Starlight Memories: 4: Magic Telescope I

by Philip Steffey

Two episodes ago I related how a “bargain” telescope turned out as I should have expected--nearly worthless for astronomical observing, much worse optically than the worst of today’s K-Mart et al. models. By November 1951 I was fed up with it; the last view my spotty records then indicate was of the Pleiades which appeared about as Galileo saw that cluster. But like other mistakes of some gravity I’ve made in over 60 years in this world, I learned from it and moved on. In fact my recovery from this one was little short of miraculous! By year’s end I would be in possession of a telescope that, though smaller than most amateur astronomers now begin with, was perfect for me.

In late November and December I got a dose of reality called clouds, days and then weeks of them. The snowfall on Kalamazoo was moderate and no big deal to me though it was misery for my father, who had to drive a 14 year-old car in it. But a starless sky was depressing and I had to choose between letting it discourage me or doing something useful to support my astronomical interest, which though strong had lots of competition. I resumed reading, more carefully and selectively than ever. I had two issues of Sky and Telescope by subscription and some popular books on stargazing from libraries, e.g. Bernhard, Bennett and Rice’s New Handbook of the Heavens, and I learned that reflecting telescopes were better than refractors for people with small budgets. (I won’t repeat the arguments here even though they are still valid.) Many amateurs had built their own reflectors; I filed that fact as a future challenge. I wanted an inexpensive instrument soon that I could learn from and which would provide quality views of astronomical objects. Bingo, Sky and Tel. had an advertisement for one! Its name was Skyscope, the price about $30.

For the first time in my life I was able to buy myself a Christmas present, from the sale of $200 worth of model railroad equipment for half that much--still a fortune to me! A good portion was destined to get the family a new camera, as told in a previous episode, but plenty remained for the telescope. So, hoping for better luck than with the abandoned refractor, I mailed in an order for a Skyscope in early December and received it in under two weeks.

I was not disappointed this time. The ‘scope was a Newtonian with a 3.5-inch f/11 primary mirror, mounted on a tripod with an aluminum head and 30 inch-long threaded legs of 5/8-inch O.D. iron pipe. The tube assembly had a small Al cradle that attached to a short 1-inch diameter, cylindrical Al device on the tripod head serving as the polar axis when properly aimed and locked, and was machined to permit tube rotation in right ascension and in declination. A single Ramsden eyepiece giving 60X was provided and was adequate for the time being (see below). There was no viewfinder but I would never need one. A photograph of the Skyscope is shown following my text. For its cost the materials and workmanship were fine, but how well would it perform?

Unfortunately the ‘scope didn’t bring clear weather, so my eager anticipation became anxious frustration. Finally, however, on December 27 a clear night occured and I set up the ‘scope in the back yard. With a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature around 15°F, [from my log] “amazing sights were seen that will never be forgotten.” Jupiter was a sharply defined, creamy white disc on which one distinct dark band appeared, at 60X and 76X--one of the junk refractor’s eyepieces modified. The Orion Nebula was a spectacle, filling most of the 60X field, and three of the Trapezium stars were seen. The Pleiades was much richer in stars than in the refractor; another modified eyepiece giving 31X got the whole cluster in two fields. Mizar was clearly resolved. The cold and my scant knowledge of what else was worthwhile limited this session to under an hour, but the Skyscope performed very well!

In early January, 1952--hectic ‘51 was finally over--I observed the Moon at approximately First Quarter phase and for the first time saw it as in the numerous photographs in the literature, actually better due to the color and impression of three-dimensionality. This and subsequent views in the next several weeks also revealed the folly of looking for relatively small surface features on the full Moon.  February 9-10 was another night of “firsts” for me and my seemingly magic telescope. In an hour of evening and another of pre-dawn viewing, I saw several bright stars as double or multiple, including Delta Orionis, a 4-star Trapezium and Albireo, and saw Jupiter “with belts” and made a drawing of its satellites’ configuration. Though the tilt of Saturn’s rings was small, the Skyscope showed them at just 60X plus the satellite Titan. Mars, at two months before a mediocre opposition, was disappointingly tiny, an object lesson that I needed higher power eyepieces. A low-power view of M13 as a diffuse blob was another. Finally, these plus some naked-eye observations--my first recognition of Antares, 3 meteors--were recorded in detail in my very first orderly log entry.

The parade of new, personal discoveries was on! In early March I recognized Mercury in the early evening sky, and with a newly acquired 125X eyepiece saw its gibbous shape. In April a dark spot was seen on Mars and Saturn’s rings were better defined than at low power; see the drawing reproductions below. Double stars occupied much of my telescopic observing time that spring but during the summer the emphasis changed to star clusters, nebulas and galaxies, guided by a library copy of Norton’s Star Atlas and then my own copy of Becvar’s Atlas of the Heavens. The Skyscope did well here; by early autumn it had resolved some 90 doubles and revealed 80-odd “deep-sky” objects. A few globular clusters were partially resolved in their fringes and the ‘hole’ in the Ring Nebula had been glimpsed.

The telescope’s fine optical performance was due in good part to a fixed secondary (flat) mirror, so only the primary had to be adjusted, rarely, to properly align the system. The large focal ratio made for a large eyepiece focus-position tolerance, so focusing was a quick and easy push-pull operation. The skinny tube made aiming easy. The portability of the whole instrument was a bonus, for at home I had to view from all over the front and back yards to extend the accessible sky area to about 50% by dodging two-storey, high-roofed houses or 30 to 40 ft.-high trees. The ‘scope was easy to carry in an automobile, even a large bicycle luggage basket, by just removing the tripod legs and bundling them separately from the tube assembly attached to mount head.

The mechanical performance of the Skyscope has been occasionally disparaged in the amateur astronomy literature by some former owners, claiming that the mount was flimsy and shaky. Mine never bothered me, and I suspect these critics were too lazy to learn to use the ‘scope or to add bracing to make the mount more rigid. Any reader who believes the Skyscope was seriously flawed should look in 1990’s issues of The Starry Messenger for the price of a used one. And no less a skilled visual observer than David Levy owns and still uses a model bought in 1960. Nothing close to matching it is available today for under $200. I was so pleased with the overall performance that in 1956 I would buy a second one to use exclusively for solar observation.

The increased time I came to spend stargazing in 1952 forced me to abandon some other interests and activities besides model railroading. I quit the Boy Scouts, shortly after winning a merit badge in astronomy, and sold my small stamp collection. Schoolwork also was occupying more time. I was finishing the Eighth Grade at brand-new South Junior High School (Middle School in Florida) and my first solid science course, which included a section on astronomy. More was coming in the Ninth Grade, as well as increased homework in general. Still a sports nut more than a scholar, I played touch football at school in the autumn and sandlot fast-pitch softball in the summer. My other time-consuming activity was singing in St. Luke’s (Episcopal Church) Choir, then nationally recognized, which required three rehearsals plus at least one church service per week, a spring public concert, and a summer campout at Lake Michigan (just north of the Warren Dunes), except for 1952 when we traveled to Washington, D.C. to sing in the just-begun National Cathedral. But I could look forward to this commitment ending in 1953, when my voice would become too old.

The year 1952 was a good one for my family. Dad got a new, better-paying job laying carpet only, and was able to buy a ‘49 Ford--a big improvement over the ancient Plymouth. Mom was as happy as a working-class housewife can be, enjoying reading and watching TV comedies in her little spare time. Our house was fairly well furnished and getting better, taking much of Dad’s free time. Both my parents were very interested in and supportive of my pursuits, though this meant sacrificing time and money they could have spent on themselves. Most of their siblings were doing well, the brothers in adquate to good jobs and the sisters through marriage or work. Although I had no brothers or sisters, there were many cousins with whom I had countless great experiences.

By the autumn of 1952 the Skyscope finally was giving me trouble--because it had shown me so much. It had reached its optical limit for most astronomical objects and I wanted to see them better. I had caught “aperture fever”! In the next installment we’ll see where this led.

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