What follows is a detailed, nostalgia-soaked exercise in self-indulgence. It is the tale of how one particular amateur astronomer got his start.

Beginning Nerd Astronomy

For a few people astronomy is a profession, the subject of their education and the source of their livelihood. For others it's merely a hobby, one that could be replaced by ham radio or RC airplanes. For me, astronomy is a worldview and a way of life, both the source of my income (as a space artist) and an avocation that keeps me out at night.

When doing public astronomy at the Grand Canyon or wherever, I'm often asked how I got interested in astronomy. A good short answer is "I was born, and then I noticed that my surroundings were interesting." But that might be interpreted as overly glib. Here is a lengthier reply, but one which would take too long to relate to people at star parties, unless I followed them to their campsites or hotels, jabbering all the way. And that's just not my style.

Three early memories of astronomical things really stuck with me. The first came from television. I was very young, about kindergarten age. At that time we could receive only one TV channel, and that of course was in black and white. Like most kids I loved the Saturday morning kiddie shows. I'd often switch on the set before the station even went on the air, which left me impatiently staring at a test pattern (whatever happened to test patterns, anyway?). The first actual show they ran on Saturdays was produced by our small local museum. Called Treasure House, it was a hodgepodge of cultural tidbits. One segment was about astronomy. It was probably syndicated, and about five minutes long.

This was about the year 1960. At that time, we knew precious little about the universe. The planets of the solar system were almost completely mysterious. Mars had canals and plant life, Venus might be covered by a tropical jungle, the Moon could be a volcano-infested place of choking dust pits, and Jupiter? Who could say? This was the context of Treasure House's little vignettes. They were solemnly narrated by a wise-sounding elder who plainly recognized the limits of his knowledge. Moody music played in the background. I remember seeing a blurry telescopic photograph of Jupiter, with its Great Red Spot peering out like an enigmatic dark eye. It was enough to make me shiver. Another TV memory from that time was Lowell Thomas and his breathless reports on our progress with launching sounding rockets and larger boosters into space. "So long until tomorrow!" he'd always cry at the end of these segments. Their stirring theme music made it sound like we were about to follow in the footsteps of the gods.

I cut out little paper planets and stuck them on the wall of my room, with their names beside them. I couldn't yet figure out how to spell "Mars", so it came out "Mrs".

The next astronomy thing I remember took place on July 20, 1963, shortly after I turned eight years old. The path of a total solar eclipse passed through Maine, a few hundred miles away from my home in southern New York State. The eclipse wasn't total from where we lived, but it was fairly deep. So were the clouds, as they so often are in New York. We watched live coverage of the eclipse on TV, and through the window, we could see the clouds getting dark.

How awesome! Something was happening above the clouds that could bring a false dusk to my entire world. That was like a storybook event come true for a kid like me.

The third thing I remember from that time is the moon. I was often aware of its sad, eerie face, watching me from out of a dark sky. Sometimes I'd dream it would move through the sky so it could look through windows at me. My uncle Rodger, who was then a teenager, walked me to his friend's house and borrowed his little spotting scope. We lay on the ground to look through this stubby-legged scope at the moon.

My parents bought me books about astronomy which I eagerly absorbed. They were brief and simple, but after all, there wasn't a whole lot of astronomical knowledge to be put forth.

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade I found a telescope beneath the Christmas tree.

Before I proceed, I should point out that today's beginning amateur astronomers are very spoiled. They have a huge choice of telescopes, and they often start out with six-inch scopes or even larger. In fact, quite a few amateurs have the curious idea that only a scope of ten-inch aperture or larger is even worth looking through. Even a kid is likely to start out with a decent 4.25" scope if his parents are well-informed enough not to shop at Wal-Mart.

Things were different in the Sixties. A $200 six-inch reflector was a major investment many people could only dream about. A ten-inch was a huge, rare scope which you might be privileged to look through once or twice a year.

My very first telescope was a 60mm reflector (yes, reflector), made by Gilbert, a purveyor of science toys like microscopes and chemistry sets. Science toys...a market which seems to no longer exist. Remember dissection kits? They came with glass jars containing crayfish and giant grasshoppers packed in formaldehyde, plus scalpels and other sharp objects. I can just imagine those on the shelves of Target today.

Anyway, this scope had a cardboard tube with a black nubbly exterior and white plastic end rings. It had steel tripod legs attached to a "mount" which was simply a ball-and-socket joint with tension applied by a wing nut. It had a single plastic-barreled eyepiece and a "finder" which consisted of a long, narrow tube mounted on two thin metal posts. To align this "finder" you bent the posts.

Despite the deficiencies of this instrument, I found its presence beneath the tree to be quite magical. I assembled it and had it beneath the stars that very night.

Unfortunately, this scope wasn't really up to the task of introducing me to amateur astronomy. For one thing, that "mount" made it almost impossible to aim the scope at anything and have it remain on target. I remember that sharp-edged wing nut cutting into my fingers as I struggled to tighten it on cold nights, trying in vain to keep the scope from sagging off target. The wind played an eerie melody as it blew past the opening of the tube. In fact I was able to find only two astronomical targets with that scope: the moon and the sun. It came with an interesting accessory, a rear-projection solar viewer which was a black plastic funnel with a piece of white translucent plastic covering the big end. The small end slipped over the eyepiece. This revealed sunspots and was actually interesting. The scope's documentation optimistically advised me to look for granulation, which I did, but to no avail.

I struggled with this telescope for a while, and then put it away. My observing impulse became dormant. My astro adventures during that period were mostly limited to the naked eye. I now introduce one of the many seminal books of my youth, Stars, a Golden Nature Guide by Herbert Zim and Robert Baker. Remember those little books? At one time they were sold pretty much everywhere. I was totally crazed about collecting them, and they were instrumental in turning me into a know-it-all brainiac. Stars was one of the first I bought. Each book cost a whole dollar! The illustrations in Stars, by James Gordon Irving, were simple yet lush, very evocative, even romantic. With this little book I began to learn the constellations. I remember the thrill of being outside on a wintry night, noticing a big pattern of bright stars, and suddenly realizing this was the "Orion" I'd been reading about. I'd just made a new friend.

A few years later I agitated for a better telescope, and received one for my birthday (about my twelfth), which was certainly one of the finest gifts I ever received. It was a 60mm Sears Discoverer refractor on an altazimuth mount, looking quite spiffy with its silvery-gray finish. We all commented on how professional it looked. It came with two eyepieces: a red one and a yellow one! The yellow one was a 20mm Kellner, while the red was a 4mm or a 6mm, either a Ramsden or a Huygenian. It also came with a Barlow lens, which was useless; so too was the red eyepiece with its rice grain-sized lenses. Nevertheless, this scope was a big improvement over its predecessor. Using my gradually improving knowledge of the constellations, I was able to locate a few deep sky objects, including M13, M31, and M42. I also tried and failed to find a few others, including the Ring Nebula. I made these observations from our house in Endwell, NY. Back then Endwell was still pretty dark. Street lights were dim, inoffensive, and incandescent. I could see the Milky Way pretty easily.

Telescope catalogs of yore: Unitron, The Optical Craftsmen, Criterion (Dynascopes) and Cave Astrola.

On planets, the Sears scope showed me the rings of Saturn, but otherwise I didn't see a lot. This was due to a combination of my lack of experience and perseverance and to those lousy eyepieces. Overall I probably underestimated the capability of that little scope. The mount was still pretty frustrating for aiming and tracking. It's actually kind of impressive how they managed to use that much metal and wood to create something that worked so poorly for supporting such a small, light telescope.

A few years ago I bought an identical telescope from a local man. I know it's not the exact same one because it came with a few accessories my original one didn't have. My impression of the mount remains pretty poor, but the telescope itself is not bad. The objective shows some astigmatism, but I can still see about as much as I'd expect to see with it. It's certainly more capable than I realized as a kid. Buying it was one of those things guys do when they've never really grown up.

My constellation-learning efforts became more systematic with the help of a miraculous device: the Edmund Scientific Star and Satellite Path Finder (a planisphere). This cardboard mechanism was capable of showing where the stars would be at any given time or date! It could actually predict their rising and setting! Now I could really learn all those stars and constellations I'd been reading about. The planisphere says that the great star Procyon will rise at 10:30! Out I go...looking for a clear horizon to the east...there it is, sparkling in the darkness! A night of wonders. Aldebaran! Capella! The names of the stars inflamed the imagination of someone still young enough so that every new experience was deep and vivid. Once I convinced my parents to take me to the house of some friends of theirs who lived in the country so I could try my scope in a darker sky. We didn't stay long enough for me to find anything, but I did notice a bright group of stars near the northern horizon. "Wow," I thought, "that must be something important." And then it clicked. Cassiopeia! Another friend made and known.

This is a good time to mention another of those seminal books, another Golden Guide, The Sky Observer's Guide, by a pair of Mayalls and a Wyckoff. I remember buying this neat little book at the awesome Boston Museum of Science. When I got it home, I looked through it and panicked. "I'll never learn all this, it's too complicated!" Now of course it all seems pretty basic. The illustrator, John Polgreen, had a clean style that again resulted in some memorable images. I especially liked his picture of a guy out in a field near his house, happily observing with his small refractor. Sam Brown's book from Edmund Scientific, All About Telescopes, had a similar illustration which I liked. Simple equipment, peaceful setting. I didn't know the term at the time, but I was thinking of Zen Astronomy. That's what I aspired to.

Around this time, the director of our local small planetarium, Richard C. DeLuca, decided to start an astronomy club for kids, calling it the Honors Astronomy Society. Although my academic record probably didn't entitle me to any honors, somehow I was admitted, along with my best friend Jim Hamill, who had a telescope just like mine. As a member of this august assemblage I was permitted to to hang around in the planetarium, a place of wonders in its own right. I was always bugging Mr. DeLuca to show me the stars of the southern hemisphere, which of course I couldn't see from New York. Mr. DeLuca also had the biggest telescope I'd seen, an 8" f/15 Cave Astrola Cassegrain. One night he invited us all over to his house to look through it and eat doughnuts. I requested the doughnut-like Ring Nebula. Having never seen it before, I didn't know what to expect. I sort of expected to see something tiny, bright, and very colorful, like the pictures in books. Instead I saw something big, dim, and ghostly, but still very interesting. I have no particular memories of the edible doughnuts, but I'm sure they were very good, just like the celestial one. Also present was the museum's 3.5" Questar telescope, which I got to play with, scanning around with it as though I knew what I was doing.

Sketch of Jupiter made at the eyepiece of my 3" refractor on August 13, 1972. I wonder what I would see or draw now if I went back and looked with the same scope at the same time? Something better than this, I hope.

For some reason, after a few years I sold my little silvery telescope. Why? Perhaps I was too aware of its shaky mount and poor eyepieces and finder. Perhaps my mind was still too unfocused and undisciplined to learn how to get the most out of the telescope. In any event, it was gone, and for the next few years my interest in astronomy proceeded in other directions. I read all the books in the library, most of them by Patrick Moore. I went to all the local planetarium shows, many of which were surprisingly ambitious and effective given the limited resources available. Sometimes I even made it to the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester. This place had a unique glamour at the time. Under the leadership of Don Hall, it was the first planetarium to really modernize the production values of its shows, utilizing some sharp scripts, original music, and the most advanced effects possible at the time. It was pretty much the apex of astronomy as far as I was concerned. I and a few other members of the Honors Society graduated to the adult Broome County Astronomical Society, which is now defunct. At our star parties I got to try various interesting telescopes. Our president, Jack Prince, had a 3" f/15 refractor which he assembled from Jaegers parts. I was quite taken by its view of the small bluish dot of Uranus.

One of our club projects was to produce and present our own planetarium show. Mr. Prince's main contribution was to decide on the topic: the history of celestial navigation, a personal interest of his. This was a bit dryer than what I would have chosen, but hey, I was just a kid. As we decided who would do what, I somehow wound up doing almost everything. I did much of the research, much of the writing, produced the artwork, narrated the show, and even sat down behind the console and presented it to audiences. The only things I specifically remember not doing were the audio mixing, which was done by Mr. DeLuca on his incredible 2-track Sony reel-to-reel tape deck, and selecting music, which was done by member John Thurston, who chose some fine classical pieces, mostly from Dvorak and Wagner. This was the beginning of the planetarium career which would be an important part of my life for many years.

The show's premier performance was a bit on the stressful side. Back then, few planetaria were automated. Every motion of the projector, every slide and every effect, had to be controlled by hand. As I sat there trying to remember which knob to turn next, I heard a strange sound in the audience like that of a sheet being torn. I realized with horror that it was the sound of someone vomiting violently. Mr. DeLuca, who was sitting nearby in case of disaster, whispered "Keep going," and I did. That was the only show I ever presented which included that particular problem.

It was around this time that my interest in observing really flared up again. I started going out in the yard at night with my binoculars and poking around. I sent away for a flurry of telescope catalogs, mesmerizing documents full of staggering promise, many of which I still keep as relics of a fabulous past epoch. I will mention two of them in particular. First was the Edmund Scientific catalog. No teenaged nerd could possibly encompass all the wonders it contained. The 6" Super Space Conqueror! Who could imagine what might be revealed by such a thing? For that matter, who didn't wonder what their Music Vision setup looked like? My friend Jim Hamill also had telescopic ambitions. He still had his Sears refractor, but aspired to something bigger. His first purchase was a 9mm Kellner eyepiece from Edmund. This was probably the first inch and a quarter eyepiece I ever saw, and wow! Did it ever look like a professional piece of equipment to me! The other catalog of particular interest was the quirky yellow A. Jaegers collection of refractor objectives and parts. There were many others as well: Unitron; Cave Optical; Criterion; and the Optical Craftsmen. For the most part their wares were far beyond my means.

In 1972, my junior year of high school, I realized I had accumulated enough capital to construct a serious telescope: almost $200. Where this money came from, I can't say. I didn't have a paper route or any other job. I wasn't yet selling artwork. Probably I simply saved it from whatever allowance I was getting. I certainly wasn't spending any money on girls.

During this primitive epoch, most information on telescopes and amateur astronomy came from books, most of which were written by Patrick Moore. His sometimes archaic notions included the belief that "a 3-inch refractor is roughly equal to a 6-inch reflector." Well, that was nonsense when he wrote it (unless 6-inch British reflectors really sucked in his day), and it was still nonsense when I read it, but what did I know? Anyway, I adored the elegant looks of refractors, so I decided to emulate the Jaegers kit-built scopes made by Jack Prince, whose capabilities I admired.

A trio of home-assembled telescopes in my back yard, circa 1975. From left to right: Remmirath, a 6" f/5 reflector; Telescopium, a 3" f/15 refractor; and Borgil, a 3" f/6.5. All three scopes experienced various redesigns to make them lighter and more portable. All three wound up with different-colored paint jobs, too. Being unable to choose the color of my scopes is one thing I miss when using commercial instruments (I have no intention of going at my A-P scopes with a spray can).

My goal was a 4" f/15 Jaegers refractor on a mount from Edmund. This plan would be modified by my choice in eyepieces. At this time, the absolute top eyepiece line was considered to be the Brandon made by VERNONscope. By a wonderful coincidence, Don Vernon Yeier's little shop was located in Candor, only thirty miles or so from my home. He occasionally held sales and auctions at his shop. At one of these he sold Brandon "seconds", and I totally blew my eyepiece budget and ate into my telescope fund by buying two of them, a 24mm and an 8mm, for the daunting price of $18 each.

This splurging required me to scale down my telescope. I stuck with the same heavy Edmund mount, but bought parts for a 3" f/15 scope instead of a 4". With the help of my father, I assembled it all (rather crudely) that summer and finally had an optically good, solidly mounted telescope of my very own. Total cost, including the two world-class eyepieces: $180.

With this very simple instrument I finally settled down to learning how to observe. From the back yard I found deep sky objects and double stars using star maps and the little 30mm finder on my scope. Each sighting of a new one, like the Crab Nebula or the galaxy pairing of M81 and M82, was a new marvel to me. I remember scanning around in Sagittarius and coming upon a conspicuous puff of glowing gas. Jim was coming over, and when he arrived I showed him the Lagoon Nebula for the first time in his life. The Orion Nebula was emerald green. The Ring could not now be mistaken or missed. What bliss!

I also began to observe the planets in a fairly systematic way. I watched Jupiter all summer, producing drawings which later served as a high school science project. It was low in Sagittarius that year. Now, in that same back yard, the trees are so high that Sagittarius can never be seen.

I've always been inclined to name telescopes. This one struck me as so primal, so iconic, that I named it after one of the constellations: Telescopium, the Telescope.

Soon Jim Hamill was on the move with his own telescope plans. He wound up constructing a 6" f/8 reflector with a tube made of stovepipe. I, knowing no better, was confident that my scope would keep up with Jim's. I was chagrined to be proven wrong. His scope revealed lunar details which mine could not. Curse you, Patrick Moore, you tricked me! However, I continued to like and enjoy my scope. That winter I had it out on nights so bitter that when I brought it indoors, the entire telescope, including the wooden tripod, became coated with frost.

A very orange-shirted Joe peers through his mother's new Questar telescope in 1976.

I collected additional Brandon eyepieces until I had the complete set. I graduated from high school and went off to college in Buffalo. I left my scope at home because I didn't see how I could use it on campus, and besides, I didn't trust the party animals who inhabited my dorm. There I began making plans for a bigger scope. I admit to having been something of a wastrel. My parents would send me some of their genuinely hard-earned money, and quite often I would blow it on astronomy stuff. I obtained an Edmund clock drive this way (it never worked very well, either), and I also ordered a 6" f/5 mirror from Coulter Optical. Those who remember Coulter today mostly recall its famous line of junkyard-quality Dobsonian reflectors. However, the company started out by making mirrors. They would sell you a mirror of any custom focal length, and often they were pretty good. I paid $50 for mine. Receiving it and assembling the telescope would have to wait until I got home from my one and only semester of college away from home. Now a student in Binghamton, I completed my new scope, which was carried on a second Edmund mount, in 1974. By this time I was a huge Tolkien fan, and called the new scope Remmirath, the Netted Stars, because it was a rich-field instrument.

This telescope again reshaped my observing experiences. Much brighter and at least as sharp as the 3", it became my most used scope. Used beneath dark skies in the misty backcountry of rural Broome County, it lit up deep sky objects in ways I hadn't seen before. I was also interested in very wide-field objects like the North America Nebula, so I constructed a 3" f/6.5 refractor from Jaegers parts. Still in Tolkien mode, I christened it Borgil, the Jewel of Fire, and painted its tube a bright sparkly red-orange.

In 1976, my mother made the surprising decision to buy herself a 3.5" Questar. How many people can say their mom ever did anything as cool as that? It was her scope, used mainly for birding, but of course I got to use it too. It's now in my possession, sitting six feet away from me as I write this.

Acrylic self-portrait showing me observing with Telumehtar, an 8" f/5 reflector, in 1981.

With this small fleet of scopes I was content until the late 70s, when I conceived the idea of building a telescope of unprecedented splendor. It would have a vast 8" aperture, surely capable of revealing anything I'd ever want to see. It would have a 2" focuser. Its mount would have such luxuries as a working drive and even slow motion controls. I sent my $80 to Coulter for an 8" f/5 mirror and began the waiting and the phone calls needed to get them to actually ship the thing. I sent off for various other components. The entire tab came to around $500. Today you can still buy an 8" reflector for that amount. They're made in China. Everything I bought (except for the Japanese focuser) was made in the USA. Of course, you can't compare 1978 dollars with those of today.

Back then I wasn't the world's most savvy telescope design genius. I knew little about contrast, but I knew plenty about image illumination. Thus I used an oversized 2.6" minor axis diagonal mirror for this scope. Somehow I managed to make an 8" Newtonian with a central obstruction equal to that of an 8" SCT. It still worked very well though.

The completion of this telescope, dubbed Telumehtar, marked the beginning of what scholars and historians term the Intermediate Age of my astronomy career. By this time I had a fairly good grasp of observing and telescope use. This epoch also included the construction of at least two more Newtonians and another refractor or two, plus the acquisition and brief ownership of an Edmund Astroscan and a Celestron Super C-8+. The current Advanced Age commenced with the delivery of my first Astro-Physics refractor in 1986, of which much can be read elsewhere on this site.

This concludes my explication of the Archaic Period of my involvement in astronomy. Now, if anyone asks you how I got to be so smart, you can direct them here.


Copyright by Joe Bergeron.