Starlight Memories 5: A Telescope That Wouldn’t Die.

by Philip Steffey

The autumn of 1952 found me in ninth grade at South Junior High, mostly a good one for me. My English teacher, Ms. Baum, liked my writing so much that she tagged me as “gifted,” and Mr. Oeschger’s General Science class had a section on astronomy where I shone and discovered that two friends, Jim Hunter and Dave Tripp, shared my interest. I learned to type, a priceless skill, and soon had a typewriter of my own. And I played on the school’s touch football team that won the Kalamazoo championship.

There were some setbacks too. I struggled with algebra and disliked the engineering-oriented physics section in my science class. In October I had a molar tooth ulcerate due to defective root development, and eventually it and two others with the same problem had to be pulled.

The local climate, already good for astronomical observing, became even better and remained so for seven years. The summer weather made up for short nights with two dozen clear ones per month on average, which with no school I could exploit. (Not until 1955 was I old enough to work regularly for pay.) Autumn also had clearer weather and plenty of stargazing opportunity too despite my other obligations then. However, the winter and early spring weather continued often cloudy. I kept on observing with the 3 1/2-inch Skyscope reflector (see 4: Magic Telescope I) but increasingly concentrated on the planets. In a rare general survey, evening and pre-dawn sessions totaling 3 hours on September 12-13, 1952, I viewed seven globular star clusters including difficult NGC 6934 in Delphinus, five nebulae including M57 with a sensible ‘hole’, 11 open clusters including toughies in Cassiopeia, and M31 with both companion galaxies. Mars, Jupiter, and a waning crescent Moon got only quick-looks.

Mars had been disappointing in the little telescope, which produced a maximum magnification of only 190 with a Hastings triplet eyepiece lens in a crude holder I made. The planet would be nearest to Earth in early summer, 1954, since I was a year old, and I wanted a larger ‘scope--at least 6 inches aperture--to see it well. Accordingly, after learning the cost of commercially manufactured instruments of that size, I decided to make a six-inch reflector myself. This project would become a three year-long adventure.

In September ‘52 I bought a kit to make the primary mirror for about $10 and soon began the grinding in the basement of our house. A workbench that once had held part of my model train layout was an adequate substitute for the usual large drum or barrel to hold the tool-disc. I just rotated it fairly frequently in its mount as well as the mirror blank in my hands. I planned to make an f/10 spherical surface and thus avoid the need to parabolize. The rough grinding went fast and I gauged the deepening curve using a thin cardboard template supplied with the kit. But either the curved edge was inaccurate or it wore a little flat with repeated use, for when I judged the mirror’s curvature as fitting it the focal length was actually 67 inches. Unaware of this error, fortunately a positive one, I proceeded with fine grinding and finished it in December.

During the Holidays vacation from school I made a pitch lap on the tool, a small gas stove in the basement contributing to the effort, with fairly neat facets and a good fit to the mirror’s surface. Then I began the polishing. Here my inexperience and scanty information, mostly in Amateur Telescope Making, Vol. 1, resulted in a serious error. Ignorant of how much polishing was necessary, I quit too soon. A knife-edge testing device with a pinhole illuminated by a bright light bulb showed the mirror’s figure to be spherical but did not reveal the reflecting power of the surface.

In early ‘53 I shipped the mirror to Leroy Clausing for Beral coating (costing $3.50) and began collecting parts for the telescope tube assembly and mounting. I mail-ordered an aluminum cell for the primary mirror ($7), a rectangular, first-surface aluminized flat mirror with a 1-inch short side ($4), and a brass holder for 1 1/4-inch O.D. eyepieces with an adjustable stalk with 45° clasp for the flat mirror ($5). At around the time the cell arrived, my father brought home a thick-walled cardboard tube, 6 feet long and about 7 1/2 inches I.D., that had carried rolled carpet. After shellacking and painting it, I mounted the eyepiece holder and drilled the tube bottom to take the mirror cell bolts. Minor shimming made the cell fit right in the tube. The flat mirror was mounted on the stalk and it seemed that work on the telescope mounting could begin. Then the 6-inch mirror came back, coated but gray and with a note about the insufficient polish. I was stunned!

Had this happened two years later I could have taken the mirror to my high school chemistry laboratory and removed the coating with nitric or other acid, then resumed polishing on the still usable pitch lap. In reality this option exceeded my capability, and I was reluctant to repolish the coated mirror. I decided to test the mirror’s performance on bright celestial objects before doing any more work on it that might degrade the surface shape. So I hastily built a temporary mounting. Very little about it survives in my written records and no photographs were taken. I only recall that it had a 1-inch pipe-fitting German equatorial head with a Ready-Mix concrete block counterweight, mounted on a 3 ft. high wooden box cut from an old, unused radio cabinet. The tube ”cradle” was basically a wooden slab with two pipe-strapping strips holding the tube on it.

The telescope was first used on May 23. A gibbous Moon in western Virgo provided “first light” and was a fine sight with homemade and Skyscope eyepieces giving 55 to 220X. Saturn, a few degrees north of Spica and a better test of the primary mirror’s subnormal reflectance, was adequately bright at 220X and more detailed than in Skyscope at 190X. In the next four weeks I viewed several double stars and deep-sky objects, seeing them a little better than in the small reflector due mainly to higher magnifications. So the 6-in. mirror was usable if imperfect. But the rather flimsy mounting needed improvement or replacement. In July I found a long section of 3-inch pipe at a nearby junkyard and with my dad’s help set it in concrete one to three feet deep, tilted 3° north of vertical, in the west-center backyard. For two years the existing head was used, adapted to the pipe-post with an inserted section of 3-in. diameter wood. This gave more steady views with the ‘scope but restricted sky access, especially toward the southeast and southwest.

In the spring Hunter, Tripp and I started grinding a 10-inch mirror as a special science-class project, but the semester and with it our junior-high days ended before much progress was made. We did, however, attract other students who were interested in astronomy. One, George Royce, invited us to a meeting of the Kalamazoo Amateur Astronomical Association. We did and I joined. Soon we were asked to give talks; my first one, in July, was titled “The Next Year in Astronomy,” the coming opposition of Mars getting top billing. The monthly meeting became a treat but also a time commitment. It and nonastronomical daytime activities increasingly diverted me from 6-inch telescope work as the summer of ‘53 wore on.

On a July evening, in a (fast-pitch) softball game that was super for teenagers, I caught on the Southside Park team, hit a homerun off an excellent opposing pitcher that traveled possibly 300 feet in the air to drive in two runs, and scored another after a basehit as we won 4-2. (Our pitcher, Carl Nock, was pretty good too!) I would play only a half-dozen more, mostly forgettable games in my life, and baseball was beyond my experience. But high-school, real football beckoned as I was due to enter Kalamazoo Central in September. In late August I tried out for the junior varsity football team during a record heat wave. I survived the twice-a-day workouts in broiling sunlight and air temperatures 90 to 100°F but only made second string and eventually played little in the team’s games. A year later I quit the tryouts for the varsity team early, seeing little hope for success. My careers in major team sports were ending. But there was plenty else to keep me busy, e.g. becoming a better classroom student in the tenth grade than ever before, and new or rekindled interests outside school.

My parents had enjoyed listening to music from the radio and phonograph records ever since I could remember, and Mom had once taken me to concerts by the fine Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra several times each year. But our pre-World War II record player couldn’t play the new 33 or 45 rpm, high-fidelity records that appeared in the 1950’s. So I bought us a modern Bogen turntable and replaced the old one with it. The existing amplifier seemed to handle the new records, which we began to collect (they were rather expensive), but the speakers were poor at low frequencies. So I bought a modern, big woofer and a couple square yards of 1 inch-thick mahogany--then affordable--for a new cabinet to supplement the existing speakers and provide a stereophonic effect. Alas, this project fizzled; the speaker eventually wound up in a small plywood cabinet. But the mahogany wasn’t wasted. The 6-inch telescope would have need of some of it.

In September a friend from our St. Luke’s Choir days, Tom Koets, alerted me to a tape recorder on sale for about $100, and somehow I found the money to buy one. And what did I mostly do with it? Recorded phonograph records! Golden opportunity was lost to record the voices of family and friends and the audio of early 1950’s television. In those days I was sometimes stupid.

In particular, the TV space ”operas” that had contributed to my interest in space travel, other-worldly life and hence astronomy, were dying for lack of sponsers. By the summer of 1953, those still showing in Kalamazoo were occasional feature-lengthSpace Patrol andThe Secret Files of Captain Video on Saturday mornings, so irregular that newspaper program listings were unreliable.  Nevertheless, I could have recorded the sound-tracks of several shows before they were dropped completely in early ‘54, but I didn’t. One sad loss was a Captain Video story on November 14, the last I would see, ending at 11 A.M., just before the planet Mercury began a transit of the Sun. My first spectacular, transient telescopic event, it occured in a clear sky and was well-placed for viewing with the strongly filtered 6-inch telescope. The tiny, perfectly circular black spot, visible for two hours, was sensational and obviously different from the Sun’s own spots. Remarkably, this was my first view of the planet with the 6-inch ‘scope, whereas I had observed it away from the Sun dozens of times with Skyscope. And although I made no scientific observa- tions--ingress and egress times and angular diameter measurements were useful and feasible--these would come just 7 years later at a place far away.

Sometime in the autumn of ‘53 or spring of ‘54, Dad’s employer went bankrupt and he lost his job with little advance notice and little severance pay. If there was an unemployment compensation program then, he got nothing from it. With hardly any savings, this was a family crisis. Dad talked about selling the car, and both he and Mom were worried and grim. But he had the courage to contact his postwar employer, Vermeulen Furniture, and ask to be rehired. He was, though at less pay, and our immediate crisis passed. Subsequently, he began doing private evening and Saturday carpet-laying jobs, and with no income of my own I had to help with some. Even then there would be fewer and less expensive goodies for me, especially astronomical equipment, until I had real paying work and could foot the costs myself. That would happen soon. The summer of 1954 would be my last with a lot of free time.

On June 30 I saw my first eclipse of the Sun. Dad drove me and a friend, Dick East, to the South Junior High campus, above the athletic fields, where a very low eastern horizon allowed us to view the Sun rise about 70% eclipsed. In my Skyscope, the whole disc of the Moon was seen! Alas, broken clouds soon turned into overcast, so we were unable to see any more of the event.

As 1954 began, Mars was already far enough west of the Sun to be visible low in the southeast before dawn, and I was ready for it. On January 23 I saw the south polar cap with the Skyscope on a disc just 6 arcsec in diameter and in three more views through February also saw dark markings and noticed the gibbous phase (see drawing reproductions). On March 7 I saw the Syrtis Major, Nilosyrtis and the Sabaeus Sinus, but drew them crudely. By then the planet was almost due south near dawn and becoming observable with the 6-inch reflector, but my early drawings with it were poor, mainly because I was too slow for the nearly 15° per hour rotation rate. In April the angular diameter topped 10 arcsec and I began to recognize surface features shown on maps in most observations with both ‘scopes. From May on my best drawings rivalled those by other amateurs published in Sky and Telescope. Due to the larger ‘scope’s restricted sky “window” (see sky picture), the Skyscope was used much more until late July, about three weeks after Mars’ closest approach (39 million miles). From then on half of my best views were with the 6-inch at 220 or 335X, but the quality was not much better than the smaller ‘scope’s at 190X. Neither telescope had a tracking drive and the eyepieces by today’s standards were mediocre. The planet’s average culminating altitude was only 20°, but frequently excellent sky conditions--”seeing”= 4/5 or better--compensated. I continued serious observing till November and made my last drawing showing recognizable detail on December 5 with the 6-inch, the disc’s diameter being 7.6 arcsec.

In all I observed the red planet well over 100 times from early 1954 to early ‘55 and made about 100 drawings. Since that period I haven’t observed anything astronomical so intensively. The extraordinary features I saw included the enlarged Thoth-Nepenthes and the ominous dust storm of early September, though I didn’t comprehend either for some time. I saw a few of the “canals,” which appeared too broad to be watercourses. But my greatest benefit was eye training and drawing practice, huge assets for the future. What was the big deal? Much knowledge of Mars we take for granted today didn’t exist, and visual observation was superior to photography in revealing small surface features. Some measurements and theoretical calculations by professionals implied surface conditions adequate to support primitive lifeforms. So the planet was still esoteric and would remain so for ten more years.

By no means did my obsession with Mars kill other astronomical interests.  In fact, July 23 was an astonishingly good night for viewing deep-sky objects with the 6-inch ‘scope. In scarcely 3 hours I observed 13 globular clusters and saw stars in most--lots of stars in M4, M13 and M22! The open cluster M11 showed, I estimated, 150 stars, and eight more of its type were viewed. The diffuse nebula M8 showed a bright core, wisps and patches, and the Eagle Nebula near M16 was seen. M17 was “pear-shaped with wisps,” and the planetary nebula NGC 6826 showed a broad core with central star plus a halo. Most of the details seen were well beyond the Skyscope and would not be surpassed by the 6-inch until the primary mirror was repaired.

Early 1955 was a letdown for astronomy, and other activities once again drew me away. Jupiter and Saturn had been viewed occasionally in ‘54 with both of my telescopes, and Uranus and Neptune with the 6-inch (see drawing reproductions). These programs continued into ‘55, but on May 30 the 6-inch was retired until major improvements including primary mirror “refiguring” could be done. That date was no accident; it was practically the end of the school year--eleventh grade for
me--which had been a busy and interesting one. The academic highlight was Chemistry from the inimitable Roy Mesick, which I loved. I also became deeply involved in choral music and dramatics, the first of which would lead to a lucrative activity by a circuitous route.

A friend of several years, Dana Derhammer, had organized a dance band from school musicians and wanted a vocalist. He also wanted a business and advertizing assistant. Now I was hardly the best available singer, but I could handle the other work, so I was appointed to do both and eventually performed at several band appearances. But most of the instrumentalists were opposed to a vocalist, and trombonist Bob Hightower suggested that I learn to play the string bass, which the band lacked. To keep this account short, I did and gained relatively high-paying if irregular work with many bands of all sizes during the next several years.

During the second semester of the 1954-55 school year I took an after-school job in the biology laboratory, reshelving bottled and other samples and watering plants. This job extended a month or so into the ‘55 summer vacation period, and though I disliked it and performed accordingly, it was another income source. 

Also that summer I took an automobile driver-training course and obtained a driver’s license, just in time to drive the new Ford my father had acquired to Mom’s and my surprise. Dating girls soon followed, for better or worse.

In August some free time developed, setting the stage for upgrading the 6-inch telescope much sooner than I had expected. The first step was to buy 3-inch pipe fittings for a new, big German equatorial head. Their quality was excellent, notably the threads, and the cost was moderate. The floor-flange, which would carry the tube cradle, was a deluxe one, made of steel with baked-on enamel and super threading, evidently intended for industrial use. Before school resumed in September I had the 45° elbow and a short nipple--the polar axis--installed on the pipe-post and the rest of the head--a tee and two nipples--assembled. A new counterweight was made from concrete poured into a 3-inch diameter sheet metal tube about 30 inches long, which fitted nicely into the longer (6-inch) tee nipple. All exterior surfaces except thread-joint bearings were painted with aluminum paint. (See photographs.)

Step two was to build a new cradle that would permit easy tube rotation. For this I still had the mahogany from my abandoned speaker cabinet project, and cutting the circular arcs in the upright end-slabs with a coping saw was the only difficult work here. When the arcs reached their desired shape, the end pieces were attached to the 8 x 15-inch base with glue and screws and the arc faces were lined with strips of carpet padding topped by velvet. To hold a single spring-steel strap, a stiff metal tongue was installed on one side of the base and a short piece of pipe strapping on the opposite side. The wood surfaces were shellacked only at this time.

I was not happy with the existing, somewhat oversized telescope tube, and my father brought home a slightly smaller one that fitted snugly into it. The primary mirror cell fitted perfectly into the new tube. So, also thinking ahead to possibly wanting to transport the telescope to a site away from home, I made a new tube in two sections that could be telescoped to about 3 1/2-ft long. It got the customary flatblack paint inside, and white on the outside. A sheet metal ring was mounted on the upper end, mainly to protect the cardboard edge from damage.

While the mounting and tube work was underway, I ordered a one-inch- minor axis elliptical flat mirror and a 10X42 Unitron viewfinder. (The original ‘scope had no finder.) These soon arrived and were added to the tube assembly in November, by when I was very busy with senior-year school activities. In early December the new mount passed a mechanical operation tryout with an A-minus: The counterweight required a couple strapped-on one-inch pipe nipples to balance the the telescope tube assembly. This done, the ‘scope at rest was rock-solid and its motion on both axes was silky-smooth.

Finally, the ailing 6-inch mirror was shipped to Tom Cave in California for refiguring at a bargain cost. It came back with a new aluminum coating and looking great by the end of December. It was reinstalled in the telescope tube in early January, 1956, and in the wee hours of the 14th the completely upgraded ‘scope was tested on several objects in a superbly clear, dark sky. It was a winner! Jupiter at 220 and 335X showed much more detail and color than I had ever seen, and the Galilean moons were distinguishable discs allowing identification of each without a chart. At 105X the globular cluster M3, at only 30° altitude, was resolved nearly as well as M13 had been with the first model of the 6-inch. And for the first time several galaxies including M63, 65 and 66 showed spiral disc “haloes” distinct from the “bulges.”

Schoolwork and extracurricular activities (graduation was approaching) limited observing until June, but I managed several 6-inch views of Saturn, with up to five satellites, that were mindblowers, as well as a few views of Venus, Uranus, Neptune and DSO’s. Mercury still eluded observation from the post position, so I built a tripod from more of the leftover mahogany as a new base for a portable mount to gain access to more sky area. It was used a couple times in the early summer with the old, small equatorial head, but was unacceptably shaky and thus abandoned. Other needed improvements to the telescope were successful. A Goodwin Barlow lens was obtained from George Royce in a trade for something forgotten, and in July I bought a 3-eyepiece turret (see photo) that made observing more efficient. Two months later I bought my first quality eyepiece in a 1 1/4-inch mount, a 2/3-inch Orthoscopic. It performed wonderfully--51 years later I’m still using it!--and with the Barlow replaced one Skyscope eyepiece plus my old homemade ones.

By early autumn of ‘56 I had a superior 6-inch reflector except for the lack of a drive or even slow-motion controls, which were put on my agenda for future improvements. For the time being there was a worthy observing project for the ‘scope as it was. Mars was back, nearer and much higher on the ecliptic than in ‘54.
Article begun in 1995; major rewrites in 2001 & 2007

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