Cornell Days: The Big Red Wheel (~1948)

The Big Red Wheel (Atkinson, Konold, Rath, Thomas, Roark)

When spring finally comes to Ithaca after a cold and dismal winter the students at Cornell shed their winter gear, bid farewell to the endless grey above and turn their faces at last to the sun. It is said that Ithaca sees more cloudy days per year than the Olympic Peninsula, the record holder.

Waiter's Derby
Waiter’s Derby

April’s social centerpiece then was spring house party weekend the Saturday of which was Spring Day, a more or less pagan celebration featuring weekend long “dates” (“blind” or otherwise); women allowed—under some sort of chaperonage—upstairs in the fraternity houses; more alcohol than might be prudent; and widespread organized inanity. Among these: pie throwing contests, the hotel school’s Waiter’s Derby, the architect’s Dragon Day parade entry, fraternity and sorority floats and parties, and in 1948, the recently established Inter-fraternity Crew Race.

A fifty yard course on Beebe Lake crossed above Triphammer Falls. The rules were simple: human effort only (no motors, no wind), and five crew members. This last to eliminate sophisticated racing shells. Entries comprised anything that would float from rafts of beer kegs to brass bedsteads made seaworthy.

We at Sigma Chi decided to build a paddlewheel boat. The naval architecture and ship building expertise fell to me and to Al “Oop” Thomas.

We first conceived a Mississippi riverboat arrangement with a paddle wheel on each side but soon abandoned that idea as impossibly unstable; even at small departures from the vertical we couldn’t get the center of gravity below the center of buoyancy. We had thought at first that one boat and two wheels would be easier to make. And so it became a center-wheeler with a pontoon boat on either side.

The Big Red Wheel

Al proved expert at building these using pine freeboards and a galvanized sheet iron bottom with carefully fashioned lock-seam joints. The wheel, eight feet in diameter, had eight paddles driven by a crank handle on either end to be turned by four of the strongest among us.

In deep secrecy we took the parts down to Cayuga Lake Inlet and reassembled them there for trials. It was windy and cold and the water choppy so we spent less time evaluating results than we might have. It seemed fast enough but the enthusiastic man-power overcame some of the structural elements which had to be re-detailed for strength. One crucial aspect of the design’s shortcoming went unnoticed.

48050003_BigRedWheelWe christened it the “Big Red Wheel” in homage to the world of Cornell “Big Red” sports and—incidentally of course—to the bawdy barroom song. The engine room comprised Bill Konold, Bob Rath, Ed Rorke, and Al Thomas.

Reassembled on Beebe Lake before dawn on the day of the race it passed a strength test; we were ready.

The race was almost an anti-climax. We churned forward way ahead of the competition. But owing to unexpectedly large counter-torque the stern was sufficiently depressed that we took on water at a rate large enough to cross the finish line essentially submerged. The rules had not addressed this submarine possibility and we were adjudged the winners—both for speed and originality of design.


That was the year we stayed for summer session and Bob Rath and I painted the Lansing high school building. The Big Red Wheel spent all summer on the lake gradually falling into disrepair at the hands of whoever could manage to keep it afloat.

Wm. C. Atkinson, 2016


Francis Kerr Atkinson (1890-1976)

Francis Kerr Atkinson 1890-1976: Some Biographical Notes

These notes have not been researched in any substantive way, being largely what I remember from reminiscences told to me during my childhood and from direct experience later.

1890_GfaEkaALMy grandfather George Francis Atkinson, after having graduated from Cornell University in 1885, held teaching positions in zoology at the University of North Carolina, later of botany at the University of South Carolina, and then at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn. He had moved there with his wife Elizabeth Graham Kerr—formerly of Raleigh, NC where her by then deceased father, Washington Carruthers Kerr, had been the State Geologist. A daughter, Josephine, was born but died in infancy.

My father—Francis Kerr Atkinson—was born in Auburn, Alabama on the first of May, 1890.

In 1892 his father accepted an appointment at Cornell University as an assistant professor of botany and the family moved to Ithaca, New York where his sister Clara Packard Atkinson was born that year.

The family settled on the campus in a house at 5 East Avenue whose wooded backyard sloped steeply down to Cascadilla Creek. From visits in the late twenties I can remember the house which was eventually swallowed by the burgeoning engineering campus after WWII.

At the end of the nineteenth century the mix of public service technology then in Ithaca was interesting. There was no domestically distributed electricity, yet the telephone had arrived and a fully functioning electric street car utility served the town and the campus above. The automobile was a curiosity; all local transportation was by horse and carriage. Houses were piped with gas for lighting and cooking but central heating, such as it was, was hot-air and coal-fired. My father recalled arriving home to a dark house in winter whereupon his father would don slippers, turn on the gas and, after some diligent shuffling of feet on the carpet, touch his finger to the gas jet; lighted by the resulting electrostatic spark. A gas-fired “Geyser” in the bathroom heated water on demand but not without its dangers. One winter night while he basked in the bath his mother sensed that too long a time had passed and went to investigate. After having broken open the door she found him unconscious in the tub, victim of the Geyser’s stealthy coal-fired appropriation of the oxygen in the closed space.

Naphtha Launch
Naphtha launch

At the age of five (1895) Kerr was witness to the tragic drowning of his maternal uncle, William Hall Kerr, a successful textile entrepreneur on whose naphtha launch Watauga the families were enjoying an excursion in Annapolis Harbor. Six year old Philip, one of the four small Kerr boys—my father’s first cousins—slipped overboard, and his father, who evidently could not swim, jumped after him. Others managed to rescue the boy, but the father drowned [1]. Kerr’s mother and his young sister Clara were also on board.

My father disliked the name Francis and took his middle name as his first: Kerr [pronounced “car”]. In his early years he attended “Miss Hitchcock’s” school on the Cornell campus along with other children of faculty families, most notably my mother who was almost the same age—Elsie Sterling Church, daughter of Professor Irving Porter Church of civil engineering. It was there—after a discussion of the children’s ages—that one child blurted out to the young Miss Hitchcock: “Gee, you must be a hundred”!—one of my father’s favorite anecdotes. Kerr and Elsie both later attended Ithaca High School from which my father graduated in 1907 and my mother in 1908. He and Elsie played the violin in the high school orchestra [2]; my father kept on with it for the rest of his life—all through my childhood he practiced in the dining room on Sunday afternoons—themes and melodies that have lasted in my memory to the present day.

1908ca_FkaRTTaviDuring his secondary school years he kept a small but elegant inboard motor launch on Cayuga Lake—the onomatopoetic “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” after the sound of the engine. I have a series of photo’s of my youthful father off on a picnic in the boat with his family and their black cocker spaniel, Booker T. Washington; which probably says something about the times and my father’s Southern parental origins. He was always polite, fair, and deferential to black people although never, I think, able completely to accept them as a natural part of his cultural and professional world.

With the exception of an occasional vignette he never spoke in detail of his years as a boy and young man at home in Ithaca. He rarely mentioned his family or his sister Clara; an omission I never questioned until years later. Only near the end of his life did I learn from him that his parents had separated and divorced over his father’s alcoholism (probably around 1910) and, further, that his sister Clara had died, a suicide in 1917 in New York City [2]. He revealed these secrets to me with great emotion and I realized that they were born in a different cultural era where divorce and suicide were universally considered to be dark and shameful family failings.

BookPlateClara was a talented artist all of whose work has been lost except for a clever bookplate designed for her brother when he was at Cornell.

After the separation his father acquired a small rustic house in the woods and fields north of the campus at 138 Ridgewood Road that he called “Laurelwood”, where he lived and worked until his death in 1918. His mother moved to Manhattan with his sister Clara and, sometime after 1925, removed to Asheville, North Carolina where she died in 1952.

Kerr entered Cornell in 1907 and in 1912 graduated with a double degree in mechanical and electrical engineering. The engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi inducted him as a member. His classes in mechanics were taught by 1912_2 FkaFlyerProfessor Church, his future father-in-law. This period was barely five years after the Wright Brother’s success in 1903 and my father—an early member of the Cornell Aero Club—was active in the designing and building of tethered gliders and towed machines which were tested and “flown” on the open heights to the east of the campus. Cornell (perhaps my father) built one of the earliest wind-powered flight trainers.

Finished with university he immediately got a job in Schenectady with General Electric where, I think, he had had previous summer stints. He was there for more than a year and remembered having met and had exchanges with the eminent Nikola Tesla and Charles Steinmetz.

Eventually a Cornell friend, who was teaching in Missouri at the University in Columbia, invited my father to join him there. He accepted and spent three years as an instructor in electrical engineering during which time he broke his leg playing soccer and broke up with a serious lady friend. Asked why he didn’t stay in teaching he would say: “I could see an inescapable groove”—he meant a “rut”; he would indicate it with an undulating motion of his hand—“forming ahead of me.” He feared that teaching would be too narrowly restrictive and not sufficiently representative of the larger world where the important action lay.

1916_LVCoalCoIn June of 1916 Kerr began work in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania for the Lehigh Valley Coal Company where he began as assistant to the company electrical engineer. He told a story of a problem with a new electric traction locomotive which, when set up and ready to go, would not start on the advance of the conductor’s controller. He lay down next to the track close under the engine and asked the conductor to try it again, this time hearing a faint “click” on first contact. After some reflection he directed that the polarity of the connections on one of the two traction motors be reversed; and, lo, the locomotive started. He reminisced that, while lying close to the track in possible danger, it was fortunate that the two electrically mis-opposed motors had exactly balanced starting torques.

1918_FKAOne year later World War I overtook him and he enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as an engineer in the officer candidate program. He finished training at Fort Dix in 1917 as First Lieutenant and sailed to France in 1918 as commander of the 78th Division, 303rd Engineer Train “comprising 125 men, 100 mules, 25 wagons and 12 motor trucks.” They were part of the 78th “Lightning” Division. After slogging eastward across France supplying timber and hardware to the builders of bridges across the river Aire under fire and cover of night near Grand Pré they saw several weeks of active service before the November armistice.

Paris- 1918 (Kerr on right)

After the Armistice Kerr’s unit was sent to wait out the return home in Venarey-les-Laumes where he was billeted with a French family, Chapeau, for the winter and spring of 1919. During this period he became attached to the young son Fernand Chapeau, then about ten, and, over many years, sent gifts at Christmastime and small sums to help with his education [3].

After the War he put together a small booklet “Mules and Motor Trucks in France”; a reminiscence and detailed history of the 303rd.

Mules and Motor Trucks in France (1919)

It was while he was in France that his father died of the “Spanish” influenza [4] in Tacoma, Washington in November of 1918, interrupting a mushroom specimen gathering expedition in the vicinity of Mount Rainier. It is my impression that Kerr was given leave to attend the funeral in Raisinville, Michigan—which would have meant at least a month’s absence from his unit in France.

After the war Kerr returned to the Lehigh Valley Coal Co. where he remained until connecting with an old friend and fellow engineer, Roderick Donaldson, who had established a small consulting business in Manhattan and who sought a partner. In 1920 Kerr accepted a partnership and moved to New York City where he lived for several years at 502 West 113th Street.

As I have heard it, late in 1920 Kerr bumped into Elsie Church in the New York City subway. I suppose each must have known of the other’s presence in the city but hadn’t yet formally arranged to get together. Elsie had just taken a job at the Guaranty Trust after a summer of odd jobs at home in Ithaca. Following a springtime courtship they became engaged and were married in Cornell’s Sage Chapel on August 18, 1921. 1921_EscFkaWed
They honeymooned in France where they revisited Kerr’s Fernand Chapeau “family” in Venarey-les-Laumes; the son, Paul Debrion [5] of his mother’s godson in Clermont-Ferrand; Elsie’s Leandre Legal “family” in Hautvillers; and Elsie’s wartime AEF “canteen” village of Bay-sur-Aube.

Back in Manhattan Kerr and Elsie first lived in a small apartment on Tiemann Place on the Upper West Side, but by the spring of 1923 they were expecting a baby and had found a larger apartment on 113th Street in the same building where Kerr had lived with his mother before their marriage. Sadly, in July the child—a daughter—was stillborn.

Then, on January 13, 1925 I was born, as my mother liked to say, in “Hell’s Kitchen” where the hospital was located on the East Side in the forties.

Later that year Donaldson gave up his part in the consulting partnership and Kerr, who may have already entertained the idea of continuing on his own, gave that up after having received word from his first cousin Philip Kerr in Boston that his employer, the engineering consulting firm of Jackson & Moreland, was hiring. It was Phil who had been saved from drowning in 1905.

And so in October our family arrived in Boston, and by way of a night in the Beaconsfield Hotel—where, I am told, I spent the night in a bureau drawer—we settled into a second floor apartment in Brookline at 27 Claflin Road on Aspinwall Hill. Kerr began what was to become a successful twenty-five year career at Jackson & Moreland where he soon became a project manager directing the design and construction of electrical power generating plants, oil refineries, and industrial facilities.

On March 1st 1926 my sister Elizabeth Holley Atkinson was born in N.E. Baptist Hospital.

To be continued?

[1] The press of the Wm. J. C. Dulany Co. of Baltimore published a small monograph entitled “William Hall Kerr” containing notes on the funeral services, a biographical sketch , and details of this accident.
[2] Clara Packard Atkinson (1892-1917) died in New York City, a suicide.
[3] After a search I was able to find his son Pierre, a mason, in Venary where I visited on two occasions.
[4] The “Spanish flu” pandemic killed 20 million people worldwide and 550,000 in the United States.
[5] Paul’s father, Henri Debrion, was (un filleul de guerre) of Kerr’s mother—as un poilu killed in a tragic military rail accident in 1917.
Also:  A recent search for the traces of Paul Debrion by Les Poilus de Madrid.

William C. Atkinson, November, 2017


Astronomy, An Adventure (1925-present)

Irving Porter Church (circa 1920)

My grandfather Irving Porter Church had a small refracting telescope equatorially mounted on a pedestal in his backyard at 9 South Avenue in Ithaca, New York. I can remember it. Somewhere there is a small photo of him in a black frock coat standing beside it. In 1923 the 12-inch refractor of the Fuertes Observatory at Cornell University was named after Prof. Church, then retired chair of the Civil Engineering Department.

In Manhattan, on Saturday, January 24, 1925 (about a week after I was born), there was a total eclipse of the sun. The southern limit of totality was found later that day to have been at 97th Street; observers having been stationed at every other block from 72nd to 135th Streets in order to make the determination. We lived then on West 113th Street, just within the zone where totality lasted only a few seconds.

New York Times Rotogravure Jan 1925

According to my father people had gathered outdoors despite the bitter cold and as the sun reappeared after the brief spectacle a burst of applause rolled across the rooftops of the city. My father later framed its picture cut from the rotogravure section of the New York Times.

I remember, as a child of less than five, a night in Ithaca (probably in August) during which the grownups were to stay up until after midnight to watch a meteor shower (probably the Perseids). Despite a small tantrum I was packed off to bed as too small to stay up that late and I never saw a meteor shower until decades later.

My father, being an engineer and a scientific sort, passed on to us as children a rudimentary interest in astronomy. In the ’30s, when we were ten, knowledge of the Universe was only a fraction of what it is today and didn’t extend in much detail beyond the Milky Way and the more distant galaxies and nebulae: Messier’s objects were still a mystery. The size and age of the Universe was essentially unknown and Edwin Hubble had hardly yet published his theory demonstrating its uniform expansion. We learned that the Milky Way was our own galaxy seen edge-on and came to recognize the Dippers, the Pole star, Orion and the Pleiades in winter, Lyra and Cygnus in summer. Around the house we had some elementary astronomical star charts and texts most of which I had eventually read.

In July of 1932 there was to be a total eclipse of the sun visible on Cape Cod about noon, but not quite total in Boston—which was just west of the central line which swept south from Maine, over the tip of the Cape, and thence out to sea. My father had made reservations for the family on the Provincetown ferry. The ship was crowded with eclipse goers and hawkers offering smoked glass eye protection at outrageous prices. We had our own rectangular panels of heavily exposed photographic film (metallic silver was the agent) sandwiched between glass plates and taped around the edges. They had been made by my grandfather Church.

We climbed to the top of the Pilgrim Tower in time to watch the eclipse from the belvedere. I remember only the brief phase of totality, the dark moon suspended high on the meridian surrounded by the ethereal halo of the sun’s corona.

My interest in astronomy took a holiday until 1944 when I found myself in the Army Air Force in aerial navigation school at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana. That spring and summer we flew all over the southwest in twin-engine Beechcraft [AT-7] Navigation Trainers. We were learning pilotage (watching the ground and comparing it to a map), radio navigation (intersecting and following fixed beams from ground transmitters shown on a map), air-plot (navigating “blind” by compass and airspeed through a motionless mass of air—as though there were no wind—and applying an overall averaged wind correction vector at the very end), and celestial navigation (by the sun, moon, Venus, and the stars). [LORAN had been newly deployed but we weren’t exposed to it until later training in Florida and it had not yet been extended to the western Pacific, where I flew combat missions in 1945.]

Much of the mathematics for solving the spherical trigonometry required of celestial navigation could be simplified by using tables prepared by the U.S. Naval Hydrographic Office (HO). The tables were hardbound in books and our particular method was designated HO-218. There were others suitable for various uses (HO-214, etc.) and one tedious, from scratch, by-hand method, requiring no tables, called the Ageton Solution—which we had to memorize. The HO tables were prepared in advance for a fixed set of twenty-two bright stars more or less evenly distributed over the celestial sphere so that, anywhere on earth at any time of night, one could identify and sight on at least three bright stars so spatially distributed as to permit three lines-of-position to be calculated for plotting on the chart. Thus I learned the names and positions of twenty-two stars many of which I would otherwise probably never have known of.

Long after the War my wife Crissy gave me, as a wedding present, an equatorially mounted four and one-quarter inch Newtonian reflector set on a simple tripod. I became fascinated with its possibilities for observing and photography and set about seeing what I could of the Manhattan sky and of the velvet darkness of that same sky in Winchester, Connecticut where Crissy’s family had a country house—“Windrush.”

Soon I was haunting the general astronomy shelf at the New York Public Library and, through the next year or so, read every book more or less in sequence down the length of the public shelf. I learned about making better telescope mounts, making parabolic mirrors, about solar eclipses and famous expeditions to study them, about transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the sun, about astronomical photography, and the history of the great discoveries of the past. I read all three volumes of “Amateur Telescope Making” and most of Jenkins & White’s “Fundamentals of Optics.” I was hooked.

Month after month (with the exception of the mirror), working in the bedroom and at my friend Lambert Mazzoni’s shop in a loft south of Houston Street, I gradually rebuilt the telescope and its insubstantial tripod ending with a versatile and sturdy mount with setting circles (right-ascension and declination) and driven by simple weight-driven clockwork to cancel the relative motion of the earth’s rotation during long viewing and photographic sessions. Lambert had a lathe and a drill press at the SoHo shop where I could turn wooden, Masonite, and aluminum parts and make simple cameras and accessories. By working at night I could use the kitchen of our apartment on West 108th Street and later on West 116th Street as a darkroom.

Transit of Mercury

61110701_TransitMy first real foray into photography was to capture some successful exposures of the transit of Mercury across the face of the sun on the seventh of November, 1960—photos taken from the roof at 300 W 108th St. I used the direct solar image of the 4-1/4″ reflector at a focal length of 3,000mm, a homemade camera box with a 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 roll film back, and Kodak Autopositive (super contrast) film slips cut to size from a larger sheet. The raw film had to “reversed” by exposure to bright light. After the beginning of the transit (which lasted about three hours) I could make an exposure, run down to the darkened (windowless) kitchen to develop the film, and skip back to the roof for another exposure with altered timing. Mercury was the tiniest of black dots against the image of the sun, much smaller than sunspots nearby (one of which was gigantic). Later the best negatives were printed with a simple enlarging rig made from an old wood framed bellows camera. There was a problem with “limb darkening” whereby the edges of the solar image were significantly less bright than the center. By winding up, and then letting spin down, an empirically adjusted dodge—an internally toothed annulus of cardboard suspended from an axial black cotton thread just above the projected image during the exposure—I could virtually eliminate the unwanted effect. [The 60 degree threads were moving and thus blurred, and the central thread was out of focus.] The best of these results was published in Sky & Telescope magazine in January of 1961 and reprinted in the 1962 McGraw-Hill “Yearbook of Science and Technology” (under “Planet, Mercury”).


I saw my first bright comet (Mrkos 1957d) hanging over the summits in a purple, crystal clear and darkening sky in the Tetons in August of that year. We had to run several hundred yards east, away from the peaks, in order to raise it above the summit ridges. I thought how much fun it would be to be able to photograph (or even to discover) such a one.

Iyeka Seki (1965f)

My attempts at comet photography began in 1959. At first with the 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 camera with eyepiece projection (tiny, tiny images bearing gross enlargement), and later with a new camera (independent of the telescope) assembled from an army surplus aerial lens of much longer (250 mm) focal length with a homemade 4×5 plate holder at the back and permanently focussed with a bright star (Sirius) using a knife-edge installed across a small hole made in the ground glass in the film plane. Eventually I added hand operated slow motion knobs to the right ascension and declination circle adjustments and red-light illuminated cross-wires to the guide telescope thus greatly facilitating the removal of driving clock errors in minutes-long exposures. The intermittency of the escapement gave a slightly muddy, halting motion to the clock. Among the earlier photos were Comets Burnham (1959k) from the roof at 300 West 116th Street, Seki-Lines (1962c) from Dobbs Ferry, NY, and later Ikeya (1964f) and Bennett (1969i) from the yard in Weston, Mass.

The best, though, was Comet Ikeya-Seki (1965f) whose tail faintly swept the entire eastern sky from horizon to zenith before dawn at the end of October. With exposures as long as 30 min (in freezing cold) I was able to get some good pictures with the aerial camera lens. I developed the negatives at night in small enamel trays on the ping-pong table in the darkened basement.

Total Solar Eclipses

Eventually I came across S. A. Mitchell’s “Eclipses of the Sun” (Columbia Univ. Press, 1951) wherefrom I became especially interested in detailed descriptions of the flash spectrum of the solar chromosphere; a phenomenon observable for fleeting seconds at the beginning and ending of a total eclipse of the sun. In particular I was captivated by a description of the discovery of the chromosphere by C. A. Young at the 1870 total eclipse in Spain. He was observing the progress of the eclipse with a hand-held monocular on the objective of which he had mounted a plane diffraction grating:

“As the moon advances, making narrower and narrower the remaining sickle of the solar disc, the dark [Fraunhofer] lines of the [continuous] spectrum [of the waning photosphere] for the most part remain sensibly unchanged, though becoming somewhat more intense. A few, however, begin to fade out, and some even begin to turn palely bright a minute or two before totality begins. But the moment the [photosphere] is hidden, through the whole length of the spectrum—in the red, the green, the violet—the bright lines flash out by the hundreds and thousands almost startlingly; as suddenly as stars from a bursting rocket head, and as evanescent, for the whole thing is over in two or three seconds. The layer [the chromosphere] seems to be something under a thousand miles in thickness, and the moon’s motion covers it very quickly.”

Extraordinary! That was something I had to see, and the more I thought about it, something I had to photograph. It seemed, after some research, that it was something no amateur had yet done. So I set out to design and build a slitless (Rowland mounting) spectrograph; one that I could mount on my clockwork driven equatorial. (For the detailed description of the spectrograph see my article in Sky and Telescope, May 1970, “Gleanings for ATM’s,” p. 318). Usually, to obtain the spectrum of extended objects, a slit is required in the camera itself, but the thin crescent of this object acts as its own slit.

A total eclipse of the sun would be visible in Maine on Saturday, July 20th, 1963.

Slitless Spectrograph

A design began to take shape on my drawing board where I worked at Speed-Park (things were a bit slow), and on weekends at Lambert’s loft in SoHo, and in the bedroom of the apartment on West 116th Street. I combed the junk shops on Canal Street for odd parts—my most serendipitous find: an old bulb-operated Packard shutter of the same 2-1/2″ aperture as the concave diffraction grating of 20″ focal length on whose aluminized surface was a 1-1/2″ square area ruled with 15,000 lines per inch. I had essentially finished the construction by the time we moved house from New York to Boston in June of 1963.

That spring Sky & Telescope published my illustration of the sky at totality showing the stars and planets visible during totality.

The Sky at Totality (C) 1963 William C. Atkinson

Then came final preparations in Cambridge and in my boyhood workshop at 85 Ledgeways in Wellesley Hills. Eventually I spent a last evening on the banks of the Charles River, the spectrograph aimed at the copious neon signage around MIT across the dark river in order, with a jeweler’s loupe, to confirm the focus across the entire length of the parabolic film arc. On the afternoon of the 18th with everything loaded into a new Ford van I headed alone for Maine to allow a day to find a good site and to set up. My friend John Thornton agreed to meet me on eclipse day to help out. I slept on the floor of the van amid the equipment.

Sky and Telescope had predicted the best chance for clear skies at a site on an open hillside southeast of Pleasant Lake in Stetson Maine and virtually on the central line—for the longest possible period of totality. The central line swept down out of Quebec, across central Maine and out to sea at Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island where there was fear of morning fog.

John joined me on Saturday and we spent the morning checking over what I had set up the day before. The morning was nice; clear with drifting fair-weather clouds. Toward noon—the time of the eclipse—the cumuli increased somewhat but everyone (there was large crowd of astronomers and hangers-on strewn across the hillside) seemed optimistic. First contact came—the first nick out of the sun’s disk by the advancing moon—and we then had about an hour. Gradually the clouds billowed larger and filled a greater portion of the sky obscuring the sun for anxious minutes at a time. The sun would reappear (cheers) only to disappear moments later (groans) behind another majestically advancing mass of cloud. The time to second contact (my crucial instant) dwindled to minutes. The world was darkening rapidly; we began anxiously to guess the time when certain blue-sky “holes” would happen along. The moon now covered almost the entire disk of the sun.

A minute to go; sun in the clear. I had a small plane transmission grating taped to one objective of my binoculars and I could see the dark Fraunhofer crescents beginning to condense out of the continuous spectrum of the photosphere. Hand on the shutter bulb, poised, tense. The dark crescents now sharpening, sharpening, scant seconds to go to the flash and then… All dissolved into grayness and faded into virtual night. The cloud took so long to pass that no one even saw the evanescent solar corona, except fleetingly through momentary thinnings in the mist.

The rest of the afternoon was a beautiful summer’s day under a blue sky studded with lamb’s wool clouds. In Orono, at the University of Maine, it poured rain; on Cadillac Mountain, perfectly clear.

The next total eclipse visible on the eastern seaboard would occur on Saturday, March 7th, 1970, the central line passing over Mexico City, leaving the coast at Norfolk, Virginia and grazing Nantucket Island on its way out to sea. This eclipse was part of the 19-year Saros series that included the eclipse of July 1932 that I had seen with my father in Provincetown. For six years the spectrograph gathered dust.

author in 1963
The author in 1963

In 1969 I began a new effort that I came to view as a running battle against Murphy’s Law. I dusted off the spectrograph, telescope, and clockwork and began to prepare for March 1970. I would lie in bed at night conjuring things that could go wrong, each time eventually finding a solution, and in the following days working it out. What if it should rain in the morning; what if there were wind? I arranged the equipment and marked the floor of the 9×9 tent. What if I couldn’t align the polar axis by the North Star the night before or at local noon by the sun? I installed a long surveyor’s compass needle in the main leg of the tripod. What if it were cloudy in the hours before the eclipse? I had calculated the sun’s right ascension and declination at eclipse time so that – once the polar axis of the equatorial mount had been set—I could aim the telescope in advance using only the graduated setting circles. What if the driving clock faltered (as it had in the past)? How could we fine-tune the guiding without a guide telescope (dangerous to the eyes)? And so on and on. Gradually it began to feel as though Murphy could be held at bay.

My friend Frank Dow agreed to accompany me to Nantucket as sorely needed assistance. We set up in the backyard in Weston several times to go through our detailed routine against a stop watch. Frank controlled the guiding using the long tubular lensless sights and the R.A. and declination slow motions to keep the sun’s center always in the cross wires. My plan was to photograph the flash at second contact on Kodachrome film and at third contact on Kodacolor film by taping together the two cassette leaders and winding the film first back into one cartridge then into the other with cranks made from slotted wooden dowels tailored to fit the Kodak 35mm spools. I had a two-spool sample set up that I had used for design, testing, and practice. It was left over from Maine seven years before.

There were to be about ninety seconds of totality between second and third contacts. During this time I would wind film and photograph the corona in color at 3,000mm focal length with the 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 eye-piece projection camera on the 4-1/4 inch Newtonian.

We wondered what chance at all we had for good weather in early March. I had made ferry reservations for the car in December—the reservation clerk wondering why there were so many already booking for the sixth and seventh. The twins (9), Meg and Match, agreed to come too and I arranged a small telescope and camera on a tripod so that Matthew could take some pictures.

During this period the children’s school teachers asked if I would come to their class to explain the eclipse. For the sun I used a blindingly bright photo-flood lamp about four inches in diameter mounted in a large black background sheet and for the corona I painted, on a piece of fly-screen, a diaphanous simulation on the background immediately around the “sun.” A foot or so in front of the sun and slightly larger I mounted a fixed opaque black circle—the “moon.” We set this up on a desk in the front of the classroom at about kid’s eye height and had the children walk slowly across the back of the room. From either side in the back the blinding glare of the “sun” was all that one could see—not the “corona” or even the “moon.” But, as the children walked along, the moon appeared to intrude on the sun’s disk until sudden “totality” in the center when the sun’s corona on the background could then easily be seen. Everybody liked it and I think the kids got the idea. The teacher dragooned the kids into writing nice thank you letters.

Car packing time arrived. We were to leave early on Friday morning and to spend the night at a friend’s house (Julian Everett, an old Dreyfus colleague of mine whom I had visited there before) in Nantucket town. After having packed the instrumental stuff in Weston I assembled a variety of hand tools that I felt might come in handy in general and for emergency—keeping Murphy firmly in mind. Pliers, screw drivers, file, scissors, hammer, hand drill and bits, hacksaw, clamps, wire cutters, wire, tape, glue, oil, and a wood chisel among many others. As I left the workshop I lingered to take a last look around. My eye fell upon a little coping saw and, after a moment of hesitation, I tossed it into the box.

The ferry dock at Wood’s Hole was teeming with activity when we arrived. I had heard that the passage was booked solid and, in spite of earlier confirming phone calls, I was worried a little about the confusion and getting a place in the vehicle line and actually rolling on board. But it sorted itself out and we set sail for Nantucket under sunny skies. Almost everyone on board was on his or her way to see the eclipse.

Nantucket airport was undoubtedly recommended by Sky and Telescope as our observing site. The field, being on the southern side of the island, was just a little closer than the town to the central line of the passage of the moon’s shadow, which passed offshore to the south. There was no practical way of beginning the set up that day, although we did drive down to look over the site. Much pre-eclipse activity was already evident.

Early in the morning we went to the airport. It was hazy but clear and the temperature was above freezing. We found a spot among the many other enthusiasts and the set up went according to plan. We erected the tent, aligned it with north, and set the telescope feet on pre-marked spots. After checking the compass needle in the tripod leg we made small adjustments and precisely at local noon (worked out in advance) we checked the alignment again with the shadow of a plumb bob. In the meantime the telescope and spectrograph were mounted, the image of the sun set on the camera’s ground glass and on the spectrograph’s direct-image cross mark (the “zeroth” order of the spectrum), and the driving clock was started.

Finding a spare minute I set up the small telescope and camera for Matthew; a fixed alignment with a cable release on a 35mm Kodak Retina focussed on infinity.

Fearing degradation from unforeseen light leaks I was loath to load film into the spectrograph unnecessarily early. But now, with about thirty minutes to go, that time had come. I took out the two cartridges, whose leaders had been joined, and set them into the film transport cavities on either end of the 9 inch parabolic film arc. I closed the back and latched it before the insertion the transport cranks from the outside. But, what’s this? They don’t fit? How is it possible that the wooden dowels are now suddenly MUCH TOO LONG?

Seized by panic I was suddenly aware of the baleful presence of Murphy and his inexorable Law: “If something CAN go wrong; it WILL go wrong.” All else was banished from my mind. At home I had failed to try the new film cartridges in the instrument but now I realized that, almost unbelievably in the intervening seven years since Maine, Kodak had altered the 35mm cassette design! What on Earth to do? Only fifteen minutes left! And gradually, as the express bore down, it came to me: the coping saw!

Frantically, in the rapidly gathering darkness I made some simple measurements, marked the dowels and, with the small saw, cut them to the new length and, crucially important, formed the small end-slots required to engage the fins in the cartridge spindles.

Whew! Just in time and with only minutes to go I advanced the film, had Frank check the final alignments, and readied myself to watch the last seconds before second contact with the plane grating on the binoculars.

Poor Matthew had been completely forgotten.

Corona @ 3,000mm fl

It was as it had been in Maine with the difference that the sharpening, darkening Fraunhofer lines suddenly flashed out in brilliant color from red to violet just as Young had described in 1870. I squeezed the bulb and heard the shutter clack open and close in what I hoped would be about a fifth of a second. The flash blazed for about three seconds and faded; totality began; now ninety seconds to its end at third contact.

The corona was beautiful, some stars came out, and everyone in the area fell silent. I wound the spectrograph film, counting crank turns until I knew the film from the second cartridge was in place and that film from the former safely returned to the other cassette. There was time to watch the spectacle and to make and wind several exposures at 3,000mm with the 2-1/4 3-1/4. Then, at third contact, the flash reappeared, facing the other way. I tripped the shutter again.

So great had been the tension that we collapsed to the ground in utter relief. The light returned, intensifying, and the air began to warm. The cassettes we

“eclipse, we made it!”

rewound to expose again the splice. I think we may have opened a couple of beers. Al Doolittle, my friend from J&M, came by and took some pictures. The children wrote in the dust on the side of the van: “Eclipse, we made it.” Murphy had lost.

That afternoon on Nantucket were visible an unusually bright pair of “sun dogs” made by light refracting from ice crystals high in the stratosphere. Perhaps it was an omen; for the film had yet to be developed.

The Kodachrome spectrogram was beautiful (I had had a morbid fear that the processing lab would unthinkingly chop the continuous nine-inch strip into individual slides). I called Sky and Telescope for a meeting and took it in to show Joseph Ashcroft and Dennis Milon. While I sat there S&T decided, for the first time ever, to publish a full color centerfold. The spectrogram stretched across both pages at the top (S&T, May, 1970). They asked me to write an article for the same issue on the instrument’s design and construction.

Flash Spectrum
Flash spectrum of the solar chromosphere

Later I was invited by Dennis Milon to give a lecture at the Harvard Observatory library on the flash spectrum for the Boston ATMs (Amateur Telescope Makers) for which I prepared a fairly elaborate model to demonstrate what Young had seen in 1870.

Ultimately the flash picture was published in several astronomy text books, some other magazines, a NASA publication, and was on display (greatly enlarged) for many years in the “Hall of the Sun” at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

Life moved on. I did not realize it at the time but my “career” as an amateur astronomer had ended with the total solar eclipse of March, 1970.


Bill Atkinson, John Reppy
Solar Eclipse in Jackson, Wyoming (August 2017) W. Atkinson and Prof. J. R. Reppy

The telescope gathered dust in the basement in Weston for many years until the time came to break house and move to Cambridge in April 2017. I arranged to donate it to the Fuertes Observatory at Cornell University, and my friend Cornell Prof. John Reppy agreed to shuttle it from Weston to Ithaca.

But it got one more outing, this year, when John and I decided to drive out to the Tetons to view the August 2017 eclipse.