Telescope Equipment Through the Ages

1969 - My First Telescope - a Sears 700x60 refractor - arrives for Christmas. I seem to recall the price was $29.95 for the '200x' scope. It showed me the basic planets and brighter Messier objects; sadly, I was too young to think of keeping a journal of what I saw. It was on display at my school for my seventh-grade science fair. During its stay in the school gym, it suffered a serious accident from an unknown source; all I know was that when I stopped by later the telescope tube was laying on the floor beneath the tripod: its cast-iron mount had snapped! My dad and I re-built the mount but it was distressingly wobbly. We tried again a few years later with a thick piece of steel, and the wobbles were history. I recall fooling the system by stacking the 3x Barlow AND the 1.5x erect-image extender AND the 10.5mm eyepiece, thereby creating a 300x telescope! The image was awful, but at the time that wasn't important. A friend had an accident with the 22mm eyepiece, watching in dismay as it jumped off a balcony onto concrete. As a result, the remaining eyepiece and its 3x Barlow were all I used for the next several years. Memorable views included the inevitable looks at Saturn and the capture of Uranus from near the beach in the fall of 1979.

1983 - After a few years of diminished interest, I picked up an astronomy-oriented magazine and found myself recharged. Noticing a Coulter 10-inch f/5.6 mirror set for a mere $150, I placed an order and got busy in the garage. The final result was a unique, clearly home-made hexagonal tube holding a nicely-curved mirror. Its first light was on my dad's birthday in 1984, where I showed off the Orion nebula and other late-winter highlights. That was probably about five objects at the time; the Messier list did not come to my attention until 1988 when I joined the Portland Astronomical Society (soon to transform itself into the Rose City Astronomers. My first Big Event was a trip to Pine Mountain Observatory that year; a dozen or more local scopes set up by the domes and enjoyed the dark skies of central Oregon. Several of us made use of the observatory's main telescope to locate Neptune, then ran back to our scopes to see how it looked through our own instruments. The next year, we returned for the occultation of the star 28Sgr by Saturn; what a sight that was! By early August of 1989 I had completed the Messier list, but it would be several years before my documentation reached the Astronomical Leage for certification (#1523).
This telescope provided me with a great amount of enjoyment, and it mutated several times as I improved my collection of eyepieces. It acquired a riflescope and finally a 2-inch focuser, but I was ready for the next step: making my own mirror. I could not afford a larger mirror otherwise, so I started with a six-inch blank and got to work.

1990 - After only 40 hours of work, including several hours of correcting mistakes, I had a decent-looking f/5.6 curve polished into the glass. I was heading to California in February, so I took the glass with me for a local coating. George Montierth of Morvac Coating did a nice job of it with only a two-day turnaround and no early warning, and he gave me a tour of his facilities when I picked up the shiny treasure. I was greatly saddened when he died about a year later; he showed me a great deal on that quiet evening. I returned home with the completed six-inch, and another treasure: a 14-inch blank from Newport Optical for my next project. The six-inch performed well; I remember one star-party at Agate Ridge where my tired back was unable to carry the 10-inch along, so I carefully observed with the 6" scope. It was a night immortalized in my journals under the title "Six-Inch Perfection!" - dark nebulae near M11, numerous tiny galaxies, the summer Milky Way all showed extremely well in the small but sharp instrument. This telescope was soon followed by its Big Brother, so it didn't get much use after a while...

1991 - I spent the end of 1990 working furiously in the basement of my new home, occasionally running upstairs with a shiny burden. It was a small group of friends: me, a new 14.5" mirror and Jupiter. In early January I saw details on Jupiter that I had never seen before; uncoated mirrors show great details on bright objects, and I enjoyed the views. I finally claimed victory and sent the mirror south, and Palantir's story began. [I named it after the elvish seeing-stones from Middle Earth, which could look back through time and over great distances. Sounds like a telescope mirror to me!] The six-foot focal length was nearly perfect for my height, and I needed no step-stool for myself (though I brought a small one with me to share the views with others). The design was like a box-kite, using long wood boards at the four corners - looked unusual, worked great. This telescope took me deeper into the realm of faint NGC objects, and old deep-sky friends looked much more detailed (a 14" scope collects twice the light of a 10"). This scope went on the road quite a bit, attending Table Mountain and the Oregon Star Party a few times. One of the advantages of this telescope was its anonymity: while other large scopes drew crowds, I could offer great views without the lines, and people often walked past me to get in line for the bigger scopes. For the most part, that was fine with me! I sold the telescope to a local observer in 1994, confident that I had its replacement well in hand [ha! - read on for that story].

1991 - The project that never happened. I picked up a huge bargain through the Starry Messenger, where a 20-inch blank turned up at a great price. It merely needed some finishing strokes to be a great, lightweight f/5.5 telescope mirror. I was getting married the following spring, and I believed the RCA was about to begin a club telescope, so I picked it up for later use by me or them. The club wasn't ready for it, and unfortunately neither was I. When a surprising tax bill came due in 1993 I sold it to a local astronomer for the same price I paid; he made a very nice 'scope of it.

1993 - A friend of mine surprised me with his sudden interest in telescopes. We went out and observed a few times, and he decided to make an 8-inch scope for his family. Rather than talk him through it I joined him; we ordered two blanks pre-curved to f/6 and got to work. After a brief amount of time we found that something was amiss - our focal lengths were turning out closer to f/4 than f/6, which would make his first correcting job very challenging. He sent his blank back, but I decided to make a short RFT. After several correcting attempts it passed the Ronchi star-test, so away it went. David had finished his about three months before, and his telescope looked good from every direction. The final focal ratio of my scope was f/3.65, so it is NOT a high-power telescope! Due to a massive amount of miscalculations (explained next), it was the only available telescope for viewing the collision of comet(s) Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Jupiter, although it was spectacular in ANY telescope.

- the 8", 14", 6" and unfinished 22" mirrors

1994 - While working on the never-ending project that the 22-inch had become (see below), I had an opportunity to pick up a ten-inch blank. Anxious to make a high-power telescope to complement my f/3.6, I quickly ground and polished it to f/7.8 and worked to get it corrected and coated before the March '96 Mars opposition. It stubbornly refused to shape properly, and I finally turned to local expert Steve Swayze to complete the mirror. Even he had some troubles (and other mirrors to make), and the Martian opposition passed with only my f/3.6 in action. It was finished and in my hands soon thereafter, so Mars still showed off nicely for this telescope. My first big night with it was on Memorial Day weekend; the RCA was beginning the Herschel-II observing project, and I captured several new objects as well as getting wonderful views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. I only kept this telescope for about thirteen months; storage space was extremely tight in the garage, the 22-inch was nearly ready and the money came in handy to finish off the Real Big One.

1993-97 - here's the Long, Cryptic Version
The never-ending project mentioned above; I blame Steve. When he decided to make his 40-inch telescope, Steve talked Intermountain Optics into carving the massive blank from a 4' by 6' Pyrex slab. When he returned home with the glass he casually mentioned that two 22-inch blanks were cut from the leftover glass. I was contemplating a replacement to the thin 20-incher that I gave away for tax reasons, but 22 inches was a bit too large... but it was a piece of history that other buyers would be unaware of. After a month of debate I fell for it, and my project from Hades began. I started on the ominous day of the San Fernando quake, and with Steve's assistance it was ready (uncoated) in time for the 1995 Oregon Star Party. After a few quick tests it proved to have some troubles, so the 8" f/3.65 came instead (quite a change!). The next year I had the whole telescope complete and it made its debut at OSP, but it was clearly unhappy at high power. I had managed to put a long, thin scratch near the edge, and it became clear that the figure on the outside of the scratch did not match the rest of the mirror! After much anguish and consultation, I broke down and broke out the abrasive. We re-worked the mirror, knocking it down an inch to f/4.25 and removing all scratches in the process. I made thorough use of Steve's new mirror-making machine and his time and expertise. The truly-finished mirror arrived in early August 1997, and I saw some amazing things after that! After a few short years, though, a few things became clear: it was too heavy for me to transport by myself, and with my family back history it was only a matter of time before it was unusable. I sold it to a local, and still visit it at star parties.

1998-2002 - I used AstroMart (a classified-ad page for astronomy products) to full advantage, picking up a thin 13-inch blank for a great price. I built a tool, then another one, then reworked that tool, then fought illnesses and back injuries, etc. etc. It's being polished now (well, maybe not right now) - focal ratio of f/5.4, focal length of ~70". This can't go on forever, even though it sure feels like it ...
As if to show the 13-inch who is in charge, I added a 15-inch porthole blank to my list of mirror projects! The price was right at the 2002 Oregon Star Party, but now I have Two mirror projects - and the 2003 Mars super-opposition is approaching Fast!

2003 - the next project was completed in a rush, just in time for Mars. I spent the winter failing to correct the 13-inch, and as spring arrived I accepted defeat (temporarily!) and went shopping. I didn't go far, finding the mirror of many dreams since before the 22 was selected: a Coulter 17.5 was available across the river in Battle Ground WA. I quickly yet carefully put a scope together, stealing liberally from the parts earmarked for the 13. I also improvised with speaker wire and two PC-caliber speakers to create a tiny sound system just below the eyepiece - after all, more and more star parties force one to park away from the telescope and I can't imagine observing without my Tangerine Dream soundtrack! The finished project (just kidding - NO telescope is ever finished :-) was put to use in July, and Mars was its main target for the remainder of the summer and autumn.

In 2007, while the 17 sat unusable on the OSP ground, we made an offer for a 14.7-inch quartz blank. Very thin, and therefore light, with no thermal-distortion properties, and a focal ratio of 4.5, this will inevitably become a wonderful instrument! It does render the 15-inch porthole rather irrelevant, though the same tool could be put to work on that.


Current 'scopesCurrent projects
6" f/5.6
8" f/3.7
700x60 binocs
17" f/4.5 - rebuilding structure
15" porthole - unbegun
14.7" f/4.6 (pre-shaped) quartz - just starting
13" f/5.2 Pyrex - polishing
8" f/8 - evaluating figure
mirr-o-matic machine - sitting in garage