How a janitor at the Mount Wilson Observatory measured the size of the universe
Milton Humason, a high-school dropout who worked as a mule driver and then a janitor at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, worked his way up to become the assistant of Edwin Hubble, whom he helped to study the spectral redshift of hundreds of galaxies.
At One-Minute Astronomer, we always have a soft spot for the “underdog astronomer”. Someone who overcomes circumstance to make great astronomical discoveries with skill and curiosity and raw enthusiasm.Skip to next paragraph
Gallery Images from the Hubble telescope
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Today, a snapshot of Milton Humason, a former mule driver and janitor who rose to work with Edwin Hubble to establish the distance scale of the universe and become one of the best-known American astronomers of the 20th century.
Milton Humason was born in Dodge Center, Minnesota in 1891. When he was 14 years old, his parents sent him to a summer camp on Mount Wilson, near Los Angeles. The mountain’s forests and soaring views of southern California stole the heart of the prairie boy. He convinced his parents to let him take a year off school to stay on the mountain and find work.
He never returned to school.
Instead, Humason took up work as a mule driver, hauling lumber up a trail from the Sierra Madre to Mount Wilson to build the new astronomical observatory… an enormous project organized by the astronomy pioneer George Ellery Hale.
In 1911, Humason’s heart was stolen once more: he became engaged to Helen Dowd, the daughter of the chief engineer of the observatory on Mount Wilson. They married shortly after. He left to work as a foreman on a ranch in nearby LaVerne. But he missed the mountain. In 1917, Humason saw his chance to return and to impress his father-in-law: he took a position as observatory janitor. This was a big step up from mule driver and ranch hand.
Soon after, the new observatory posted a position for “night assistant”, which is essentially a helper for astronomers who need to operate the telescope and observatory dome. Humason took up the role. His patience and skill and diligence brought him to the attention of Hale himself. In 1919, in the face of stern protests, Hale appointed Humason… a high-school dropout… to the scientific staff of the observatory. Humason remained in the role until 1954.
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