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If you like Clyde Tombaugh's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Sylvia Earle,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Clyde Tombaugh in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Cosmos

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Tombaugh Collection
Space Museum

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Clyde Tombaugh
Clyde Tombaugh
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Clyde Tombaugh Interview

Discoverer of Planet Pluto

October 26, 1991
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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  Clyde Tombaugh

Let's begin at the beginning. How did you first know what you wanted to do in your life?

Clyde Tombaugh: When I was in the fourth grade, I became intensely interested in geography and I learned it well. In fact, by the time I was in sixth grade I could bound every country in the world from memory. By then the thought occurred to me, "What would the geography be like on the other planets?" So that was my natural entrance into astronomy, you see. So I've been interested in that area particularly ever since.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Of course, I took all the science and math that was offered in high school. I had an uncle in Illinois who lived about nine miles from us. He was an amateur astronomer, and he had a three-inch telescope. The views with that telescope were my first views of the rings of Saturn and Jupiter's moons and the craters of the moon.

What event inspired you in this field as a young person?

Clyde Tombaugh: I was interested in eclipses when they occurred, things like that. Later, my uncle and my father invested in a Sears Roebuck better grade telescope which I used thousands of times to look at objects in the sky I read about. That was always a thrill to find them in the sky.

What did your parents think when you told them you wanted to do this seriously when you grew up?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: I guess they just took it for granted that that was what I was interested in and let nature take its course. They always encouraged me and, of course, the day came when I left to go to Arizona, they realized that I was going to do what I really wanted to do: become an astronomer.

How did they encourage you?

Clyde Tombaugh: They would get books on astronomy out of the city library for me. They would allow me stay up late at night to look at things in the sky. I didn't have any regular bedtime hours to abide by, so it was a pretty good environment.

What were some of the books they took out?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: I don't remember the titles of them, but I got out one book called The Pith of Astronomy, a very popular amateur book, which I read so many times, I practically memorized it. And then other books I don't recall the names. Of course, a lot of them are now obsolete, but they were the best they had at the time. I got them from the Streator Library in Streator, Illinois. That was my home town and I went to high school there for two years.

Your uncle gave you one booklet on Mars, didn't he?

Clyde Tombaugh: It was Mars's Mysteries, I think, written by Latimer Wilson. He was an amateur telescope maker, and an amateur astronomer. He lived in Nashville. In later years, I went there and saw his telescope, but he was deceased by that time. I had kind of a correspondence with him in earlier years.

How did that come about?

Clyde Tombaugh: In Popular Astronomy magazine, in 1924, he had a paper with drawings of Jupiter, beautiful drawings of Jupiter and its markings. He remarked that he had made that with his 11-inch home-made refractor. Boy, that just sent me! I had to write him and say, how do you make a telescope like that? So I wrote to him and he responded. That's how I got started making telescopes.

Why were you fascinated by this kind of reading at that age?

Clyde Tombaugh: Well, I just had this curiosity. I wanted to see these things I'd read about.

What did your friends in grade school think of you?

Clyde Tombaugh Interview Photo
Clyde Tombaugh: I guess they thought I was a little odd. I was always interested in intellectual things. I was always interested in sports too. I played baseball in grade school and then in high school I was on the track and field team. I was the school's star pole vaulter.

So you did have other interests.

Clyde Tombaugh: Oh yes. I guess the two things I was most interested in were telescopes and steam engines. My father was an engineer on a threshing rig steam engine and I loved the machinery.

How did you make the choice?

Clyde Tombaugh: I was interested in telescopes and the way they worked because I had an intense desire to see what things looked like, so I learned how to use telescopes and find things in the sky. Although my early equipment was very modest, later I made my own and they were more powerful.

There must have been a driving curiosity with you.

Clyde Tombaugh: Yes, a very strong curiosity about the universe and so on. I just had the urge to see on the other side of the mountain. It was on the moon and the planets and all that you see. I wanted to extend my horizon of interest. It was a challenge to my thought life.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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