When I was in high school in the early 80s, my parents bought me one of the now classic Edmund “Astroscan” 4 inch Newtonian telescopes. This was a simple enough machine to use. The scope was a short tube with a small red bowling ball attached to the bottom where the mirror sat. You pointed the thing at the sky by rolling it around on its red ball-shaped base. Then light from the stars went into the tube, reflected off a mirror at the bottom and then a smaller mirror at the top. You can then look through an eyepiece at the top of the telescope.
I loved the little red ball, and I devoured all of the literature available to me at the time, mostly in the form of the classic Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines. I remember the awesome back cover ads with the orange Celestrons. I remember the Meade ads with guys in white coats hanging out near huge Newtonian telescopes on equatorial mounts with “clock drives”.
But one of the strongest memories I have of that time was an article by John Dobson about the origins of the now iconic Dobsonian telescope in an old issue of S&T. I even wrote a letter to the man, who was gracious enough to reply to an enthusiastic 14 year old. The other day I saw this article mentioned in the now also iconic book by Kriege and Berry about building larger Dobs. Turns out it was published in April of 1980. On a whim I checked around and found that I could buy and download the issue at Sky and Telescope’s web site. Who can resist that?
So here is what the April 1980 issue of Sky and Telescope teaches you about the state of amateur astronomy then and now.
First, I know it’s shallow and consumerist of me, but I love the ads. I can still remember some of them just by their layout and typography. There is the Astronomy Book Club (4 free books if you agree to buy 4 more at full price!), there are the ATM parts by Kenneth Novak who ran the same ad with the same 4-vane secondary spider in it for what seemed like my entire childhood. There are the previously mentioned Celestron and Meade Ads. There is the nascent Orion Telescope center before they partnered with China and took over the entire world. There are ads for huge boxes that tell time with a computer. There are the Willmann-Bell book ads.
The ads tell you of a world of astronomy where the Dobsonian telescope, the CCD camera, the fast APO refractor, dozens of niche exotic optical designs and the computerized telescope mount do not yet exist. It’s pretty amazing what we got by with back then.
The next thing you notice is that the quantity and quality of the content in the magazine is astounding. Sky and Telescope was one of two major publications at the time for amateur astronomers. The other one was Astronomy, but it had a more modern and populist bent. The writing in Sky and Telescope was almost academic in its style. When I was but a young man I always found it to be a bit stuffy, but now it is refreshing to find writing in a hobby magazine that is significantly above the fourth grade reading level.
The two main features that month were both written by University professors. And, the first “news” item is not about some new product to buy, but a long piece about some mysterious gamma ray burst in the Large Magellanic Cloud, complete with imaging data and graphs of gamma ray counts. The rest of the issue is filled out with discussions of comets, the usual “what’s up in the sky this month” things, a historical piece about an old star atlas, book reviews (there is a review of the apparently now classic Stars and Clusters by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin) and so on. Finally there are more specialized articles on the various sub-genres of the hobby: visual observing, amateur telescope making, deep sky photography and so on.
The Dobson piece shows up in the long running “Gleanings for ATMs” column which ran for longer than I’ve been alive, as far as I know.
My second favorite piece in the issue is a retrospective of a 18-month long project by a particularly intrepid amateur named Ben Mayer to photograph all of the Messier objects. To take a single picture this guy has to
Point the telescope at the object. Most of the Messiers are pretty bright, so maybe this isn’t too hard. Still, my iPhone does this for me now.
Somehow focus the telescope so that the image in the camera will be sharp while still using an eyepiece on the telescope, since the camera can’t take a picture and tell you if its in focus.
Sit outside in the cold and the muck with the telescope guiding by hand for an average of an hour per exposure.
Take backup exposures.
The results are pretty good, I guess, given what he’s up against. But they aren’t that much better than (say) my early and fumbling work with the video camera.
Then, a couple of days after reading this I came across this forum thread about a Messier Marathon. Spring is Messier season because if you situate yourself just right you can see all 110 objects in one night.
The subject of the thread is about an attempt to get a picture of all 110 objects in one night. The guy ends up losing a few because he wasted an hour early in the evening troubleshooting some focus problems. But he still manages to get 105 pictures in one night using a single 3 minute CCD exposure per picture.
And his pictures are a lot better.
So … computers, CCD cameras, and exotic optics have allowed enterprising amateurs to work about two to three orders of magnitude faster with much better end results. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact that the large Dob has had on visual observing.
Even though it’s not really true, in my mind I see 1980 as the time when these particular sets of balls got rolling. In just a couple of more years the large Dobsonian would be a commercial force. And just a few years later people would finally start experimenting with mass market computerized telescopes and CCD cameras. We get to where are we now, when a guy with sufficient resources and know-how can make respectable images of the entire Messier catalog in one night through a long process of refinement and re-engineering. But it was around 1980 when all of these things just started to become possibilities. At least for me.
Of course, now that we have all of these things, the publications that we had then are in danger of leaving us. For the most part the hobbyist content has been competently replaced by some of the better Internet web sites and forums. What these places lack in writing quality they more than make up for in the relative density of the their content. With this large distributed database at your fingertips you can now learn things in months that might have taken years before if you had to wait for the magazines to tell you how to do it.
It’s easy to think that nothing will replace the long form magazine feature. Especially in niche publishing markets like astronomy. So I guess while the marketplace has delivered us tools we could not have dreamed possible in 1980, the arrival of those tools has also resulted in the death of at least one of the reason we would dream of such tools in the first place. I guess that’s just how it goes.
Or maybe not. This month’s S&T has a whimsical historical piece about the role of the full moon in a Civil War battle. And last month there was an article on a CCD Messier Marathon. So maybe it’s not all that different after all.
If you have the same irrational nostalgia for old hobby magazines as I do, you have to consider buying this full archive of the first 70 years of S&T. The only downer here is that they didn’t just make PDFs of all the issues. Instead the content is locked on these ridiculous DVDs. Oh well.