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

Introduction to the Lick Observatory Archives

Astronomers at the Lick not only discovered several new astronomical bodies, but also observed and recorded features of bodies that had previously been obscure.  On the grounds of the observatory itself, which was home to the largest refracting telescope at the time, astronomers were particularly concerned with studying the structure of nebulae, which had been previously thought to be galaxies, and with measuring the movement of distant objects. Their measurements supported new theories of cosmology in which the universe is not static but expanding, and eventually helped 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; the camera allowed Lick astronomers to study the structure of the sun's corona, the existence of which had been to that point uncertain.

The Lick was founded in a period when astrophotography was beginning to eclipse illustration as a method for observing and recording the features of astronomical bodies. As astronomers developed the capacities of the Crossley and the Schaeberle telescopes in tandem with photographic technology, the Lick observatory quickly became a center for developing new methods of astrophotography. The Lick Observatory archives have more to tell us about than the progress of astronomical exploration and discovery, then; they give us insight into the development of a new technology for imaging the cosmos.

The paths in this portion of our project open the "book of nature" at the point where images of the cosmos transition from illustration to photographic representation. But as these documents and images tell us the story of this technology, we see that it's difficult to tell a straightforward narrative in which the camera unequivocally replaces the eye as an improved method for seeing and representing the heavens. In addition to the fact that many of the Lick's astronomers were amateurs without formal scientific training, they found that the very new technology of photography had many material limitations--particularly the amount of time required to capture light and create exposures, which differed according to the kind of object in view. Astronomers worked long hours in the middle of the night to create a single exposure of a distant nebula--or in the case of the solar eclipse, they had to work very quickly to put into place the plates that would capture the fleeting moment at which the moon is centered over the sun. The delicate telescopes and their photographic instruments were also subject to physical and climate conditions, which was especially problematic for the Schaeberle telescope as it was moved around the world.

The reproduction and printing of the glass plates created at the Lick and abroad was a particularly knotty process shaped by both material limitations and subjective ideals. While Lick's astronomers often argued that photographic images were more objective than illustrations, they also held preconceived notions about what the heavens are supposed to look like and wanted the resulting images to conform to these notions. However, artisans and photographic experts working in consultation with the astronomers often had to remind astronomers about the material limitations of printing; unlike photographic printing now, printing in this period was a very lengthy process which involved a variety of materials and physical apparatuses. [will expand this last sentence]

The images we see in these paths are shaped by both material limitations and subjective ideals; but they are also influenced by a vast network of labor that extends beyond the observational intensity of the individual scientist.

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