Part 3 - The Holmes Era (1965 - 1968)
by Bob Stephens

I have been making a big effort to accumulate the historical documents telling the story of the RAS before they become lost to time. From multiple sources, primarily Cheryl and Randall Wilcox, I have obtained about 90% of all the Prime Focus’ published. In addition to remembrances from Jackie Holmes and Ashley McDermott, I have also obtained several dozen newspaper articles, primarily published in the Press Enterprise. From the 1970’s on we are still fortunate to have first hand accounts from active members of the club.

All of this is being accumulated into computer files which presently fill an entire CD-Rom. However, rather than just have the raw data available, it is best to put these events into historical context, especially while some of the participants are still available to interview. The last time I published an article on the history of the RAS, it dealt with the society from its inception in 1957 through the years that Harold Kaiser was President. There was not much documentation for that time period, but as we move into the next phase of the RAS, information becomes more plentiful.

The RAS moved into a new era in the early 1960’s when Clifford and Jackie Holmes joined the club. Jackie reports that they joined about a year before Cliff was elected President in 1965. Much of the known information about the club comes from a newsletter that Jackie Holmes started writing. The first issue was published in April 1965 and reported that the RAS was hosting Dr. Robert Richardson who was speaking on the subject of comets.


From the mid 1960’s and through the early 1970’s the RAS met on Friday nights at Victoria Savings & Loan, located on the edge of the Riverside Plaza. In addition to having astronomers from local observatories as lecturers, Cliff Holmes arranged for several Morrison Lectures. This lecture series sponsored by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific provided a $100 Honorarium. Between 1965 and 1968, the RAS hosted at least 10 Morrison Lectures. In addition to Dr. Richardson, Tommy Cragg of Mt. Wilson and Charles Chapen of Table Mountain were some of the well-known astronomers who came to Riverside.

Star Parties

Star Parties were held at various sites in the Gavalin Hills, which was still a relatively dark site just south of Riverside.
In addition, many local Public Star Parties were held at the Jurupa Cultural Center and the Riverside Plaza. The club typically had two public star parties each month.

Several overnight Star Parties were also held. Most notably, star parties were held at Camp Angelus, Onyx Summit, and at Joshua Tree National Monument. Two trips were also taken to Stoney Ridge Observatory, which has a 30” telescope behind Mt. Wilson.

Ikea-Seki Star Party
Cliff Holmes at a star party
October 1965

Comet Ikeya-Seki

Comet Ikea-Seki
Comet Ikea-Seki
photo by Cliff Holmes
At the time of the appearance of this magnificent comet in 1965, we do not have copies of the newsletter. However, we do have several articles which were published in the Press Enterprise. The comet made its best appearance early in October 1965, and was the subject of that month’s meeting with a lecture being given by the Chief Observer, Warren Estes. The comet was not visible as it passed just 450,000 miles from the Sun on October 21, 1965. However, as it reappeared in the morning sky late in October, the tail was reported to be as long as the handle of the Big Dipper. The comet was then observed for at least a couple more weeks. The RAS had several star parties to observe the comet, and at least on one occasion, bused a bunch of people out to the Gavalin Hills very early in the morning.


During these early years, the RAS had a tour of Rockwell where they got to climb inside of a working mockup of an Apollo capsule, a tour of Goldstone Radio Telescope, and two tours of Table Mountain Observatory. Table Mountain was even difficult to get into back in the 1960’s.

RAS Members at Goldstone
RAS members at tour of Goldstone Tracking Station

Western Amateur Astronomers

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Western Amateur Astronomers (WAA) was an active consortium of astronomy clubs on the west coast. Their purpose was to spread astronomy on the west coast and provide a forum in which astronomy clubs can interact. Cliff and Jackie became very active in the WAA with Cliff serving as Vice President and then President. They held a conference each year in Northern or Southern California, and once in Hawaii.

Grazing Occultations

Jackie Holmes reports that in 1966 David Durnham gave a talk to the Western Amateur Astronomers at their San Francisco convention about the value of measuring grazing occultations of bright stars by the Moon. This is where the limb of the moving Moon slides along a bright star occulting it with mountains. At the time, the Apollo program was just getting underway and not much was known about the Moon. The Moon’s orbit and size was not precisely known, and by measuring a star sliding behind mountains and valleys along the edge of the Moon, its profile could be accurately determined. More importantly, theories about the Moon’s orbit could be refined with an important beneficiary being the Apollo program.

Unrolling Telephone Cable
Unrolling a mile of telephone cable
Tone Generator
Tone Generator

These grazing occultations occurred several times a year in Southern California. Durnham described how a club in Milwaukee set up a picket line of small telescopes perpendicular to the path of the graze and obtained timings as the star disappeared and reappeared.

Cliff saw an opportunity for the club to participate in science and have fun in the process. He attacked it with a vengeance. The RAS started by building a twelve tone generators that were attached to a mile long telephone wire. To one end a tape recorder was attached that had a short-wave radio inputting the WWV time signal. Each telescope station’s tone generator emitted a different pitch tone relating to the altitude of the mountain occulting a star. Each observing station represented a cord slicing through a mountain or valley on the Moon. By plotting the different tones on graph paper one could chart the shape of subtle details of the mountains or valleys on the limb of the Moon.

A notice appeared in the November 1966 Bulletin:

Grazing Occultation Observations

The evenings of November 17th at 7:44 p.m. and November 18th at 9:32 p.m., grazing occultations of two separate stars will take place. We are planning a club project to time and record these occultations. We are in the process of constructing twelve tone generators to be attached to a mile long cable of discarded wire obtained from the Pacific Telephone Company.

The events will take place south of Riverside, one on a line between Gavilan Hills and Beaumont and the other a little farther south (exact locations not yet determined). We will need a minimum of 12 Telescopes (any size) and people who can help can help with the cable communications. We need a portable tape recorder and short wave radio. If we are able to complete this project, we will be the second society in the U.S.A. with this type of equipment.

Your support and help in this project is sorely needed. Hear complete details at the November 4th meeting.

Throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the club did a series of grazing occultations throughout Southern California. It is not know how many were done, but Bill Smith, then Vice President thinks that 25 to 30 were attempted. The bulletins make mention of 13 attempts between 1965 and 1968 and 18 overall. RAS members often left at 2:30 AM arriving on site at 4:00 AM, rolled 4,800 feet of cable off the back of a pickup truck, connected 12 tone generators and a tape recorder, observed, repacked, and headed home for work or school. We do not know how many of these observing attempts were successful; but we do have a newspaper article indicating that one did not succeed due to equipment failure. We also have a mention in a bulletin that two in a row (consecutive nights) were clouded out. However, we know that many were successful.
Recording Station
Graze Recording Station
Cliff Holmes at grazing occultation
Cliff Holmes
at grazing occultation

In an interview in 1996, Bill Smith, who was Vice President in that time period, recalled the events at one of the grazes:

“We were on Highway 395 near the Air Force Base. We had all of the tubes lined up pointed towards the eastern horizon, which was overlooking the base. We were getting ready to time the occultation when all of a sudden these MP’s came roaring up in jeeps wanting to know what these mortars were doing pointed at the ammunition dump. So we explained what was going on and a couple of them stuck around to look through the telescopes.”

He then recalled another graze:

“For people who knew Cliff and his attitude about things; another time we were out in the high desert, it was a 4 o’clock in the morning deal, with a waning Moon to do a grazing occultation. The sky was just crystal clear. We got all set up, got the telescopes on line, and here is one cloud, about the size of your fist at arms length, formed right next to the Moon. It drifted over the Moon, and we waited and it didn’t clear. After the occultation, the cloud kind of evaporated and Cliff was just fit to be tied. On the way home he kept saying “somebody doesn’t like me . . . somebody doesn’t like me.”

Members at Grazing Occultation
RAS members at grazing occultation

Randy Wilcox participated in several of these grazes, and even reduced some of the data. I remember being at a meeting in 1975 or 1976 where Cliff played the tape of the ascending and descending tones representing the edge of a mountain which obscured the star. I also participated in the last grazing occultation done by the in September 1977. In that case we were on the south side of the picket line and for us, the star missed the Moon entirely.

Results from September 1973 Graze
Results from September 1973 graze

With all of the events, meetings, star parties, and grazing occultations going on, it is a wonder that had time to catch their breath. However, more was yet to come, for late in 1968, they built an observatory, and things really got busy.

More History:  Roots of RAS   1957-1964   1969-1974   1975-1982   1983-1991   1992-1998

Go back
RAS Home Page