Witness to History: Donald Bonnell and the 200” disk

Today’s post comes from Deborah Cooper, Public Services Intern at the Rakow Research Library

I have been working as an intern at the Rakow Research Library since late August, 2013. The Rakow is one of the most unique library environments I have yet encountered. It combines the typical scholarly features of an academic library with the patron services of a public library and the special collections and archives of a research library. All of these factors make interning at the Rakow a very special experience.

One of the highlights of the internship has been a project to conduct an oral history. I was assigned to interview a 93-year-old gentleman, Donald Bonnell, who has lived in Corning all his life. I did not have much information to go on other than that Mr. Bonnell was the youngest witness to the first pouring of the 200” disk in 1934. To prepare for the interview, I undertook extensive research on the casting of the first disk as well as the later second successful attempt to pour the disk and its eventual transportation by railroad to Mt. Palomar in San Diego County, CA. Luckily, there is some outstanding original film footage of the first pouring that is available on the CMOG web site, which really gives a sense of the incredible work involved.

Ladle with Molten Glass Photographer unknown U.S., Corning, New York, 1934 Collection of Archives, Corning Incorporated  The protective shield that Charlie Wilson, the lead ladler, wore in front of his face was held in place with his teeth. During the pouring of the second disk, Wilson, who had had some teeth removed several weeks earlier, wore the protective shield stapled to a baseball catcher’s mask.

Ladle with Molten Glass
Photographer unknown
U.S., Corning, New York, 1934
Collection of Archives, Corning IncorporatedThe protective shield that Charlie Wilson, the lead ladler, wore in front of his face was held in place with his teeth. During the pouring of the second disk, Wilson, who had had some teeth removed several weeks earlier, wore the protective shield stapled to a baseball catcher’s mask.

At the time of the first casting, Mr. Bonnell was a cub reporter for the Elmira Gazette. His boss offered him a spare ticket to the spectator stands where he rubbed shoulders with hundreds of visiting dignitaries and stood very close to the action. Later in life, he was asked to head the public relations department of Corning Glass Works and he reported on the opening day of the Museum in 1951. As part of his duties while working there, Mr. Bonnell also escorted esteemed visitors around the museum such as President Eisenhower and Gov. Dewey.

Donald Bonnell with a history display he put together including photos of the 200" disk.

Donald Bonnell with a history display he put together including photos of the 200″ disk.

During the interview, Mr. Bonnell filled in many details with wonderful personal anecdotes about his life. We learned that his father was a patient of Madam Curie’s at Roswell Park. We learned that Mr. Bonnell decided to leave school at 13 even though he was a good student, because his mother was a poor widow during the Depression years. His school superintendent got him the job at the Gazette and that is how he came to be a reporter, a year later, at the disk casting. At one point during the casting, Mr. Bonnell received a call from the famous NBC newscaster of the time, Lowell Thomas, but didn’t believe it was actually him and so he passed the call along to someone else.

Mr. Bonnell stated that of all the amazing events he reported on during his career, watching the first disk casting was the most memorable. And, of all the important people that he met, he is most proud of his friendship with “Buffalo Bob Smith,” the creator of the Howdy Doody children’s show.

It was a privilege to be the person who interviewed Mr. Bonnell.

For more information about the 200”disk and the Palomar Observatory see the past Library exhibition
Mirror to Discovery: The 200-Inch Disk and the Hale Reflecting Telescope at Palomar and the Meet the Astronomer lecture with Scott Kardel.


Deborah Cooper Deborah Cooper is in her final semester of the Master of Library and Information Science graduate program at San José State University, CA, which she is attending through their online distance education program. Deborah was the Public Services Intern at the Rakow Research Library from August to December 2013. Deborah will graduate with her MLIS in May 2014 and just started a position as a Library Assistant at the Savona Free Library in Savona, NY.