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If you like Clyde Tombaugh's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
Daniel Goldin,
John Mather,
Sally Ride,
Alan Shepard and
Donna Shirley

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Clyde Tombaugh in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Cosmos

Related Links:
Tombaugh Collection
Space Museum

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Clyde Tombaugh
Clyde Tombaugh
Profile of Clyde Tombaugh Biography of Clyde Tombaugh Interview with Clyde Tombaugh Clyde Tombaugh Photo Gallery

Clyde Tombaugh Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Discoverer of Planet Pluto

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  Clyde Tombaugh

Did you have fantasies about space travel when you were young?

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes. I used to think about how nice it would be to visit the planets. Of course, I didn't expect to see in my lifetime what has happened. I knew it would happen some day, but it came along faster than I at first thought.

What did you fantasize was going on out there?

Clyde Tombaugh: I used to believe there were people on Mars, and of course now we know there aren't. Mars held particular interest. I was curious what kind of beings they would look like. We thought they were super intelligent because of the canals of Mars, that they were an old civilization and had learned a lot more than we had.

What teachers inspired you?

Clyde Tombaugh: I had one teacher in grade school named Susie Szabo when I lived in Illinois. She encouraged me to study science and so on, and she appreciated my interest in geography because she loved geography also.

How did she encourage you?

Clyde Tombaugh: She talked to me about what I had seen in the telescope the night before, and she was just a marvelous person, a real teacher.

How old were you when you built your first telescope?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: That was in 1926. I was 20. It wasn't a very good one because I had such meager instructions. It worked fairly well, but not good enough to suit me. The following year, Scientific American published a book called AmateurTelescope Making. I bought a copy and digested it and realized where I'd made mistakes. My next telescopes were much better because I had more information.

The nine-inch in my backyard, for instance, was my third telescope of excellent quality. It was the drawings I made of the markings on Mars and Jupiter with that telescope that I sent to the Lowell Observatory in 1928. That impressed them favorably so that they invited me to come out for a trial work with the new telescope at Flagstaff. That was a big break.

Let's talk about that time in your life; how this young man had the guts to send his primitive drawings to the Lowell Observatory.

Clyde Tombaugh: What you do is, you have your drawing board and a pencil in hand at the telescope. You look in and you make some markings on the paper and you look in again. Back and forth, many, many times, so as to get the stuff in the right proportion, the right intensity. It takes about a half-hour to make a good drawing that way. When the temperature is freezing, it's a bit hard on your fingers, but I was interested in putting down what I saw. And that's what paid off.

To be an amateur and be confident that your drawings had some significance must have taken a lot of nerve.

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: At that time the Lowell Observatory was the only planetary observatory in the country, and I was particularly interested in planets at that time, and so I thought I would just like to see what they thought of them. The planets are never the same twice, they're always different, so they could compare the markings I had drawn with their current photographs and they knew that I was drawing what I was really seeing and it wasn't copied from somewhere.

They realized that I was careful, I saw well, and so on, and they thought I would be a good candidate to run this new photographic telescope they were installing. I was invited to come out on three months' trial and stayed 14 years.

What was the level of your education at that time?

Clyde Tombaugh: High school, but I studied solid geometry and trigonometry on my own because they didn't offer those in high school at that time. Can you imagine young people nowadays making a study of trigonometry for the fun of it? Well I did. I was very much interested in mathematics and physics and so on. Physics is one of my best subjects.

When did you go to college?

Clyde Tombaugh: Not until two years after the discovery of Pluto. I went to the University of Kansas as a freshmen in the fall of 1932 and Pluto was discovered in 1930. When I went to Flagstaff all my astronomy was self-taught.

It must have been a strange feeling to go back as an underclassman when you already had a world reputation.

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: It was. As a matter of fact, I wanted to take the beginning course in astronomy, but the professor of astronomy wouldn't let me. He said that would be absurd. I guess he thought it would create awkward academic implications for a discoverer of a planet to be taking beginning astronomy.

It would have been peculiar to sit in class and learn about yourself! Did you always think you were destined to be an achiever in this field?

Clyde Tombaugh: I never thought that way. I think the driving thing was curiosity about the universe. That fascinated me. I didn't think anything about being famous or anything like that, I was just interested in the concepts involved.

How much luck was involved in the opportunity that you got?

Clyde Tombaugh: Being invited to come to Flagstaff was a big stroke of luck. The other was pluck, not really realizing I had been preparing myself for that for years before that: building that telescope, learning the finer objects in the sky, reading everything on astronomy I could get and to be very careful. I was somewhat of a perfectionist. So, those were the traits that made me a good candidate for this type of job.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What can you tell me about why you succeeded where others didn't?

Clyde Tombaugh: I had a strong sense of responsibility, I wanted to be flexible also, and I just worshipped knowledge and spared no pains to do the job very well. I also had an enormous amount of perseverance. I learned that on the farm. And I guess those are the qualities that got me there.

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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:40 EST
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