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  • 5/31/2004

Clyde Tombaugh, Ph.D.
Discoverer of Planet Pluto

(February 4, 1906 _ January 17, 1997)


Clyde W. Tombaugh was born in 1906 in Streator, Illinois. He attended high school in Streator and moved with his family to a farm in Western Kansas, where a hailstorm destroyed the family's crops, dashing his hopes of attending college. Tombaugh continued to study on his own, teaching himself solid geometry and trigonometry.

In 1926, at the age of 20, Tombaugh built his first telescope. Dissatisfied with the result, he determined to master optics, and built two more telescopes in the next two years, grinding his own lenses and mirrors, and further honing his skills.

Using these homemade telescopes, he made drawings of the planets Mars and Jupiter and sent them to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The astronomers at Lowell were so impressed with the young amateur's powers of observation they invited him to work at the Observatory.

Clyde Tombaugh stayed at the Lowell Observatory for the next 14 years. The young astronomer earned a permanent place in the history of science when he discovered the planet Pluto on February 18, 1930.

In 1932 he entered the University of Kansas where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1936. He continued to work at Lowell Observatory during the summers and after graduation he returned to work at the Observatory full-time. In 1938, he received his master's degree from the University of Kansas.

During his years at Lowell Observatory, Tombaugh discovered hundreds of new variable stars, hundreds of new asteroids and two comets. He found new star clusters, clusters of galaxies including one super cluster of galaxies. In all, he counted over 29,000 galaxies. Tombaugh remained at Lowell until he was called to service during World War II. The astronomer taught navigation to the U.S. Navy at Arizona State College in Flagstaff from 1943 to 1945.

After the war, Lowell Observatory was unable to rehire Tombaugh due to a funding shortfall so, in 1946, he returned to work for the military at the ballistics research laboratories of the White Sands Missile Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he supervised the optical instrumentation used in testing new missiles.

In the course of this work, Tombaugh designed many new instruments, including a super camera called the IGOR (Intercept Ground Optical Recorder) which remained in use at White Sands for 30 years before it was finally improved upon.

After nine years at White Sands, Tombaugh left the missile range in 1955. He was awarded the medal of the Pioneers of White Sands Missile Range.

From 1955 until his retirement in 1973, Clyde Tombaugh was on the faculty at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. In later years, Tombaugh crisscrossed the United States and Canada giving lectures to raise money for New Mexico State University's Tombaugh scholarship fund for post-doctoral students in astronomy. He died at home in Las Cruces, shortly before his 91st birthday.

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