Albert Einstein

Beginnings | First Telescope | Founding of the AAAP | Valley View Observatory | Buhl Planetarium | Albert Einstein | The "Eyes of God" | AAAP Ceremonies | Historic Marker and Asteroid Scanlon | Leo's Favorite Things | Recollections | Leo's Unpublished Letter to Posterity

Early Projects and Travels

I n 1931, Leo helped orchestrate the first locally-hosted convention of amateur telescope makers (ATM), and made arrangements for the convention goers to visit Allegheny Observatory and the J. W. Fecker optics company, the descendant of John Brashear's original company. The AAAP continued to host this convention for several years until a national ATM organization was formed, which took over responsibility for arranging ATM conventions around the country.

Leo and several others returned to Derby, Vermont in August 1934 to observe a total eclipse of the Sun; Derby was the starting point of the path of totality. Their observing equipment was typical of Leo's homespun resourcefulness: A group of small telescopes and camera mounted on his mother's ironing board, which served as a unified, steerable observing platform. Leo's job was to slowly hand crank the apparatus around its polar axis using a smoked-glass finderscope as a guider. He recalled that he lost the image of the Sun at one point, only to realize that second contact (totality) had been reached, making the Sun invisible through the finder. He quickly recovered and did get to see the Sun's corona and several prominences, which left him with a vivid, lifetime memory.

As it turns out, Leo and his gang were among the few to actually see the eclipse. Further along the path of totality, where scores of teams from major observatories had set up their equipment, clouds had prevented any observations. "We gleefully sent them our eclipse pictures," Leo noted after his team returned to Pittsburgh.

Because Leo had purchased so many mirror blanks from the Corning Glass Works in New York, he and brother Larry were one of only 50 people hand-picked in 1934 to observe the pouring of the 200" objective for the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain. Leo was given a chunk of glass from a previously failed attempt to cast this mirror (now on display at Wagman Observatory), and was later invited by Russell Porter to view the final polishing of the mirror while wearing a "bunny suit" protective clothing of the day. Later, Leo was also invited by Porter to tour the new new Palomar Observatory itself.

Leo also traveled to Philadelphia in 1934 to attend the annual convention of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) at the Franklin Institute. He presented a report entitled "The Efficiency of Amateur Variable Star Observers," which was based on a questionnaire he had written and distributed to the AAVSO membership around the country. The famed Dr. Harlow Shapley, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, came up to Leo during a break and asked him, half seriously, to read the same paper to his sometimes sloppy staff at Harvard.

Letter from Einstein
Dear Sir:
It would be my pleasure to examine the exhibit of the Amateur Astronomers. Cordially thanking you for informing me of this exhibit, I am
Yours truly,
A. Einstein
Leo's prized letter from Albert Einstein
(Scanlon Family Collection; photo reproduction ©David Smith)

"I want to meet with the amateur astronomers"

Leo's astronomical achievements soon earned him nomination and subsequent election to membership in the American Astronomical Society (AAS); Dr. Frank Jordan, Director of Allegheny Observatory had submitted the nomination. It was because of the AAS membership that Leo was eventually able to meet Albert Einstein. The American Association for the Advancement of Science was planning its 1934 convention for the as-yet unfinished Mellon Institute in Oakland. Amateur telescope makers were invited to set up a display booth at the convention and Leo, as both and AAS and AAAP member, was charged with the task of contacting builders around the country to submit materials for the Mellon Institute display. In time, equipment, material samples and photographs were loaned from builders in eight different states; Leo stored all of these in his home until the convention date.

The AAAP secured a booth space (free of charge) for a display on telescope design, construction and testing. Because of the weak economy and slow work, Leo capitalized on the fact that "I had plenty of time to write to amateurs all over the country, telling them of the proposed exhibit ... I also wrote to Albert Einstein, inviting him to see the work of amateurs from the U.S." In that letter, Leo also recalled, "I suggested that if he could visit our booth, it would greatly encourage amateurs to persist in their efforts to popularize astronomy, and gratify them that one so renowned had recognized the significance of their efforts." Einstein replied that he would come if his schedule permitted." (He had been scheduled to give a lecture on mathematics at the convention.) "It is a letter that I still treasure," said Leo many years later (see inset).

"One of the most attractive features in our booth was a technician demonstrating the grinding of a telescope mirror," Leo recalled. "This was noisy enough to cause people to stop and see what was causing it, with the result that there was always a group of about a dozen people watching and questioning the operator. The eight members of our group took turns at this demonstration, not because the work was physically hard, but because the questions were always the same."

In the nearby lecture hall, Einstein had just finished his speech and asked the audience "Where are the astronomers?" Dr. Jordan of Allegheny Observatory stood proudly and said "I am an astronomer." "No, no," Einstein replied, "I want to meet with the amateur astronomers." With that, he was escorted to the large room containing the various demonstrations and displays.

Leo was watching his brother Frank working at the noisy grinding table when the doors burst open and Einstein, escorted by 40 or 50 people, approached the AAAP exhibit. As they walked up, one of the attendants tugged at Einstein's coat and said "Here it is." The great scientist attended the exhibit for about 20 minutes. Leo gave Einstein a demonstration of the great sensitivity of the Foucault or "knife-edge" test of a 6" mirror. First, he rubbed his hands together and held one palm under the light path from the test source; it showed the waves of rising heated air. Next he pressed five finger tips against the mirror under test and noted the five resulting distortion "hills" on the mirror (about 1 wavelength high) that resulted from the heat transferred through his fingertips. According to Leo, Einstein and several others in the entourage were genuinely impressed.
Leo with Einstein
Leo thanks Albert Einstein for visiting the AAAP booth at the 1934 AAS Convention in Pittsburgh
(Scanlon Family Collection; photo reproduction © David Smith)

Toward the end of the visit, Einstein asked Leo about his profession. "I'm a plumber," he said. "Good," replied Einstein, "Can you tell me where the bathroom is?" The famous photo of Leo Scanlon and Einstein was taken by another AAAP member (name not recalled) as Leo was in the process of thanking the great scientist for his time and attention.

That evening, Einstein's unexpected visit to the AAAP exhibit was reported by Lowell Thomas on his nationally-broadcast radio program.

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