November 24, 2019

Founder of Lowell Observatory Got High in Prescott

Percival Lowell
Percival Lowell’s life changed after reading Camille Flammarion’s “La Planete Mars.” It was then that he dedicated his life to the study of astronomy. His greatest legacy was building the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. A renowned scientist in his own time, he came to Prescott, AZ over the Thanksgiving holiday of 1909 to spend time with his friend, Judge EM Doe.

He would also take the opportunity to give a spell-binding lecture to a delighted crowd at Elks’ Theater about the potential of intelligent life on Mars. “It was Prof. Lowell who first offered proof to show that Mars is inhabited,” the newspaper proclaimed, “and because of his achievements has been honored with membership by the highest scientific societies of Europe.”
Although it’s not widely publicized at the Lowell Observatory today, Percival, “a millionaire several times,” originally built his observatory in hopes of spying a civilization on the red planet.  Indeed, that was the reason for naming the observatory’s perch “Mars Hill.” The less powerful telescopes of the day seemed to show straight-lined canals on the Mars surface and Lowell wanted a more powerful telescope to take a closer look. He chose Flagstaff for its high elevation, often clear skies and its remoteness from city lights. This was the first time anyone had taken these factors into consideration in the placement of a telescope, and is something that has been practiced ever since. 

It was these early 20th century observations and speculations that inspired novelists like HG Wells, and helped give birth to the genre of science fiction. Of course, the idea of intelligent life on Mars seems ridiculous to us today, but Lowell applied good science techniques to the information he had at the time. In fact, it took the Mariner missions of the 1970s before the mysterious canal features of Mars were definitively proven to be optical illusions.

Lowell's visit to Prescott and his free lecture was met with great anticipation and excitement. “Those who hear his lecture Wednesday evening will find it instructive and entertaining and the distinguished scientist should be greeted by a crowded house,” the paper predicted. “He is engaged in astronomical work purely from love of the science. The local observatory located in Flagstaff…was built and is maintained at his own expense and is considered one of the finest in the world.”

His speech at the Elks made a deep impression.  The “lecture on astronomical subjects was a treat such as has never before been enjoyed in the city,” the paper stated. 

After the lecture, the Yavapai Club held a “smoker” event to honor both Prof. Lowell and the new commanding officer at Whipple Barracks, Major Kirby. Smoker events involved cannabis and were both common and popular in early 20th century Prescott. Marijuana consumption was legal then and the species of life was without stigma.

“Good fellowship, excellent speeches and a general fine time were the features of the smoker tendered last evening,” the paper declared. It “was one of the most pleasing affairs that has ever been given at the Yavapai Club, which is famed for its hospitality." The smoker was attended "by nearly 100 members of the club and the merrymaking continued until the clock struck 12.” It is likely that Lowell’s host, Judge Doe, as well as many other local dignitaries were in attendance.

When marijuana was legal, Prescott, AZ used to hold annual "Smoker" events where cannabis was recreationally smoked. (Includes one of the first published uses of the word "weed").

“Personally, Prof. Lowell is of pleasing fellowship,” the paper reported, “and during his brief sojourn in this city made a deep impression on many he met."

"Lowell has been described by other planetary scientists as 'the most influential popularizer of planetary science in America before Carl Sagan,'" and his positive legacy continues today. Beside his observatory, he also has craters on the Moon and Mars named after him. Even as late as 2015, the newly discovered Regio on Pluto was named in his honor.


To see all the #PrescottAZHistory articles about CELEBRITIES who visited Prescott: CLICK HERE

Follow #PrescottAZHistory in one of the following social media to be sure you get the latest article!

Want more Prescott history? Join the "Celebrating Historic Prescott" group.
(Daily pics and featured articles.)
Drew Desmond is on Facebook (For the latest article and posts about Drew's writing.)

Follow the Prescott AZ History Blog on Twitter @PrescottAZHist
(Daily pic featured at 7 am & 7 pm and featured articles.)

Prescott AZ History is on Pinterest
(For the latest article.)

Follow PrescottAZHistory on Instagram

Weekly Journal-Miner, 11/24/1909; Pg. 8, Cols. 1-2
Weekly Journal-Miner, 11/24/1909; Pg. 2, Col. 3
Weekly Journal-Miner, 12/1/1909; Pg. 8, Col. 6
Weekly Journal-Miner, 12/1/1909; Pg. 6, Col. 2
Bio background from Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment