Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Astronomer Visits Impressive, But Not Famous, Park in a Foreign Land

The Muniment Room of the Birr Castle Archives, August, 2010. This was my "office" while researching connections between the 19th Century Parsons family and America. (90-degree panorama of several handheld vertical frames -- should be clicked on and viewed large.)

The astronomer of this post's title isn't me, who traveled from Santa Cruz County, California, to County Offaly in Ireland in 2010. The astronomer in question is one who traveled exactly the other way, from County Offaly, Ireland, to Santa Cruz County, California, in 1891.

Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, as a Young Man (photo from the Birr Castle Archives)

The Fourth Earl of Rosse

Had he not been surrounded by superluminous immediate family members, Laurence Parsons, the Fourth Earl of Rosse, probably would be considered among the top tier of Irish scientists and engineers of the 19th Century. He directed the great astronomical observatory in Parsonstown (now Birr) Ireland, including the largest telescope in the world, for more than 30 years. He pioneered the use of infrared sensing techniques to measure the temperature of the surface of the Moon. He was an officer of the Royal Society (and delivered its supremely prestigious Bakerian Lecture on Physical Science in 1873) and was Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, for more than two decades.

The Fourth Earl inspects a 36-inch telescope at his observatory, late 1800s. This particular telescope no longer exists, but the walls in the background -- support structure for the giant "Leviathan of Parsonstown" -- still do. Between them now is a reconstruction of that revolutionary instrument, designed and built by the Fourth Earl's father. (Photo from Ireland's Historic Science Centre, Birr Castle Demesne.)

And yet, in his own living room, he was overshadowed from a number of directions: his father, William, the Third Earl, essentially invented the single most important tool of extragalactic astronomy (the giant reflecting telescope) before we even knew there was such a thing as "extragalactic astronomy." His mother, Mary, was a pioneer in the infant technology of photography. His youngest brother, Charles, was a prolific inventor who revolutionized transportation technology by inventing the steam turbine -- and demonstrated it in daring fashion to the British Admiralty by bringing his turbine-powered yacht, the Turbinia, uninvited, to Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 and outrunning the finest ships of the Queen's Navy that tried to catch the gate crasher. (There is a great action photo of the Turbinia running the Royal Navy silly here.) His cousin, Mary, was a pioneering microscopist, and one of only three women on the mailing list of the Royal Astronomical Society at the time. The other two were Mary Somerville (after whom Somerville College at Oxford University is named) and Queen Victoria herself.

One of the Fourth Earl's travel diaries in the Birr Castle Archives, 2010.

Unlike his revered father and mother, though, Laurence became a world traveler (presaging the globetrotting ways of his grandson and great-grandson in their pursuit of botanical specimens and, in the case of the current Earl, service to humanity through the United Nations). His two long tours of North America, one in 1884 and the other in 1891, are the first instances I can find of his family's venturing into the Western Hemisphere.

Sherwood peruses the archives, Birr Castle, 2010. The white cotton gloves are to protect the old paper from skin oils and acids.

I came across his handwritten travel diaries for those two trips in the Birr Castle Archives in August, 2010. His notes on his second trip, the one in 1891, contained one thing that made the hairs on my forearms stand up in eerie astonishment, and another that is deeply puzzling. Both concern events in places less than 50 miles from my home in Boulder Creek, California -- one of them very, very much less than 50 miles -- almost half way 'round the world from his home in the Irish midlands.

A pair of pages from the Fourth Earl of Rosse's travel diary, 1891.

An Astonishing Personal Co-Incidence

A new generation of research astronomical observatories had barely begun in 1891, incorporating a revolution in location rather than technology. Lick Observatory of the University of California was the first mountaintop research observatory in the world, having gone into operation only three years before in 1888. (Before then, the benefits of good "seeing" afforded by certain mountains' steady airflow, diminishing the wavering scintillation or "twinkling" of starlight, had not been widely recognized.) Lick is located atop Mt. Hamilton, just East of San Jose, California, and is a place dear to my heart. It is also only about an hour's drive from my office at DeAnza College.

Lick Observatory at the summit of Mt. Hamilton, California, September 2008. The great 36" refractor still occupies the big dome; the Ft. Harrington pickup truck squats near the entrance.

Clearly, Lick Observatory would be a necessary stop for the Director of the famous Leviathan of Parsonstown on his tour of North America in 1891, and it was. Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, arrived in Northern California (by train via Mexico and Los Angeles) in March, 1891. His diary entries concerning his trip to the mountaintop are full of technical detail, but short on context -- and short on something else that I'll get into later. The real immediate surprise to me was about something closer to home. Literally, closer to home.

Shortly after his visit to the top of Mt. Hamilton, he wrote these entries in his diary concerning an excursion to another Northern California attraction:

Sunday (Easter) [March 29, 1891]
Sorry I was taken out by 10-30 train to Mr. Doyles (Menlo Park, a residential spot on the way to Sn Jose) so I missed Church. Holden [Edward Singleton Holden, first Director of Lick Observatory, founder of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and all-around hard guy to get along with --SH] & I lunched & dined with the Ds (Mr & Mrs two daughters & 2 sons) & between drove to the new "Stanford University" which as yet consists of buildings only, unfinished, in imitation of the old Spanish Mexican style. Went on to San Jose and stayed night at the new hotel.

Monday Mar. 30
Started at about 10 for "Big Trees" station on the narrow guage line. The "big trees" are close to the station. They are said to be not far short of 300 ft high but only half the girth of the Yosemite groves. I found it took 7 of my stretches to reach round one say 7 x 5 3/5 feet, 40 1/4 feet = say 12 3/4 diam at 4 feet from ground. [I love the way he "talks" himself through the arithmetic! --SH] In the inside of a hollow one my outstretched arms could not reach across the cavity. The branches are short & poor. The whole forest has contained many similar trees but they furnish the "red wood" which is used for all building construction in these parts (Sequoia Sempervirens: bot name). The wood is soft & not resinous yet very durable. Among other things it is used instead of stone or brick in the linings of the railway tunnels.

From there we drove on to Santa Cruz, a sea side resort with hotel & thence by rail to Monterey also on the sea coast...


It is clear that on March 30, 1891, the Fourth Earl of Rosse visited the San Lorenzo Valley, the short notch in the Santa Cruz Mountains in which Boulder Creek and Ft. Harrington are located. The "Big Trees" and the narrow-guage railroad are the first clues -- the private park he refers to still exists as the "Big Trees and Roaring Camp Railroad" complex just outside the little town of Felton, California, just down the valley from Ft. Harrington, and directly adjacent to Henry Cowell State Park.

"Big Trees and Roaring Camp Railroad," 2005. My late son, Doug Harrington, holds his daughter, Grace, on his shoulder in front of a narrow-guage locomotive that may well have been operating when Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, visited this place in 1891.

Henry Cowell State Park is where I walk my dog. It's Kelsey's favorite place in the whole world.

Kelsey in heaven. Or Henry Cowell State Park. To him, there's no difference.

After discovering this, and having talked to Lady Rosse about the great co-incidence, she searched through the family's photo albums and found one that included the Fourth Earl's visual souvenirs of his second trip to America. In those photos was this one:

In what is now Henry Cowell State Park, California, 1891.

... a place in Henry Cowell State Park that I walk Kelsey past every time we go, near the park's headquarters. The tilted trunk isn't there any more, nor are the people in their formal dress, but the grove is there. It wouldn't be so astonishing if this were a photo of a major tourist attraction, like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon -- but this is a little local park, a dog-walking place, that somehow is shared across the thousands of miles and the century between, and that thrills me. Maybe that's silly. I don't think so.

Sherwood photographing a photograph album from a trip by an astronomer of bygone days to his own present home. The multiple layers of self-referencing in this image make me dizzy.

A Deeply Puzzling Four Blank Pages

In addition to my astonishment on finding that the Fourth Earl of Rosse, all the way from the middle of Ireland, had visited my dog's park, I was intrigued by a curious set of four completely blank pages in his diary, between his arrival at Lick Observatory and his departure. Wasting paper like that was utterly unlike the Fourth Earl (not a single line of paper is blank elsewhere in his diary, and often he wrote things in the margins or gutter), but here were four empty vessels at the most crucial point in his tour (from an astronomer's perspective.)

The mystery will be the topic of a future post here in SherWords, once I have researched the matter in more depth -- which I can do, since the Lick Observatory Archives and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific both have their headquarters just a few miles away!

Stay tuned.


Mike said...

That coincidence certainly tops your great-whatever having lived a few miles from me in Queensbury, an inquiry about which launched our non-racs relationship. (Of course, readers, he wanted a photograph of a site. I had no idea at the time what Sherwood considers a "photograph" or I would have hired someone to take it.)

"Someday," the Earl writes in his diary, "a wonderful old dog will paddle his feet in this spot."


(My verification word today is "plyses," which any astronomer knows is the constellation also known as "The Seven Little Fishies.")

Brian Fies said...

Wow. Cool.

That's the best I can do to express how very, very, very cool this post is. Sometimes words fail.


Ronnie said...

What Brian said. This is just beyond beyond.

campbell said...

This is one of the greaa websites...informative, lively, readable, and friendly. Sherwood does a great job.

from Campbell