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In Search of Better Skies:Harvard in Peru, II

J. Donald Fernie

The year is 1889. Thirty-four-year old Solon Bailey, his brother Marshall, wife Ruth and young son Irving are in Peru, where Solon, a staff member of the Harvard College Observatory, has instructions to locate and establish an astronomical field station for Harvard University. In my last column we saw that they had tentatively chosen for their station a mountain (which they named Mt. Harvard) some 50 kilometers inland from Lima, while the two brothers explored a little further inland for a possibly better site. Finding nothing better, they rejoined Ruth and Irving and set to work taking astronomical photographs and measuring the magnitudes of southern stars from Mt. Harvard.

It was tough going. The mountain was desolate indeed; "it furnished neither water nor food. These were brought daily from [the little town of] Chosica eight miles away and nearly four thousand feet below. Considerable difficulty was experienced in finding a trustworthy man to act as muleteer, [and] ... we were repeatedly disappointed in the non-arrival of our day's water and provisions." Snakes were frequently encountered, as were scorpions ("one was met with in a shoe, another in a coat sleeve...") and seven-inch tarantulas. "Our life was so isolated that man and animal, dog, cat, and goat were on terms of the greatest intimacy and equality." Nevertheless, the two men and their Peruvian assistant, Elias Vieyra, made good progress with their astronomical work. At least they did at first, but with the coming of spring and early summer later in 1889 there came also persistent high, thin clouds, which put a halt to their delicate observations. Solon realized that Mt. Harvard would not do. He and Marshall must travel much farther afield to find a better site. They had already heard that Arequipa, 800 kilometers to the southeast, was a gorgeously sunny location, and that the Atacama desert, a further 1,000 kilometers to the south in Chile, was even better. So, leaving Elias to do what he could on Mt. Harvard, and installing Mrs. Bailey and Irving in comfortable quarters in Lima, Solon and Marshall set off on a four-month tour of promising sites.

They sailed from Lima on November 14 and arrived in Mollendo, the port for Arequipa, on the 17th. Ships had to anchor a mile offshore, and the swell was often so bad that passengers were taken in a cage by barge to shore, where a crane lofted them to dry land. It was a completely barren region of sand and rock; the only water supply was piped in from a hundred miles away, and "all food of every kind, except such fish as are caught in the vicinity, must be brought by rail or boat."

After Paris, La Paz

Inland, the Baileys traveled by train where possible, otherwise by stagecoach, mule, or—on occasion—by foot. It was by train that they approached Arequipa, some 100 kilometers from Mollendo. And what a difference! Arequipa, located in the valley of the Chili river, greeted them with "fields of waving grain and groves of fruit-trees.... The first view of the city is really beautiful, surpassing in picturesqueness any other Peruvian city we had seen. Above the city, which rests just at its foot, rises ... El Misti, a nearly extinct volcano about nineteen thousand feet high." Although clearly impressed, the brothers spent only a day there before leaving for La Paz in Bolivia. Again they went by train to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, climbing ever higher into the Andes. The train traveled a considerable distance at an altitude around 4,500 meters, and "of those present in the car somewhat more than half were quite ill from mountain sickness." It was early summer, but bitterly cold in Puno, yet "while I shivered in my overcoat, Indian women with bare feet and legs and open breasts seemed happy and comfortable." They left Puno at 5:00 a.m. on a small steamer to cross Lake Titicaca, passing islands where they "were able to see quite distinctly the ruins of the ancient [Inca] buildings known as temples and palaces," including "the so-called Temple of the Virgins of the Sun." La Paz, however, was a disappointment: "'After Paris, La Paz,' say the Bolivians, and we decided that it was a long way after."

By late November the brothers were back in Arequipa, where Solon spent a week in bed recovering from some malady picked up en route. This unexpected delay provided further evidence of the clear and pleasant climate of that location.

Figure 1. Solon BaileyClick to Enlarge Image

Soon, however, the two were aboard ship again and sailing as far south as Valparaiso in Chile. Christmas Day was spent in Santiago, but there was little there to satisfy their site seeking, and by January 1 (1890) they were at Antofagasta in northern Chile, preparing to examine the potential of the Atacama Desert. It is one of the driest and most desolate places on earth, and "... utterly barren.... Not even the cactus gains the least foothold here." The only practical way to proceed was to take the railroad inland, away from the coastal fogs to where a nitrate-mining company operated. Even this could be a trifle uncertain, since "work is carried on wherever the yields are the richest, and when expedient the whole town, buildings, and population [of a thousand men] are shifted many miles along the railway." Water came from deep wells and was brought in some distance by donkey. "[It] has an unpleasant taste, but is said to be wholesome. As I could find no one who drank water, however, I do not know on what authority the statement was based." Nevertheless, the Baileys spent almost a month at this spot, Pampa Central, and were amazed at the clarity of the sky. Twenty-eight of their 29 nights there were cloudless, and the transparency was such that Solon could clearly see 11 stars of the Pleiades with the naked eye. Their photometric measures of stars were precise and repeatable.

On March 5 they arrived back at Mt. Harvard with Ruth and Irving. Almost no work had been accomplished in their absence, the weather having been terrible. In fact, torrential rains had severely damaged their living quarters and almost washed away the rain gauge itself. Solon wasted no time in writing home to Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard College Observatory, advocating that Mt. Harvard be abandoned in favor of either Arequipa or a site in the Atacama Desert. He noted that the latter offered the very best sites, but that running a station in so utterly desolate a place would be extremely difficult and impose great hardship on its staff. (If Solon could have seen a century into the future, he surely would have been pleased to find that later technology overcame most of the difficulties, so that some of the largest and most important astronomical observatories are now located in the high Atacama Desert.)

Pickering soon made up his mind. Instructions were issued that all equipment on Mt. Harvard be packed and removed to Arequipa, which would be home to Harvard's permanent southern field station. He went further. The Baileys had endured nearly two harsh years in finding a site, and once it was established at Arequipa they should return home to New England. Who then would run the new station? Here Edward Pickering made what was possibly the worst decision of his life. He would send his own brother, William.

Meanwhile, though, the Bailey team undertook the move to Arequipa. The hardest part was just getting everything off Mt. Harvard and down to Chosica, there being no road and the matériel including their living quarters. "Several mules, made unsteady by loads of lumber, rolled down the mountain-side for some distance. No bones were broken, however, and no special damage done. All the instruments were either carried by hand or on the backs of mules that were led by hand."

By the end of the year the Baileys had rented a suitable house a couple of kilometers outside Arequipa and begun astronomical observations from its roof. Choice of a permanent location awaited the arrival of William Pickering, his family and his assistants, which took place in January 1891. He quickly decided on a nearby site for a permanent observatory, and some time was spent moving everything there and setting up the instruments. Finally, on May 15, the Baileys "bade farewell to Arequipa, and two days later we sailed south. We had decided to return to the United States by the Straits of Magellan and Europe. The journey along the west coast was relieved from monotony by incidents in the Chilian [sic] civil war." They arrived home on August 15.

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William Pickering had formerly been a physics instructor at MIT, but had joined the Harvard Observatory in 1887 at the invitation of his brother Edward, specifically to help run the new department that involved the field-station projects. In that regard it wasn't surprising that he should be sent to Peru; what was surprising was that Edward failed to foresee the ensuing uproar. It was not long in coming. William had been told that initially he was not to spend more than $500 leasing accommodations for the new station, in case the site was not as good as expected. But the first communiqué Edward had from William was a four-word cable stating simply "Send four thousand more." In reply to Edward's demand for explanation William announced that he had bought a considerable tract of land outright, was preparing to build a substantial house for himself, his wife, two children, mother-in-law, nurse and several assistants, for which he would need another $7,000, plus $2,000 more for running expenses. Edward must have come close to a heart attack. The Boyden Fund, which was paying for all this, could not possibly sustain such a rate of expenditure. He was on the verge of closing the entire project and demanding William's return, but after Edward had consulted with Harvard's president, William's expenditures were reluctantly met. A severe admonishment against wild expenditures was sent, along with Edward's expressed hope that scientific results would soon be forthcoming.

Edward had laid out a detailed plan for photographic sky surveys and was most anxious for results to justify the excessive expenditures. "I would give up everything to keep the telescopes running all night, the plates developed, and sent on promptly," he told William. But nine months later not one plate had arrived in Cambridge. A curt cable ordering William to "photograph with thirteen inch [telescope]" produced no results.

The fact was that William was happily engaged on something entirely different. Some years earlier, in 1877, an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, had noted markings on Mars which he called "canali," meaning "channels." Mistranslated as "canals," the word started a popular theory of alien beings that lasted far into the future. William was now busy with his eye to the telescope to see what he could do with Mars. He saw no reason to restrict his announcement of results to the scientific literature, let alone Edward, and instead cabled them to the New York Herald. So it was that Edward's first intimation of what his brother was actually doing was a major newspaper report that William had discovered great mountain ranges on Mars, that the polar icecaps of Mars were melting to form rivers flowing toward the Martian equator, and that he had seen at least 40 lakes ranging up to 100 miles in size.

The astronomers of the Lick Observatory in California were reported to have received this intelligence "with a kind of amazement." Working under equally good conditions with a telescope three times the size of William's, they were quite unable to see any of these things.

The long-suffering Edward again chastised his brother. "The telegram to the N.Y. Herald has given you a colossal newspaper reputation. A flood of cuttings have appeared, forty-nine coming this morning.... You would have rendered yourself less liable to criticism if you had stated your interpretations were probable instead of ... certain." William was undaunted. Jupiter was next on his list, and soon Edward was reading in the Herald that his brother had determined that "the first satellite [of Jupiter] is egg-shaped and revolves end over end.... Its period is twelve hours and fifty-five minutes." The Lick astronomers hardly knew how to express their views politely. "Very likely the telegrams are wrong?" their director enquired hopefully of Edward, but of course they were not.

Finally (one might say at long last) Edward took action. William must return to Cambridge, and Bailey replace him in Arequipa. William, of course, was outraged and became truculent. "I've accomplished a pretty big thing ... and have got the [Harvard] authorities a great deal for their money" he wrote; "... this is my Observatory ... and it is not Bailey's Observatory nor anybody else's...." etc., etc. But Edward was implacable. William tried pleading, promising to get the photographic work done. Edward was unmoved.

On February 25, 1893, Solon with his wife and son arrived back in Arequipa, and after what must have been an extraordinarily unpleasant month of overlap with William, set to work cleaning up and starting the set program of observing.

A revolution in Peru was looming, however, and the Baileys would find themselves embroiled. We'll see what happened in a concluding episode to come.

© J. Donald Fernie



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