Friday, March 30, 2007

 

Sky Adventures with my A.C. Gilbert


“Good things come to he who waits.”
“A watched pot never boils.”
“Having is never as good as wanting.”

Yeah, American English is rife with aphorisms about the beauties of delayed gratification, muchachos. It’s a Puritan thing, I reckon. But, dang, I finally decided my gratification had been delayed way too long—44 cotton-picking years, to be exact.

What is your silly old Uncle talking about now? My long unrequited love affair with A.C. Gilbert telescopes.

If you’ve read my “astro-bio,” you know all about Stephanie’s Telescope. If you haven’t, well, to make a long story short, What got me started on the astronomy road way back in 1965 was a classmate’s show-and-tell presentation of her brand-new and wonderful, A.C. Gilbert reflector.

Never heard of A.C. Gilbert? If you’re a sprout, I ain’t surprised. That wonderful company has been gone for nearly 40 years. The memory of it is still green in the minds of those of us who lived through a 50s – 60s childhood, however. Well, not all of us, maybe. Back then, you probably had to be a boy-type kid to appreciate the products Alfred Gilbert’s “toy” company sold. “Toy” in quotes because that really doesn't seem adequate to describe the man’s products. They were so much more than that.

Chemistry sets. Electricity sets. Erector sets. Microscope sets. Even telescopes. Gilbert sold a few things that could be described as “toys”—they offered magic tricks and building blocks. But mostly what they sold was dreams. Or maybe tools. Simple tools designed to give a little person the idea that those dreams of high-flying rocket ships and world-changing scientific breakthroughs might be made real some day.

“Simple” was the operative word for describing Gilbert’s plastic and cardboard creations, but the kids who lived in that simpler and more naïve (maybe) time didn’t care. For us, a few test tubes and little bottles of semi-household chemicals (BORAX! TANNIC ACID!), were the beginning of a lifetime interest in—and for some of us, a career in—science or engineering.

Chemistry sets and erector sets were Gilbert’s main and most remembered creations, but, with the space age coming in, he didn't ignore astronomy. By the end of the 1950s, the company was selling telescopes too; little 60mm f/12 reflectors (never knew there were sub-3-inch Newtonians, did you?). Me? I had became obsessed with Gilbert’s telescope. As I say in my bio, I HAD to have one.

Alas, ‘twas not to be. Gilbert didn’t exactly give scopes away, not as Mama and Daddy reckoned such things, and with the family settled into in its usual after-Christmas semi-poverty condition, there’s wasn't a dog's chance in hell of 10-year-old me hitching a ride on the A.C. Gilbert wonder wagon any time soon. Actually, I did get a scope about a year after Stephanie's show and tell presentation, but it was not a Gilbert. In fact I never owned an A.C. or even put my hands on one again for over 40 years.

Which didn't really seem to be such a bad thing at the time. I eventually progressed from the 3-inch Tasco Newtonian Daddy rescued from a pawn shop, moving on, by means of extensive summer lawn-mowing, to a 4.25-inch Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior. From there, the sky was literally the limit as I went from Caves to Celestrons, leaving childhood and Alfred Gilbert in the past where I thought they belonged.

I never did completely forget Stephanie's Telescope, though, or the many days and nights I spent wistfully dreaming of the wonders one like it might show me: the mountains and craters of the moon, the rings of Saturn, exploding suns!

44 years later, it’s the age of eBay. If anything's made the Internet appealing to the general populace it’s eBay (well, that and porn). Anyhoo, one lovely Chaos Manor South afternoon I was browsing that strange and wondrous site, searching under “telescopes” as I sometimes do, and to my amazement found that I could actually buy a Gilbert telescope.

Should I? Spend what would probably be an exorbitant sum for an ancient child’s toy? Sure I should. Despite all the great equipment I’ve owned and used over the years, something’s always seemed to be missing. What was missing, I knew deep down, was this little cardboard-tubed dream-machine. That being the case I screwed my courage to the stickin' place and ponied-up (too much) for an A.C. Gilbert wonder-scope.


When the box arrived, I was both pleased and appalled. Pleased that the scope was mostly complete. All that appeared to be missing was the lower tube end ring. The beautiful little booklets were there. The cool solar viewer attachment was in the zippered scope case (which is just as impressive now as then, even if it is made of pressed cardboard). Unfortunately, though, the years had not been kind to the primary mirror.

Maybe 20% of the coating was left. On the one hand, I was P.O.ed ("put-out;" this is a family-friendly blog, y'all) that the seller had not mentioned this fact. On the other hand, I supposed the people who sell these things look upon them as “collectible toys,” not something to actually be used. Sigh. I didn’t bother to try the little thing beyond a look at a distant telephone pole, which yielded a dim and blurry image.

Over the following months, I did not forget my quest for Stephanie's Telescope, however. I could have had somebody recoat the little primary, but that seemed overkill and somehow untrue to the spirit of the thing. I figured I would eventually turn up another A.C., one with a better mirror, and that I might be able to combine two scopes into one workable one (in addition to a missing end ring, my Gilbert’s case was on its last legs).

Some time later, I found a Gilbert sans tripod for less than 20 smackers on eBay. I enquired with the seller as to the condition of the mirror, and was informed that it looked “pretty good.” When it arrived, I removed the primary, which, after a gentle cleaning, was indeed in pretty good—if hardly pristine—shape, and put it in the OTA of the original scope (which tube was in slightly better condition). I also transferred an end ring and moved the whole thang to the better case.

The mirror is, believe it or not, mounted in a simple but “real” cell, which is collimated with three bolt/nut/spring arrangements just like a big boy’s scope. I didn’t mark the primary center, just collimated by eye until everything looked good enough. The long focal length of the A.C. makes up for a wealth of optical sins.

The first step, of course, was assembly, which was as simple as could be. Attach three small black extruded aluminum tripod legs to the “mount” base with thumbscrews, place scope on minimalist mount, and you’re done. The mounting itself is a very simple “pillar and claw” variation that consists of a bracket that’s squeezed together with a bolt on the scope side and a metal ball on a shaft on the mount side for this bracket to swivel on. Snap bracket onto ball, tighten thumbscrew until the OTA’s alt-az motion is just right, and you’re done.

Next? Trot scope into Chaos Manor South backyard. Plunk it down in a spot where the Moon would be in view. Wait one last half hour at the tail end of 44 long, long years. What would I see? The first challenge was to get my eye to the eyepiece so I could see anything. As is fairly obvious in the photo, this is a dramatically kid-sized scope (though it’s a Big Gun for Jellyorum, who seemed interested and agreed to pose). The tripod places the eyepiece no more than three-and-a-half feet off the ground most of the time. I could have found a table or stool to elevate the little thing, but with a First Quarter Moon overhead, the eyepiece was just barely high enough so that I could contort my minimally flexible body enough to take a peek.

What did I expect? Not much. Beyond any doubts about the quality of the primary, there was the eyepiece question. The “eyepiece”—and I use that term loosely—for these scopes was a non removable two-element Ramsden (if you don’t know what that is, don’t ask; you don’t want to know) in the all-plastic analog of a .965-inch rack and pinion focuser.

Surprise.When I got the Moon in view with the aid of the non-magnifying and over-long sight tube that substitutes for a finder, the little scope was able to present a respectable image. The Moon was a mite hazy but that was probably attributable to a dirty secondary (I’d cleaned the primary, but forgot to take a good look at the secondary), but was surprisingly sharp, with plenty of detail on view. The great Crater Copernicus showed off some floor detail and wall terracing. Certainly it would have thrilled me as a child. Dang sure would have.

The image probably would have been even better if I’d been able to use a little less magnification than the 80x supplied by the Ramsden. While I’ve heard that some A.C.s had a semi-interchangeable eyepiece system where you switched out the eye lens but not the field lens (!), there was only a single eyepiece in the box with the first scope I received. The second example had a simpler non-rack-and-pinion focuser equipped with a single eyepiece that was even less removable.

What else? The Moon was wonderful, and would have been immensely more wonderful in 1964, but I’d have been even more anxious to see Saturn. Of that I have no doubt. Luckily, the ringed wonder was only a few degrees from Luna, so I didn’t have to contort my body to use the devilish little “finder” again.

And there he was. Not a very good image as we gauge things in these latter days, but good enough. The rings were visible, and, when I held my mouth just right, I could make out Titan. Frankly, in the eyes of a child the sixth planet would have been fantastically beautiful. No, I couldn’t see Cassini’s Division, and, no, no disk banding was visible. The mount, such as it was, was awfully shaky, too, and no matter how I adjusted the wing nut to change tension, backlash was a big problem. Focusing? Don’t ask.

None of that mattered. The ten-year-old boy who, I found to my surprise, had suddenly displaced the middle-aged man at the eyepiece, was riveted. I could actually see RINGS. That tiny firefly of a speck beside the planet? That wasn’t just an anonymous star, it was TITAN. The same mysterious moon I’d journeyed to in Alan E. Nourse’s Trouble on Titan. It was there; I was seeing it. I was seeing it in my own backyard with my own eyes; with my own telescope.

Who can ask for more than that, then or now, muchachos?

Next Time:  Is Anybody Surprised?..

Comments:
Rod,

That's a wonderful post. I can remember my flea-market 3" Tasco newt at first light as a kid. When I saw Galileo's planet with ears I was so excited I went back inside to wake up my dad at 4:30 a.m. Somehow he wasn't as excited as I was. Thanks for the memories of what got me into this hobby in the first place.

Nathan
 
Alas...my Tasco 3-inch seemed to have a really substandard mirror...Saturn looked more like a custard pie than a planet. I spent hours collimating it, but only the Moon looked halfway decent. In retrospect, I doubt the mirror was really _that_ bad...likely the little primary was held down too tightly by mirror clips, but I didn't know enough back then to suspect that. Luckily, it was replaced after about a year with an Edmund 4.25-inch, which I still have ;-)

Rod
 
I used one of these Gilbert telescopes briefly as a beginner. The eyepiece tube was 0.917 inch in diameter, same as one of the widely used standard sizes for microscopes, and Edmund made a 25-mm Ramsden eyepiece that would fit it. The eyepiece greatly improved the view. Maybe you can find one.
 
Ah, nostalgia. I had one of those A C Gilbert telescopes, too. Mine cost 15 dollars as best I recall. It was an expensive toy for the day, back around 1958.
 
I also had one; my first telescope before moving up to a used 4" Dynascope. Tossed it years ago (it was in pretty bad shape). Now: bought one at a flea market this morning for $15. The only thing missing is the "field lens" for the eyepiece, which I had also lost in my old scope. This is loose beneath the plastic part of the eyepiece. You wouldn't have to have specs (diameter, type, f.l.) on that, so I can look for a replacement? Thanks! - Roy Plotnick
 
My boyfriend has a hobbie of searching for antiquey things and selling them. Well over the weekend he came across an old Gilbert telescope from the 50s-60s, like the one you've been talking about. We don't know much about telescopes, but it looks like it's in good condition. I was curious if anyone knew how much he could get for it, or what the value would be...Feel free to email me at trush1029@live.com, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
 
Found this blog linked from Uncle Rods "About Me" page..a moving tale of a young boy yearning for the stars and jump started by "Stephanie's Telescope" at show n tell. I really enjoyed that piece and it brought back a lot of old memories of the era. I'm a bit younger than Rod I think, but not much.

I too watched the serials and played with Gilbert Chemistry sets and quite happily existed in a much simpler day when $15 was a heck of a lot of lawns mowed, and a three stage plastic rocket with some stickers on it provided a summer's worth of imagination.

My 'aha' moment with the sky occurred in the early 70's at a friends house.

We'd been fussing about in his garage all afternoon nailing boards together or some such thing 11 year old kids do, and around dusk my eye happened on some tripody thing leaning in the corner. "What's that?" "My dad says it's a 'transit', it's a small telescope for surveying". "Cool, can we look at the moon?"

So we set it up and aimed it at the moon. Pretty hard to look through, since a transit isn't meant to be used much beyond horizontal, but it worked..and there was another world, with huge holes and the blackest darkness revealing only parts of other huge holes, and detail beyond my child's eyes.. my not beyond my imagination. But the hook was yet to be set....

When we tired of the moon we tried out one star, then another, then this other bright one...which wasn't a dot. No, this star was most definitely not a dot, and when we focussed as carefully as we could...suddenly there were RINGS. Holy cow...Saturn. And it's really real rings. Not a picture in Nat Geo, not huge..by by God, there was a tiny little Saturn and rings sharp as anything and it was REAL. That was it. The obsession begins.

This led to an 8x 40mm paper tube Edmunds handheld telescope ($3.75 ppd!), then a garage sale 60mm Jason refractor (and the horrid Huygens 0.956 eye busters where every speck of lint was in the focal plane), and eventually a home assembled 8" reflector with a Coulter primary on a pipe mount. I've loved the entire trip, but few things approach the feeling of that moment when I realized that I was looking at Saturn's rings. That article and this blog brings it racing back. Thank you!

As an aside, the period of the 70's became an astronomy orgy of catalogs and wish lists. Since there was no interweb, you wrote to everyone and requested a catalog, and hours upon hours of wistful browsing of things you could never hope for but wanted none the less ensued. Starliner, Cave, Meade, Parks, Coulter, Edmunds, A Jaegers. Frayed and thumb worn, every one of them.

I ordered my first eyepiece for the 8" from Meade's first catalog, a simple 15 page or so affair offering an assortment of small refractors, some finders, focussers and eyepieces...the 25mm Kellner for 12 bucks was right up my alley.

One last thing...I enjoyed greatly the story of the observatory visit and the Cave 12"..one of the unattainable dreams of my own voyage at that time.

In spite of the hours of returning to that page in their catalog, I had never seen one in real life.. until this last January, 30+ years later, when I ran across one being sold locally by a guy who just wanted it gone. I had just ordered a Zhumell 12" dob and agonized over returning it and possibly taking the Cave, however when I considered the size of the Cave I decided to let my buddy have a shot at it. The feelings in my head were rampant as we went over to take a look at it, and when he rolled up the garage door and it's massive tube appeared foot by foot as the door went up, it was quite a moment...a Cave 12" right in front of me, after all those years. What a feeling. Unbelievable.

J got it for $1k cash, a steal. Cave 12.5" F6, "transportable" mount (1.5" shafts, dual axis drives), guide scope, 5 eyepieces. It took two trips to get it all to his house (OTA on one trip, mount on the next one), but the feeling when we had it set up and I climbed the stepladder to the eyepiece for my first time ever peek through the scope of my dreams...it was worth the 30 years of wanting just to get to that moment. Amazing.

Thanks for the memories and the chance to relate some of my own.
 
I bought a Gilbert Telescope at one of my local Goodwill's Last Wk. I just thought it looked neat.I wasnt born until the late 60's and we nevere had anything like thias comming from a Pastor's Family that had very little.Well mine has everything in the original case.Even down to the little Pc. of paper saying the inspector's #,I figure this must of been in a attict for many years.Does anyone ahve any idea what it is worth,Just courious.Not looking to sell just wondering,.,.
country.leah@yahoo.com
 
Hi, Rod.

Interesting comments on the Gilbert telescopes.

I am looking for the AC Gilbert ad that actually got me started on my interest in Astronomy somewhere in the early '60s. As I remember, it showed a kid in the backyard with his reflector against a darkened sky. How I wanted that reflector. Now I would just like to see the ad again. Anyone remember it?
Cheers,
Gil
 
I've got a couple of the ads on my website at:

http://skywatch.brainiac.com/rodspage/index.htm

But not that particular one, alas...
 
I had a 4" Gilbert and remember going outside on freezing nights in western Mass looking at Venus, the moon, Saturn and whatever looked cool. No longer have that scope but I do have a 13.1 Coulter Dob. It really was a great little scope and peaked my interest in astronomy, an interest that has never gone away. My bothers and I had Gilbert Microscopes and dissecting kits. I still have my 900x microscope.
 
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