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