger than a dollar and about half an inch thick, Ingersoll watches, the Ingersoll dollar watch. And we had to be home at 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon. They didn't care where we went. We had to tell them where we were going approximately, what direction, and then we had to be home at 4 o'clock.
What happened if you didn't ?
Well, we never overran. We always got home by 4 o'clock. Usually by quarter of 4, because these were strict orders and strict orders were obeyed.
That's good. What about your later years contact with the observatory ? You father of course remained on the mountain for many many decades, and became Director when Campbell became president of U.C. How did your father's duties increase and as you grew older did he confide in you ?
Not a great deal. Somewhat, about the problems of building, construction and so forth, but not a great deal, because I wasn't home.
Where were you ?
In 1917-18-19, I was in the Army then. And then after that, when I got out of the hospital, I was more or less of a disabled soldier. I went back to college at Berkelpy and got my degree, hut I couldn't go on in chemistry. I couldn't go on in pre-med because they said, "No chance, you can't take it." So Harry, my wife's brother, was in the automobile business in Ohio, so we went back to Ohio. I went to work for him. And we were there from 1921 to 1938.
That was in Cincinnati ?
Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. And four or five years before 1938, we just counted our pennies more or less to see how soon we could come back to California. We wanted to come back. I had hay fever badly there from the ragweed in the Ohio Valley, and so we finally came back in January of '38.
How were things as you found it then ?
First thing we did when we were home was to go to Mt. Hamilton.
What were your impressions when you got up to the mountain ?
Well, it was very much the same. Several new domes had been built. But our house was still there. We even took Dad up there a couple of times. Mother would never go back up.
Why not ?
She said her memories were too vivid. She didn't want to go back up and spoil them. But we took Dad. We took Dad up two or three times, and we went up quite often the first few years we were out here. In front of the house there's a lavender bush which had lived through all the vicissitudes of winters and summers and no water and heavy snows. I.brought off a chunk of it and brought it down and planted it, and I've still got the descendants of that lavender bush out here in the back yard.
You planted that pine tree back there, too.
That pine tree came from a pine nut. Grew out here in the back yard.
Almost every Sunday as a little youngster in the summer we'd go on a picnic and afterward to Joachin Spring. That was a favorite picnic spot. We'd have Sunday School in the morning. Dad usually worked Saturday nights, after visitors, so he'd sleep late Sunday morning. And right after Sunday School, we'd pack up a lunch, and Mother and we two boys would go over to our picnic ground where we were going to go. We'd build a fire, set up the picnic,. but we wouldn't light the fire. No fires, till Dad came. Lay it but not light it. It was strictly against the rule.
Then along about half past 12 o'clock, Dad would come over, usually carrying a jug of water, which was pretty heavy for youngsters to carry. Soon as he got there, we'd light the fire, under Dad's supervision, and have coffee for Mother and Dad. We boys had about a quarter of a cup of coffee and the rest of it canned milk, for our coffee. But they had a cup of coffee and sandwiches. Then we'd lie around after that and Dad would read out loud while we kids would climb trees or go hunt rattlesnakes or whatever around there, until about 3 or 4 o'clock. Then we'd pack our stuff and go on home, and by the time we got home it would be about 5:30. We'd have hot chocolate. And incidentally that's the hot chocolate pot, right up there, on the shelf.
That white one ?
Yes. That's the hot chocolate pot. We'd have hot chocolate and maybe leftover sandwiches or possibly a piece of cake, and that was supper. We'd go to bed. That was our Sundays in the summer time.
Did your father usually go back to work at that time ?
No, he didn't go back to work Sunday night. He seldom worked two nights in succession. Other people had to use the telescope too. But he worked at least ever other night. Once in a while, two nights in succession, if he had a particular object in mind that he wanted to finish. But usually he didn't work every night.
Did he ever talk about his work at the dinner table ?
Oh yes. A lot. He described what he had seen, and the measurements he'd made or if he'd discovered a new one tonight or whatever. He discovered about 3300, I figure, or four thousand possibly, I'm not sure. But he examined every star in the Northern Hemisphere down to the 9th magnitude.
That's just about every one in the Bonner Durchmusterung catalogue, the big catalogue at that time.
That's marvelous. What do you think was his favorite star ?
Oh, I'm not sure. Probably E Lyra.
That's a beauty.
That's the double double, isn't it ? Aitken; That's the double double.
Did he show it to you through the telescope ?
Oh yes, frequently. And he showed that to visitors quite often.
What did he used to say about it ?
Oh, he was greatly enthralled by it. He thought it was the most marvelous star. Quite a few others he liked too, but that was his favorite.
Did he ever point it out to your just as you were out under the stars ?
Yes, we could see it. And also we could see the great nebula of Orion, and you could spot it on clear nights up there very readily. And of course, Betelgeuse being a huge star—at that time—Antares hadn't been measured by then, so Betelguese at that time was considered to be the largest.
Really ? Before 1910, when you were a child ?
When I was a youngster, we all thought Betelguese was the biggest.
That was from your father's ideas ?
No, I don't know if it was Dad's ideas or not. Of course that was so very red and so very beautiful.
Why did you think it was the biggest ?
I don't know. Because that entered our heads at that time, that that was a big star.
Because around that same part of the sky, you have some beautiful blue ones, like Rigel and Sirius.
Yes, big ones. Oh, Sirius of course was tremendously big and a beautiful sight.
But you really thought Betelguese was biggest.
We thought Betelguese was about tops. Of course, that was in the constellation of Orion, and so very visible and plain and red. That was really an intriguing star.
Yes. You mentioned, as far as their being measured, they wer finally measured of course around 1920.
Yes. You know that poem written by Bert Taylor in New York about Canopus ?
The NEW YORK TIMES correspondent, and he wrote a little poem that says, When friends political would dope us, And politics absorbs the livelong day, I like to think about the star Canopus, So far, so very far away. Greatest of visions,suns, they say, who Jist 'em To weigh it science always must despair. Its shell would hold our whole darned solar system, And never know it was there. When temporary chairmen utter speeches, And frenzied henchmen howl their battle hymns, My thoughts float out across celestial reaches, To where Canopus swims. When men are calling names and making faces, And all the world ajangle and ajar, I think about the interstellar spaces, And smoke a mild cigar. When I've had about enough of the arguments Of friends as well as foes, A star, that has no parallax to speak of, Conduces to repose.
Marvelous Do you know when he published that ?
I can tell you in just a minute. Bert Lefton Taylor, NEW YORK TIMES correspondent.
OK, we can probably find out from that. Well, we've taken you through a lot of memories about the mountain... and everything. I was wondering if there was anything particularly in your mind that I may not have asked you, that you feel is significant ?
Well, you might mention there about the boys, the children's little affairs. Our games consisted of reenacting Knights of King Arthur, or various other stories of that type, or playing Indians as most kids do and dressing up as Indians. We had Indian battles between ourselves. Of course, in the winter time we had snow battles. We made skis out of pieces of wood six inches wide and six feet long, a quarter of an inch thick with a barrel stave nailed on the end.
A barrel stave ?
A barrel stave, a wooden barrel stave nailed on the end, carefully sandpapered to make a ski, and one strap across to put your foot under. Those were our skis. And we made sleds out of barrels, and we had plenty of barrel staves. One picture I have of Mr. Tucker—he joined in the fun quite a bit sometimes—he slid down the slide which ran fron the dormitory down to the flat, by the side of the chicken walk—that was our main slide—slid down there, sittin flat on this scoop shovel, holding the handle in front of him. Holding it out in front of them like that, and slid down the slope, much to the enjoyment of everybody that watched him. Forgot his dignity for that one time.
Did any of the other astronomers do that?
Yes, they all joined in the fun. They were all good sports, all of them.
Even Campbell did ?
Oh, Camobell would go up once in a while. He didn't unbend very much, but he'd unbend once in a while. He played tennis. He played a good game of tennis, and a good game of golf.
The tennis court was right next to the Aitken house.
Roscoe Sanford was a real crack tennis player, real rood.
He was up there at that time ?
Yes. And of course, E.A. Fath, and C.D. Shane, of course, later.
Were you up on the nountain when Shane was there ?
So you must have come back to visit. Atken: Well, in college or school—he was there when I was — I knew him as a student up there. When he was a student up there. But Fath was a student up there when I was a younster—Edward Arthur Fath. Incidentally, Edward Arthur was a real good hiker. He liked to hike. And I'll tell you another one— Sturla Einarsson. Einarsson was a marvelous athlete. I've seen that fellow stand on his hands, and walk into the swimming pool on his hands, until just that much of his feet was showing, and then turn around and walk out again on his hands. We had a swimning pool down at the bottom of the canyon, in sabene Creek. We danwed it up with rocks at the base of it. a swimming pool about 40 feet long probaly, and at the deepest part probably seven feet deep, and very convenient, you had a big rock on one side tiat came right down into the water, and a sandy beach on this side and a sandy beach on that side, so the girls dressed on this side and no problems.
Einarsson was up there also while you were in college.
So you got to know a lot of them.
In fact, I took a course in astronomy from Einarsson, my freshman year in college.
Did you take any courses from A.O. Leuschner?
No. I knew Leuschner but I didn't take any courses from him.
Did you ever talk about the mountain with him?
No. I was just a youngster, you know, as far as he was concerned.
Well, how much contact did you actually have after the war, when you were back in college?
Oh, very little contact with anybody up there then. Because I was only home during the summer time, and not very much then.
But there were a lot of visitors coming through.
Do you remember any of the visitors in particular?
None in particular. Von Ribbentrop from Germany came up there, and had—I'm sure it was von Ribbentrop. At least that name sticks in my mind as being the one. And oh, there were lots of visitors up there, hundreds of them.
Mrs. Aitken, you were up there for a while ?
Did you find it very different ?
Oh, just out of this world. Something I'd never dreamed. I went for the weekend, and I was supposed to go home—"Well," Duke's mother said, "Lena, if you go home, Duke will go right down with you. Now, you just stay up here..."
That was very nice. When were you married ?
OK, well, I think I'm just about out of tape. really thank you very much for your time.
You're entirely welcome. I hope I've given you something to go on?
Oh yes. This is very very good, stories and recollections.
Oh, there are lots of stories.
That's really very nice.
Oh, we have some dillies.
Mother told us, we went out on a hike, "If you see a rattlesnake, don't you go near him. Go right around him and come on home." Well, Max—my brother—and I went to gather some mariposas one morning, and we came across this big rattlesnake. So we promptly killed it. Then we worried about what we were going to tell Mother. We were very carful always when we killed a rattlesnake, always to kill them by the head so as not to damage the skin, because we always skinned them, kept the skin and the rattles. We worried, what we were going to tell Mother about that rattlesnake? So we finally decided we'd tell her, we found it in the road, "wagon must have run over it." When we got home, we proudly showed her big snake.
"Oh yes. My, that's a big one. Where did you get that ?" "Well, mother, it was in the road and I guess a wagon must have run over it." Well, of course we didn't think of the fact that horses won't go near a rattlesnake. If there's a rattlesnake in the road, the horse will shy away, over to one side. He wouldn't go by it all. In any case, if they did run over it, a rattlesnake in the road would never lie there and let a wheel run over its head. We never thought of that. She looked at the snake. "My it's strange, the wagon just ran over that snake's head." "Yes. Very strange." Very understanding mother. How she ever lived through that time up there with 3 boys and 1 girl who were scrambling all over that mountain top, I'll never know. (crosstalk) Do you see that scar on my knee, right across here ?
I was fishing down at the creek, and sitting up on a high rock, fairly high rock, on the bank, fishing in the creek with a pole. I caught a trout, pulled him up, when to grab him and missed him when I swung him back, and he went into a little clump of weeds right beside me , and a rattlesnake started to rattle, right there. I didn't waste any time at all. I just got off that rock like that, and lit on my knee and my chin, caught my chin. We were down 2000 feet in the canyon. As soon as I got off there, then we climbed back up there, me with my knee bleedin and chin bleedin, and killed the rattlesnake. We couldn't let him get away. But my knee bled like the dickens.
I went down and knelt down in the creek, in cold water, just knelt there for a while, got my chin in the water for a while—pretty soon it stopped bleeding. Then we climbed back out again. 'Then I got home, I had this big cut on my knee and one on my chin here. No stitches, of course. No clamps of any kind. Mother just put a bandaid on. There weren't any bandaids then. It was just a piece of gauze and a piece of tape. That was all. It healed up fine.
That's good. You're lucky.
Yes. And she didn't worry. She said, "Well, if it's going to happen, its going to happen. What will be, will be.."
That's the only way you could survive on a mountain like that.
OK. Well, thank you. I'll be having this tape transcribed and I'll send you a copy.
o, fine. PAUSE.
OK, the electric plant was built about 1907?
Yes. Late 1906 or early 1907, right after the earthquake. One night in September 1906, Mother was wakened about eleven o'clock by the sound of footsteps on the front porch, then the sound of the door being opened and the footsteps coming in and going into the living room where the sound stopped. Dad was up at the big Dome working and my brother and I were asleep in our room. Mother put on a robe, took a candle and went downstairs to the living room and there sat a strange man. He stood up and bowed and said, "good evening. Won't you come in and sit down?" So she did—next to the fireplace, where there was a big heavy poker. Mother said "Who are you?" and the man answered that he was a surgeon and after describing an operation using medical terms, he said, "...and the electricity gave out and the flow of blood was so great—and I haven't had anything to eat since!" Mother realized that he was insane.
So she said, "Well let me get you a sandwich—I have some venison in the cooler and it will only take a minute." She thought she'd wake one of us boys and send us for help-but he said "No! I'll just eat these plums." The plums were in a dish on the little coffee table. The dish was a very special dish, a wedding present. Mother said "You know, they are building a new electricity plant about half a mile away at the Observatory and if you go over there they will give you all the electricity you want and you can complete your operation." "Do you think they would?" "Of course. I'm sure they would." "OK, I'll just take these and go." Mother tried to put them in a bag but he took the dish and went out and headed up the road toward the observatory. He had no coat at our house but had one when he showed up at the boarding house. And a month later or two months later,in the winter time, I was going to school, and something, a flash caught my eye, and here in the bushes beside the trail, on the road there, was the plum dish.
Filled with leaves. I went down and got the plum dish out, and there it is! Anyway, there were lights in the boarding house. He went in, and some of the men were still there. He told them the same story, and they talked to him and convinced him to lie down and take a nap, and the first thing in the morning, they'd take him up to the electric plant. So he lay down and took a nap. And they went up to the observatory, called on the telephone, the one line telephone— called San Jose, called the sheriff's office. They came up. By morning time when he woke up, they were there. They took him back to Agnew State Hospital, near San Jose. But then it developed, he was a doctor, and he had lost his mind during an operation and had been confined in Agnew State Hospital. At the time of the 1906 Earthquake his building had collapsed and he had escaped and had been wandering in the hills from April until he showed up at Lick in September!
This is the end of the interview. Thank you.