January 13, 2016: 35-Year-End Review, Part 1 – My, How Things Have Changed!

Astronomy has undergone a veritable sea-change since I first started observing as a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, as I touched on briefly in my first blog post.  In this and the next two posts, I’ll go over some of the bigger changes in the hobby that I’ve seen in the last 35 years or so.

Back in the era of disco, 6-inch and 8-inch Newtonian reflectors mounted on heavy pier tripods were the norm.  I started out with the former and moved to the latter.  Yes, John Dobson had already begun his dobsonian revolution revolution by then, but it hadn’t spread and caught on much when I was first starting out in the late 70s.  There were probably some commercially manufactured dobs available by the 80s, but I’d bet the quality of the mount, and more specifically, the altitude and azimuth bearings, wouldn’t have been anything much to write home about back then.  Certainly the bearings wouldn’t have contained any nice, smooth teflon, like they do now.

Back then, there was a long-running monthly column in Sky & Telescope called “Gleanings for ATMs” where ATMs stood for Amateur Telescope Makers.  This was not the way I was going to go, as I am an uncoordinated klutz who could never grind his own mirror.  It seems like these homemade scopes have fallen from favor.  Sure, people still make their own telescopes today – I came across a couple of homemade scopes at the Urban Starfest in Central Park this past October.  But it seemed like back then, this was much more of a “thing”:  people who couldn’t afford to buy their own scopes, or people who wanted types of scopes that they couldn’t find in the marketplace, like an 8-inch f/8, or a 10-inch f/6.

Like I said, I started out with the classic 6-inch Criterion RV-6 Newtonian reflector, which I had for a year.  Then I quickly moved up to the 8-inch Meade 826 Newt.  To paraphrase Henry Ford, back then, you could get a Newt in any color you wanted, as long as it was white.  Blinding white.  The tube was made of a kind of compressed hard solid painted cardboard called sonotube, which was used in industry to pour concrete into to make columns.

The equatorial pier mounts back then were very heavy – I don’t think anyone ever even heard of aluminum back then.  You couldn’t adjust them, except to align the Right Ascension axis to your longitude.  Not only did the mount have 15 pounds of counterweights, but it also came with a right ascension clock drive.

Yes, you read that right – clock drive.  It was called that because it was just a simple motor that made one full revolution in 24-hours, which is, of course, similar to no clock I’ve ever seen in my life.  But clock drive it was.  Now we just call these things motors, and we have one for RA, and a separate one for declination.  More importantly, there were of course no computerized scopes of any kind back then, and there wouldn’t be for a good 10 more years.  You either learned how to starhop or else you didn’t get to see anything at all.

Take a look at the Meade catalog from December 1978 here (it’s a PDF, so it takes a while to load).  I’m pretty sure this is the exact catalog that I placed my order from a few months later sometime in 1979.  That’s my 826 scope on page 7, although I bought it with the straight-through 8×50 finder.   Wouldja just look at that solid, heavy mount?  My back is aching from thinking about it.

Nowadays, mounts are very much tripod affairs, with retractable/extendable legs.  This provides much more flexibility in terms of height to get the right eyepiece placement.  Back in the day, we would have to unscrew the pair of tube rings holding the tube to the mount and twist the tube around to get the eyepiece in the right position if it was awkwardly placed.  Today, piers are long metal tubes that you can add to a tripod mount to raise it up higher without losing too much in the way of stability.

In 1980, my best friend at that time traded up from his Newt and got an 8-inch Meade SCT.  It was waaaay cool, painted a gorgeous dark blue color that remains my favorite color to this day.  It was mounted up at a rakish 40-degree angle on its equatorial wedge.  The SCT came with the extendable tripod legs that made viewing at whatever height a pleasure.  And because of the Cassegrain design (the “C” in “SCT”), the eyepiece height wouldn’t change much anyway.  He would always observe off of his back porch, with good northern and overhead views, so he was able to plug in and use the clock drive after doing a rough polar alignment.

Me, I could also observe off my back porch, but my back porch had a roof, not to mention tall pine trees and the next-door neighbor’s house literally about 8 feet away.  I was limited in using the clock drive off of my southern exposure porch.  Instead, I had to lug the beast of a scope about 100 yards away across the street into a big empty lot, which we called a park.  Now I just ride the elevator to the 17th story of my apartment building to do my observing off of the roof.

That “park” had plenty of unobstructed views all around – it was just a couple of acres of empty land, after all.  But because of that, it was also surrounded by street lights to the west and south, making for lousy dark adaptation and bad light pollution.  Just a half mile away to the north/northwest was both a shopping center and a real park, with tennis courts and baseball fields and plenty of lights.  So, the LP pretty much surrounded me.  I can’t quite remember exactly, but I would guess that my limiting visual magnitude was somewhere around 4.0 back then.  No Milky Way, that’s for sure.  Now I’m limited to about 3.1 or 3.2 off of my roof.

Yes, of course, refractors existed back then, too.  I originally had a 60mm department store refractor for a week or two before returning it.  And there were a smattering of them at a couple of star parties that we went to in my later teens out at Jones Beach.  But they were so small in aperture, three or four inches, and so long and unwieldy in length.  Why bother, when I had eight inches?  (Ahem.)  Having now owned my first refractor, the ST-80, I know the answer to “why bother” – the pinpoint stars and high-contrast views through a good refractor are a glory to behold.

Speaking of which, “good” refractors barely existed back then.  And by that I mean, sure there were long-format achromats – f/10, f/12, etc.  But apochromats?  Nope.  Nary a one.  That’s been a revolution as well, as they continue to both proliferate and come down in price.

As I discussed in my very first blog post here, the word collimation simply did not exist back then.  Oh, it may have been a word, duly entered into the dictionary, but it certainly was not a word that me and my limited circle of astronomy knowledge had any idea about.  My scope may have permanently fallen out of collimation after a month or two, and I would never have known.  Now there is an entire little sub-industry of different items to collimate your scope – collimation caps, cheshire tools, laser collimators, and more advanced stuff, too – none of which I have any idea about, being a very happy Mak and ‘frac owner.

My knowledge of the skies was very limited in those (ahem) pre-internet days.  Pretty much my entire source of astronomy knowledge came from Sky & Telescope, especially the monthly sky chart in the centerfold, and just about my only real astronomy book, Mallas & Kreimer’s “The Messier Album”, which is my avatar over at Cloudy Nights.  Sometimes I could scrounge up some astronomy books from my local village library – I definitely saw, but didn’t read Burnham’s there once before I went off to college – but that was pretty much it.

But the wealth of information available now as compared to then is astounding, and maybe a little overwhelming.  Not only had we never heard of collimation, but coma?  Spherical aberration?  Parabolic vs. spherical mirrors?  Maximum magnification?  Minimum magnitude?  These concepts would have been as alien to us back then as, well, aliens.

We didn’t know anything about coatings, we didn’t know any formulas; well, just one – how to calculate magnification.  We didn’t know about the true field of view, or the effect the focal length has on it.  We didn’t know what effect the focal ratio had on anything.  The telescopes we used just did what they were supposed to do – collect light and magnify it, no more and no less.  If there were any problems at the edge of the view through whatever EP we were using, we either didn’t notice or didn’t care.  More to the point, we didn’t even know enough to either notice or care.

And no way would I spend my hard-earned paper route money to buy any books.  No way!  Even though I was making a grand or two each summer from the various paper routes I had, I wouldn’t be caught dead buying a book for myself.  First off, there were no Barnes & Noble superstores back in the day.  All I had was a Waldenbooks at a mall 10 miles from my house that I couldn’t get to because I couldn’t drive until I was 18.  Second, and more importantly, if the library didn’t have it, forget about it.  I had enough reading to do for school; I wasn’t about to add to that.  If it wasn’t in The Messier Album or Sky & Telescope, then it wasn’t worth knowing about or seeing, anyway.  Nope, I’d much rather use my paper route money to buy new computer games for my Atari 800.

Although my 6-inch and 8-inch scopes were more than capable of seeing Cassini’s Division, and Titan, and the Great Red Spot, and moon shadow transits on the face of Jupiter, and the polar caps of Mars, I never, ever saw any of those things as a kid.  (I’m still waiting until this spring for my chance to see the last of these, when Mars gets to opposition.)  We had no concept of what the limits of our scopes were.  When I was a kid, and the moon was shimmering in the lens, I sagely decided that my scope was revealing to me the heat waves, at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, rising off of the sunlit surface of the moon.  “Seeing?  Whaddaya mean, seeing?  What I can see through the scope?”

We had almost no concept of oppositions of planets.  Oh, yes, we knew that the planets might be closer or farther depending on their orbits, but we had no idea about Mars and its 26-month cycle that would bring it closer to earth for a much better view.  There was no way to know when a moon transit was occurring, or when the GRS was at its meridian and able to be seen.  You didn’t know which Galilean moon was which.  Not that it mattered much, because we knew next to nothing about them anyway before Voyager came along, and even once it did, all we got was a two-minute clip about them on the national news.

Looking back on what we observed back then, it just wasn’t very much. Maybe two dozen Messier objects in total, over and over, and even that number would be stretching things a bit.  The Caldwell list wasn’t invented until 1995; we didn’t know from any NGCs.  Even with help from Mallas & Kreimer, we simply didn’t know any better:  that there were literally hundreds of interesting DSOs, including all the rest of the Messiers, and plenty more NGCs, within reach of our scopes.  What we did observe the most were the moon and planets, over and over.  And I observed the sun every now and again.  That was it, but that was enough.

Next time:  35-Year-End Review, Part 2



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