A Letter from Mount Wilson, June 1942

Mount Wilson Observatory Dome
| Photo: Courtesy of USC Digital Archives

My friend Randy -- a veteran swap meet collector -- paid a dollar for a 70-year-old letter the other day. The letter had been sent "Air Mail" and "Special Delivery" on June 21, 1942 to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Pearl.

The letter was labeled IMPORTANT LETTER by its young writer Henry Pearl, Jr.

The Pearls were Seventh Day Adventists, and Henry had been writing a series of travel letters detailing what he called adventures to his parents in Melrose, Massachusetts. They were staying at the New England Sanitarium & Hospital. It was one of several Adventist medical facilities on the East Coast.

Henry's letter is eight closely written pages that cover an overnight stay in the new men's dormitory at the Adventist's Loma Linda hospital (large leather davenports and brightly tiled wash stands in each room), his visit to Pasadena, and a weekend trip to Mount Wilson.

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Henry was a member of the Adventist Medical Cadet Corps and had been hitchhiking in his M.C.C. uniform. He was glad he did, since drivers in California were officially urged to pick up hitchhiking service men. Henry in his M.C.C. uniform must have looked military. "With that on I do not have to wait more than 10 minutes at the most. Usually about the third car picks me up."

Henry took the bus, however, from Pasadena to Mount Wilson and the Mount Wilson Hotel, where he wrote his letter in weather that he regarded as particularly hot. Henry, it seems, had a passion for astronomy. He carried a letter of introduction from a mutual friend to Dr. John A. Anderson, a Mount Wilson astronomer who was supervising the optical design of 200-inch Hale telescope for the Palomar Observatory. That work -- delayed by the war -- was finished in 1948.

Mt. Wilson In The Snow
| Photo: Courtesy of USC Digital Archives

Here's Henry's account of what happened on the bus ride up the mountain:

I sat in the back and right at the start begin talking with a cheery little hunch-backed, elderly man who said he was an astronomer on the Mount Wilson staff. I then introduced myself and found that he was Dr. Gustaf Strömberg. I then knew that he was the world-famous astronomer and philosophical physicist that has written so many books. His latest is a highly philosophical volume entitled (I think) "The Soul of the Universe."

Strömberg was famous, perhaps more for his musings on the place of man in the universe than on his astronomical work. Aligning himself with others scientists who speculated on the evolving order of creation, Strömberg wrote in 1948: "I believe that behind the physical world we see with our eyes and study in our microscopes and telescopes, and measure with instruments of various kinds, is another, more fundamental realm which can not be described in physical terms. In this non-physical realm lies the ultimate origin of all things, of energy, matter, organization and life, and even of consciousness itself."

Henry's meeting with Strömberg led to a guided tour of the Mount Wilson telescopes, which had been closed to visitors because of the war emergency. "He lingered long," Henry wrote, "at each instrument, explaining and answering all my many questions." Henry told Strömberg that he would have liked to be an astronomer, too, but he feared that he couldn't learn all the things he needed to know. Strömberg was amused at Henry's doubts. "He laughed," Henry added, "and said that was a lot of bosch. He said he didn't know anything (!) -- all he did was bluff."

Strömberg introduced Henry to Dr. Adriaan van Maanen, the Dutch-born discoverer in 1917 of Van Maanen's star, one of the first immensely dense, "white dwarf" stars to be discovered. Henry describes van Maanen as "a little, ruddy-faced man with a broad smile and a very hearty laugh." Henry found him similarly humble about his work. "Pointing to Dr. S, he said, 'Look at us! We don't know anything!'"

60-Inch Reflecting Telescope
| Photo: Courtesy of USC Digital Archives

Henry met other astronomers working at Mount Wilson and spent some time sitting with one guiding the 100-inch 'scope through a 2-hour exposure. Strömberg also let Henry guide the 60-inch telescope while Strömberg completed a spectrographic plate. When the photograph was developed, Strömberg declared it "a very fine plate."

Henry got the complete tour, including the observatories solar telescopes, the great interferometer, and the observatory's highly sensitive seismometer (which registered his footsteps on the observatory floor).

Mount Wilson was more than a scientific center. It was a strategic point in the defense of Los Angeles, and Henry noted the military presence around the hotel, the observatory equipment, and the nearby radio relay towers. That didn't preclude Henry from taking some tourist snapshots (sadly, not included with his letter).

Strömberg let Henry stay the night in the cottage that visiting astronomers bunked in. Henry wrote his parents that he was a bit ashamed that he had begun his trek up the mountain on Saturday (the Adventist day of worship). He was happy to be given a free room because meals at the hotel, he thought, were too expensive.

Henry didn't think much of Los Angeles. He noted the smog that lapped at the foothills (thinking it was dust from the Mojave). He added that he was eager to get to Phoenix, "I will be glad to get away from L.A., as it is a sprawling hodge-podge of a city. You travel for scores of miles and are still in the city."

Henry had concerns about going into the military and he hoped to enroll in a junior college to continue his education. He heard from a corporal guarding Mount Wilson that the Army Reserve was "no good -- the army puts you on reserve for two weeks and then calls you up for immediate service." Henry thought the odds would be better if he signed up with the Naval Reserve when he enrolled in school. He ended his letter with some directions to his parents -- labeled IMPORTANT -- concerning his college enrollment.

According to my friend, Henry's other letters weren't likely to be sold, and his other adventures are lost I suppose. Only this glimpse of wartime on Mount Wilson remains. I don't know what became of Henry, although I like to think that he survived the war, went to college, and perhaps he became an astronomer.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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