Saturday, April 12, 2008

Flying Electric Trousers

Yes, Flying Electric Trousers. Years ago astronomers actually rode inside the Hale Telescope all night long. They would sit at the top end of the telescope in what is called Prime Focus. They would be up there to make sure the pointing and tracking were accurate, focus the camera, and physically pull the shutter to start exposing the image.

We have a nice look back at those from the late Jesse Greenstein. He gives two quotes that put things into perspective:

"Working at night in the small cage high above the primary mirror, feeling closer to the stars than the earth, remains an exhilarating and unforgettable experience."


"You also had to have a tough bladder because, if possible, if it was a good night, you stayed up from seven o'clock to five. That's ten hours!"

Imagine working high inside the telescope, by yourself, in the dark, for the entire night. Nights on Palomar can be cold, especially in the winter time. That's where the Flying Electric Trousers come into the story.

The trousers and shirt were used to keep the astronomers warm during the night. They were surplus F3-A electrically heated flying suits used by the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.

Recently a cache of these old suits was uncovered at Palomar. One of the suits is now on display for the observatory's many visitors to see. If you are in the area, come and have a look. The suit on display belonged to Horace W. Babcock, Palomar's director from 1964 - 1978.

A few years ago Jean Mueller, telescope operator (aka Night Assistant) on the 200" managed to save one of the manuals for the old F3-A suits. It is fragile, but it has now been scanned. Here is the cover:

I can post all of the F3-A manual if people are interested in seeing it.

By the way, modern astronomers make use of the Hale Telescope from the comfort of a warm room. A large digital camera rides in Prime Focus. The room features computers for controlling the telescope & cameras, a stereo, coffee, a bathroom and heat. For our smaller telescopes the astronomers do not even need to come to Palomar. They can be operated remotely from the comfort of an office, kitchen or elsewhere.


uffda51 said...

I do remember hearing about this suit, though from my mother, not my father. I don't recall seeing it. Astronomers today are wimps by comparison! I also remember being at Jesse Greenstein's house in about 1959-60. Us kids were watching a Twilight Zone episode in which a couple of astronauts believe they have crashed onto a lifeless desert-like planet only to find out, by the end of the episode, that they are actually quite near Las Vegas.

Bruce Babcock

santosh said...

In my opinion, the technology is really taking away all exciting experiences and thrill you get when directly watching the image through the eye-piece of a telescope. An astronomical picture whether directly from a telescope or stored on internet would not make a difference to me !!

Scott Kardel said...

Keep in mind that the Hale Telescope was never meant to be an instrument where the astronomer looked through the telescope. It was designed as a photographic telescope. I likely didn't make that very clear but the astronomer used a glass photographic plate to record the image. As they rode in Prime Focus they did look through a guiding eyepiece to ensure that the telescope was tracking properly. This basically consisted of looking at just a star and keeping it centered on a crosshair in their eyepiece.

The cool stuff wasn't what they saw while guiding (although the experience was thrilling), but rather what was revealed when the photographic plate was developed.

Astronomy may be less romantic now Santosh, but it is vastly more productive. Modern CCD detectors are vastly more sensitive than film ever was. Astronomers can see deeper than ever before and they can do it faster, with relative comfort too.

santosh said...

Thanks for that info, Scott. I do completely agree with you on the CCD stuff. You have any idea as to which is the biggest telescope even now you can use an eye-piece to peep-thru

Scott Kardel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Kardel said...


I think the biggest telescope that is ever available for public viewing is the 107" at McDonald Observatory in Texas.

More info here:

veekars said...


Can you post the manual for the suit? Very interesting indeed.

Art Zoller Wagner said...

My mom still has my dad's electric F-3A flight trousers. They appear to be made of nylon with wires sewn into them.

It's the only pair of pants I've ever seen made by General Electric!

I'm sure she'd be willing to let them go is someone was interested.