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Milton Humason

August 19, 2016

Over the centuries, astronomers have come from many backgrounds. Among many other professions, they’ve been astrologers, beer makers, and industrialists. But few can claim the background of Milton Humason. Before he became a staff astronomer at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, he was a “muleskinner” — he drove teams of mules that carried the materials for building the observatory.

Humason was born 125 years ago today in Dodge Center, Minnesota. His family moved to California a few years later. And when Humason was 14, he went to a summer camp on Mount Wilson. He talked his parents into letting him stay there for a year. So he dropped out of school — and never returned.

After his stint as a muleskinner, Humason became a janitor at the new observatory. And a couple of years later, he became a night assistant — someone who helped the astronomers use the telescopes.

Despite his lack of education, Humason was so smart and diligent that the observatory’s director, George Ellery Hale, hired him as an assistant astronomer, and later as a full-fledged astronomer.

It was a good hire. Humason was a skilled observer. He took spectra of hundreds of galaxies — work that, among other things, revealed how the galaxies were moving through space. Edwin Hubble used those observations to measure the expansion of the universe, and to work out how the expansion was changing — landmark discoveries made with the help of a one-time muleskinner.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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