Saturday, August 29, 2015

The stars were bright, deep in the heart of Pasadena

Where was I ... oh .... of all the tools which a model rail has access to, I don't think enough of us give our drawing boards a real workout. They're a highly valuable "tool" when they're used. Mine, a relic of the old Manhattan Beach days, doesn't happen to be one of those expensive, adjustable table-model jobs, but just a board about 24" x 30". I set the board up wherever it happens to be handiest and find myself constantly stepping up to it during construction to work out a tricky cross-section, analyze a bit of detail, or roughly sketch some scenic problem.
George Allen expounding on the usefulness of having a drawing board nearby in part 6, The case of the "Working Drawing Board", of his series Tuxedo Junction - Saga of an HO Empire. Part 6 appeared in the March 1953 issue of Model Railroader.

One of the most fascinating buildings on the Mount Lowe Railway was the Lowe Observatory. It was one of Thaddeus Lowe’s pet projects, and was meant to be a serious astronomical research facility as well as an entertainment venue for the railway’s guests. He had a plan that he’d establish a full-fledged scientific research facility in the mountains above Pasadena, and the observatory would be the first piece. Unfortunately, that dream was never realized.

Prof Lowe arranged to have the astronomer, Dr. Lewis Swift, head the facility. Dr. Swift came out to Pasadena in the spring of 1894, construction of the observatory took place in the summer, and it opened in September. It took just a few months in 1894 to go from nothing to a functioning observatory.
[Partially completed drawing of the observatory in HO scale. At this point I couldn't decide on the roof outlines. I eventually decided to make them as simple as possible.]

To design a model, I used observatory photos, and a cross section of the telescope dome, from Charles Seims' book Mount Lowe: The Railway in the Clouds. I studied the book’s images quite closely, but in the end, my design is an approximation, and in some areas, outright guesswork. If you’re interested, you can find the source material on these pages: 70 -71, 78-79, 115, 156, and 195.

The Mount Lowe Preservation Society website states the diameter of the dome was 32 feet. The Christmas decoration I’m using to model it has an outside diameter of 31.5 N-scale feet, so it’s not a bad match. As well, I’ve made some simplifications to the plan to make construction a little easier, and I’ve added some doors and windows to walls where I’m not sure there were any. The big loading door on one end is pure conjecture on my part since I thought such a building might need a freight door for moving oversize equipment in and out. Dimensions are all guesses based on comparisons with people in the photos and the size of the dome. I’ve compressed where I could to keep the overall size under control, but still capture a likeness in the model.
[I marked the cuts for the telescope opening on the dome with strips of masking tape.]

The plan is basically a central cylinder with a dome on top, flanked by two wings. Well, the central cylinder isn’t actually a typical cylinder with a circular cross-section. I guessed from the photos it was a cylinder with a 16-sided regular polygon as a cross-section. Wikipedia tells me it’s a hexadecagon. That sounds daunting, but Wikipedia also states ancient Greek geometers knew about it, and could easily draw it with just a compass and ruler. There’s a clever animation in the post that shows how to do just that, and it is indeed easy. Just make sure your compass has a sharp lead for accurate results.

I made a drawing to try and understand the building. It’s pretty rough and was done to help figure out the shapes, dimensions, and placement of windows and doors. This could easily be done with some sort of computerized drawing software, but I have to admit that even though I understand how to use those things, I don’t develop a full understanding of an object I’m drawing unless I do it by hand.  There’s some sort of primitive wiring in my brain that only ‘gets’ stuff if I work the details out by hand, be it by drawing, note taking, trying to fit parts together, writing equations or making a model. It’s a defect in this digital age that I can’t overcome, but I figure I’ll just go with it instead of punishing myself.
[This is a 2-piece, plastic sphere I bought at Michael's a few years ago. It's meant for making your own Christmas tree decorations. I took one half and used it for the observatory dome. The slot for the telescope is a little rough at this stage - I cut it out with a razor saw and did some final shaping with files - but doors will help to hide the edges a bit.]

Although the model will be N-scale, I made the drawings in HO so I wouldn’t futz around with the small size while I was still trying to get a grip on the basics of the design. As you can see, it’s a fairly large model: around 74 scale feet long. Big for a small HO layout, not too bad for N.

There’s a busy fall on the horizon. I hope I can find some time to start building now that I’ve got a drawing and a partially completed telescope dome.

Disclaimer: I’m 99.99% sure I’m not related to Thaddeus Lowe, but as I’m interested in trams, trollies and streetcars, as well as science and lighter-than-air flight, well, I have a lot of shared interests with the Prof as well as a shared last name :-)

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