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A Little Amateur History - From whence we came

Amateur telescope makers have been around as a small but recognizable group of part-time makers and observers for over 150 years, but in some form or another, we have been around for over 350 years. Beginning in the middle 1600s and through the 18th century, we started tinkering and building, mostly as isolated individuals. In the very early post Galileo years it is often difficult to separate the work of the professional from the amateur. The Italians in Florence and Rome were the first large group of professionals, making astronomical and terrestrial telescopes beginning in the 1630s and 1640s. Other professional centers of manufacture soon appeared in Holland, France, the Germanic states and England; mostly to satisfy military and naval needs. But amateur telescope makers were there in strength as well. Isaac Newton was an amateur telescope maker. During the late 1600s, the Dutch scientist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens, builder of the extraordinarily long  single-lens refracting telescopes, was an amateur. His brother Constantine, who assisted him in his work, eventually became a professional optician. Johannes Hevelius, wealthy beer brewer of Danzig and another long refractor builder, was an amateur telescope maker. A little later came the 18th century amateurs turned professionals; James Short, John Mudge and William Moleneux. In 1725 John Hadley produced, and demonstrated to the amazement of the Royal Society, the first truly useful and powerful reflector, a 6" f/10. Early scientific literary works like Dr. Robert Smith's Opticks of 1736, a giant and comprehensive volume, contained not only deep mathematical theory but practical instructions on how to grind an 'object glass' or a speculum metal mirror. Known affectionately by his students as Old Focus, this little-known professor of mathematics and obsessed student of optics gave us our first instruction book on telescope making. With this book in hand, William Hershel began his scientific work as an amateur telescope maker in the 1760s, because he simply could not buy a good telescope. Herschel the amateur was considered a professional only years later after he discovered Uranus and went to work for the King George III. All of these people started out the same, as amateurs groping about trying the figure out how to make a good mirror and a good telescope to put it in. England's first truly successful professional maker of high quality telescopes in large numbers was James Short, but he and his ilk were a small and elite group. Mostly they made terrestrial 'spy glasses' with only a few truly astronomical instruments constructed. Astronomical telescopes were and would be, for many years to come, made mostly by amateurs. 

By the middle 1800s, industrialization, a growing middle class, increasing scientific knowledge and discovery, and increasing personal wealth saw the rise of the amateur astronomer. He began to emerge as a distinct type and could be occasionally seen with his telescope; a social curiosity, peering into the heavens. City and village philosophical and science societies were formed, often led by the most learned man in town, the parson. Little telescopes were bought, but some local fellow with a talent for reading and mechanics might make a bigger one. In its own small way telescope making began to catch on. Even in such remote places as the farming community of Bozrah, Connecticut there was an active science society in the 1830s. A fellow there was designing peculiar telescopes and attempting to make them. His communications with the president of Wesleyan University, Wilbur Fisk, are still preserved. Science was the wonder of the age and otherwise ordinary people in out of the way places, having energy and ingenuity, could view the hidden splendors of the universe.

By the end of the 1800s names like Calver, Wassell, Cooke and Grubb in England and Clark, Brashear, Ritchey and Fecker in the US had come to dominate the professional world; but there was a growing horde of amateurs, some of high reputation and nearly professional status such as George With, the English school master who made wonderful mirrors. The interesting aspect of this is that nearly all of the top professionals had begun as amateurs. 

At the beginning of the 20th century things turned a corner. Europe and the US were even more industrialized and wealthier. Many people now had substantial amounts of free time and a little free cash. Scientific publications also began to grow in numbers and circulation. From a US perspective, The Scientific American was the publication for professionals and amateurs alike. In one amazing day in 1969, I sat down in the library of Central Connecticut State College and read (largely skimmed) through The Scientific American from 1848 to about 1900, volume after volume, reading about discovery after discovery and invention after invention, whereupon I pooped out and stumbled forth into the modern world. I had read the history of American and European scientific and mechanical development in one magazine over span of 50 years, an amazing 50 short years, covering things from the latest in stump removers and machine tools to the invention of the electric light bulb. And in there were sprinkled the occasional works of both professional and amateur telescope makers. At first hardly anything, but as the years passed, with increasing frequency, until the teen years of the 1900s, when things seemed to take off a bit, and then into the 1920s, when the hobby seemed to explode.

Beginning in these early 20th century years, telescope making articles began to appear with more frequently in The English Mechanic, a popular amateur magazine that could be considered the father of the American Popular Mechanics. The English Mechanic was the favorite haunt of many opticians and amateurs of the day including the Reverend Frederick William Archdall Ellison, biblical scholar, organist, avid amateur telescope maker, and, from 1919 to 1937, director of Armagh Observatory in Armagh, Northern Ireland. Ellison published his own book in 1920, The Amateur's Telescope. A copy soon reached the hands of Russell W. Porter in the US, an architect living in Maine and just returned from a harrowing expedition to the North Pole with Parry. Porter got the telescope making bug and with Ellison's book started making mirrors. Porter soon wrote articles that appeared in The Scientific American. The Scientific American's science editor, Albert Ingalls, also got the bug and not only made telescopes but began a monthly series in the magazine devoted to amateur telescope making called Telescoptics. This series ran for many years and was a mine of information. The hobby spread across the country. It was the era that introduced the concept of do it yourself. Magazines like Science and Invention were very popular and full of the latest in science and musings about the future. Ham radio was born along with automobile tinkering, speedboats, race cars, and telescope making. People began making telescopes from almost anything. Portholes served as mirror blanks and brake drums as mirror cells. You could make a tube out a piece of stove pipe and even a porch column. Ford and Chevrolet rear ends and old engine blocks became equatorial mounts, wind-up phonograph drives became clock drives. Some people even just used a stick with the mirror one end and the eyepiece on the other - hey! it works. Amateurs began to deluge Ingalls with articles and photographs. He spoke of heaps of mail. Finally, it was decided to take the best of this material and put it into a book and in 1933 Amateur Telescope Making was born. At first a thin volume, it grew over the years to a full size book. Contributions were made not only by master amateurs like Everett, Selby, Kirkham and King; but professionals as well, such as George Willis Ritchey, George Ellery Hale, John Hindle, Franklin Wright and Fred Ferson. Ellison's book was largely included in this first volume. In 1937 a second volume was published and in 1953 and third. In 1927 Russell W. Porter and the local astronomy club held a meeting of telescope makers in Springfield, Vermont - the first Stellafane.

A high level of enthusiasm remain through the 1950s but the 60s and 70s brought with it change. Mirror making tended to subside with the arrival of an even wealthier economy that no longer made mirror making a necessity. Companies like Criterion, Cave, Parks, Edmund and others could now make mirrors and entire telescopes that were affordable. People still made telescopes and some even made mirrors, but the tide had turned. The professionally made telescope had become a big part of the hobby. And then when things seemed to be going solidly in one direction, along came John Dobson, and John had some very new ideas. He looked at the telescope in an entirely new way. Equatorial mounts were questioned as absolute requirements for a 'real' telescope. Carefully machines parts were not considered necessary. The fundamental concept of telescope design, its very ergonomics were rearranged. You could now make a telescope out of plywood and a cardboard builder's tube. The mount was a simple alt-azimuth made from counter top material, toilet waste flanges and Teflon strips for bearings. Who needs a clock drive, or even an equatorial mount, when you're using low power? And the mirror was big, if not always optically all that good. Instead of high resolution observing as the goal, the objective was deep sky work, light gathering power trumped resolution. A completely new kind of observing was born, and a new kind of telescope - the light bucket. To the old-timers it appeared as though astronomy and telescope making turned on its head. To be honest, some of us have never altogether adjusted. Anyhow, these telescopes worked and we saw things that were beyond the smaller telescopes of the past. John turned amateur astronomy on its heel and off in a new direction. Having looked the Veil Nebula in the Yard Scope, I can see some advantages. We now work in a two scope world and, I think, are the better for it.

Today's amateurs telescope makers live in a highly technological world. I won't write about it because you live it and know it only too well. I hope these pages and their pictures tell the story in some small way.

R.F. Royce