Reading Nature, Observing Science: Examining Material Practices in the Lick Observatory Archives and Kenneth S. Norris Papers

Introduction to the Lick Observatory Archives

The Lick Observatory, located on Mount Hamilton 19 miles outside of San Jose, California, was founded in 1888. It was home to the largest refracting telescope at the time, the 36" Great Lick refractor, as well as the one of the first large reflecting telescopes, the 36" Crossley reflector. These telescopes were developed for photographic use. Astronomers at the Lick were particularly concerned with using the camera to discover, record, and measure the light of distant celestial objects. Their work eventually helped astronomers to distinguish between galaxies and nebulae, to support new theories of cosmology in which the universe is not static but expanding, and to confirm the theories of relativity argued by Georges Le Maître and Albert Einstein. Lick astronomers also traveled around the world on seventeen expeditions between 1889 and 1932 in order to view solar eclipses, transporting with them the 40-foot-long Schaeberle camera; this camera allowed Lick astronomers to study the structure of the sun's corona, the existence of which had been to that point uncertain. Into the twentieth century, the Lick became a center for spectroscopy, a method of photography that parses the spectrum of light reflecting from stars and planets in order to determine their material and chemical properties.

Astronomers at the Lick were excited about the capacities of the camera for capturing more reliable images of the sky unmediated by human intervention and subjective perception. They used the photographs to record changes in the features of celestial bodies and to track and measure their movement over time. Accordingly, they sought to make the images produced by the 36" telescopes more objective by mechanizing the telescopes, which reduced human contact with them.

In an article titled "Photography the Servant of Astronomy," the Lick's first director, Edward Holden, wrote the following about the merits of the camera: 

[The camera] does not tire, as the eye does, and refuse to pay attention for more than a small fraction of a second, but it will faithfully record every ray of light that falls upon it even for hours...[the images] can be measured, if necessary, again and again. The permanence of the records is of the greatest importance, and so far as we know it is complete...We can hand down to our successors a picture of the sky, locked in a box.

Holden believed that photographs were inherently objective pieces of data that would remain valuable over time, and that they were a more durable and permanent medium. Holden perhaps thought of these images as authoritative texts to be included in the "book of nature" for all posterity.

The history of the Lick could be told through accounts like Holden's, alongside a series of technologically and visually impressive photographs. But the documents collected in this archive constitute another "book of nature," which tells us a much more complicated and non-linear story about this drive to create an objective and permanent record of the cosmos. It speaks to other, "less objective" material practices of observation; the material limitations of the telescope and the camera; and the material conditions of photographic reproduction that mediated the creation of these images.

This archive importantly documents the vast network labor that produced these images and impacted their objectivity. First, it's important to note that many of the astronomers working at the Lick--such as Edward Barnard, who created many of the Licks' most iconic images--did not become scientists through education but rather through trade; they often did not have formal education in astronomy or optics. Many of the staff astronomers at the Lick and abroad were trying to master astronomical knowledge while also trying to keep up with and improve optic and photographic technologies. The Lick also relied on the labor of artisans and photography experts to craft the images to their specifications; letters let us witness the complicated relationship between objectivity, aesthetic expectations, and labor. This intersection of objectivity and labor becomes particularly complicated when we consider the archive's record of eclipse expeditions, which accounts for yet also keeps opaque the way the Lick's astronomers relied on the labor of the people living in the colonized regions they visited.

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