Across the room from my desk is a large cabinet full of blueprints and sepia prints. Stacks of large prints that represent the original drawings from which the W. M. Keck Observatory was constructed. Floor plans, foundation plans, the structural steel of the telescope itself.

The original blueprints by which Keck Observatory was constructed
The prints are in many ways works of art. Often drawn by hand these old prints represent a lost skill, the art of the draughtsman from before computers irreversibly changed the profession. Impeccably neat lettering, an arcane menagerie of symbols, coded shading to represent different materials, it takes time just to learn to read these drawings properly.

Every now and then Peggi, our librarian, must dig through these stacks of prints to find some detail of construction. When she does the faint smell of ammonia fills the air, after decades there remains a trace of the chemicals used to create these prints by processes long abandoned in these days of CAD and large format inkjet printers.

For me the smell is very nostalgic. Growing up around the civil engineering offices of my father, blueprints and diazotype sepias were part of my world. I vividly remember the print room, with the big machines, the glare of UV light, the stench of ammonia and other chemicals used to create the prints.

Smells are often powerful triggers for memory. For me the smell of these old prints brings back good memories from so long ago.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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