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 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.

The paths in this portion of our project open the "book of nature" at the point where images of the cosmos transitioned from illustration to photographic representation, as scientists embraced the objectivity of the camera over the subjectivity of the eye. 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 astronomical science progresses smoothly as the telescopic camera unequivocally replaces the eye as an improved method for seeing and representing the heavens.

These archives remind us that many of the Lick's astrophotographers were not "scientists," as we think of that figure now, but amateurs without formal scientific training whose interest in photography led them to the study of astronomy; people working at the Lick were often developing their knowledge of astronomy at the same time as they were trying to master and improve the use of telescopic technology for photography. Additionally, these images remind us that photography itself was a fairly new technology that still 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 and technicians 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 images and documents presented here particularly raise questions about the camera's objectivity. Even as improvements were made to the telescopes to automate the photographic process, these images are still ultimately the result of human intervention and human labor. Even as astronomers argued that photographic images were more objective records of the sky than illustrations, they articulated preconceived notions about what the heavens are supposed to look like and wanted the resulting images to conform to these notions. Printers worked hard to realize these ideals as they reproduced the images created at the Lick, but printing technology embedded its own set of material and technological limitations. 

[blurb on material practices/limitations of expeditions?] 

The images we see in these paths, then, are the product of both material limitations and aesthetic ideals; and they were also created within a vast network of labor that extends beyond the observational intensity of the individual scientist.

Contents of this path: