I’m a proud graduate of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology located in Socorro, New Mexico. The school was opened in 1893 as the New Mexico School of Mines. The first president was a chemist, Dr. Floyd Davis. Of course, in 1893, Socorro was still very much part of the wild west. For that matter, New Mexico and Arizona wouldn’t achieve statehood for nearly two decades. Now, I’ll hazard a guess that when you picture the wild west, your first image isn’t of scientists. Nevertheless, there were many scientists who found the west an attractive place to work. Among them was Mr. Steampunk himself, Nikola Tesla.
Tesla opened a laboratory in Colorado Springs in 1899 so he would have room to conduct his electrical experiments. He conducted experiments in wire telegraphy and electrical generation. At one point, he is said to have generated an artificial lightning arc over 135 feet long that created a thunder boom which could be heard over 15 miles away.
At one point, Tesla aimed his wireless receiver at the night sky and was surprised to hear faint beepings. Tesla believed he was picking up evidence of extraterrestrial communication and the press reported it as evidence of life on Mars. The truth might be far more interesting. It turns out that modern scientists who have experimented with Tesla’s designs have discovered that Tesla’s receiver was outstanding at detecting any kind of electrical discharge. People have used Tesla receivers to detect lightning on Jupiter, for instance. Such lightning is hard to distinguish from a telegraph signal, so it’s possible that Tesla actually made the first detections of extraterrestrial lightning.
Another scientist who was very interested in the possibility of Martian life was Percival Lowell. A former foreign secretary to Korea and scion to a wealthy Eastern family, Lowell could build an observatory wherever he wanted. Traditionally observatories had been built near the universities that housed astronomers such as Harvard, Yale, or Cambridge. Lowell decided to conduct one of the first surveys to determine the place where he could obtain the most clear nights on sky with a telescope. In 1894, Lowell decided to build his observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell observed Mars extensively from the site. Years later a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh would discover Pluto while working at Lowell Observatory.
The wide open spaces and clear skies of the west clearly appealed to certain scientists in the late nineteenth century. In fact, Dr. Floyd Davis’s closing remarks from his inaugural address as president of the New Mexico School of Mines could, with only minor adaptation, apply to many homesteaders and ranchers of the period. “Education for such professional service is a knowledge of how to use the whole of one’s self, to apply the faculties with which one is endowed to all practical purposes. A liberal technical education broadens our views, removes prejudice, and causes us to welcome the views of others, and we no longer consider our methods the only ones worthy of adoption. It keeps us out of ruts and makes us desirous of being benefited by the experiences and teachings of others. It stimulates great mental activity, and thus leads to skill, investigation, discovery and improvement.”