Sunday, May 10, 2009

 

My Old Friend


My old friend
You make me feel young again.
My old friend
You're just as pretty as you were back then.

--John Hiatt

P.J. ain’t the ’57 Les Paul of telescopes, muchachos. That would have to be a Unitron or a Cave, I reckon, but my old friend, my humble 1966 Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior, is every bit as beautiful in my eyes and under my hands as that guitar or those beautiful telescopes must be to their lucky owners.

If you ain’t quite sure what Unk is yakkin’ about now, let me refer you back to the story of my second telescope. Go read that. I’ll wait. For the rest of y’all? Yeah, I know I keep going on and on about this subject. Maybe that’s a consequence of getting older. 43 years later, the days of Gemini and Star Trek (the REAL Star Trek) and, yes, Edmund Scientific are deliciously nostalgic. ‘Course, that requires conveniently forgetting what went on in the Mekong Delta, what happened to Vernon Dahmer, and what Richard Speck did. There was plenty of bad stuff going down in 1966 and much more to come, but at my advanced age them rose-colored glasses work better and better.

Humor me, y’all, and I promise we’ll leave My Pal in the past for a while after this. Anyhow, what I wanna talk about today is different. I don’t want to talk about how I got my little 4.25-inch reflector, or how much fun we had for years; I’d like to update y’all on what finally and recently has happened to the little feller. With the aid of my buddy Pat Rochford, some very nice people on the Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes forum, and a few brain cells Unk thought he had burned out long ago, PJ is back.

Let's back up just a wee bit, though. As I recounted in “Me and My Pal,” I was shocked to discover the condition of my old friend when I returned to Possum Swamp in 1980. Mama had apparently gone through another of her periodic THIS HOUSE IS FULL OF JUNK AND I WILL NOT HAVE IT episodes a couple of years previously. Not only did she exile quite a bit of the Old Man’s ham gear to the carport utility room (don’t ask me how he managed to get an entire BC-610 transmitter past her and into the house in the first place), she soon locked her steely gaze on the Palomar Junior positioned in the middle of my old room. Rather than face her wrath, no doubt, the OM and my brother duly moved the scope to a corner of the carport.

I want you to understand that Mama did not do this out of malice. She was a thoughtful woman in those days. Surprisingly so, given her way-out-in-the-country upbringing. Hell, she was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club for years and years and was instrumental in turning me on to SF (if the real credit for that belongs to my 4th grade teacher, who insisted I read Rocketship Galileo). Despite this, Mama just didn’t get my obsession with astronomy and telescopes, and no doubt reasoned that since I was not around, there would be no reason not to exile Junior to the carport. It would be just fine there, I’m sure she believed.

Speaking of SF, have you ever read one of the stories that takes advantage of Einstein’s Twin Paradox? You know, an astronaut goes on a deep space mission in a craft that attains a significant fraction of the speed of light. When he comes home ever’thing is definitely not A-OK. His twin brother, his galfriend, everybody he knew, is either senile or six feet under while he remains obscenely young. That’s just the way I felt when I saw the shape my ol’ Pal was in.

The OTA didn’t look that bad. Well, except for the focuser. Its beautiful black finish had been obscured with a shade of electric blue. The mount was the sad thing. Its wonderful gray “crackle” finish was all gone; it was now that weird blue, too. Worst of all, though? Lookin’ into the tube aperture (which was not in the least protected by the remnants of an old plastic dry-cleaning bag), there was more bare glass than aluminum on the primary. Maybe there were a couple of quarter sized spots that was still shiny, but that was it. The finder? It was still there, now painted the same shade of blue as the focuser, but exposure had corroded the chrome focus-barrel at the objective end of its tube. A glance through the dirty eyepiece showed no sign of crosshairs.

Was I P.O.ed? You bet. Did I have a hissy fit? Naw. What would the point have been? It was clear what had happened and there was no going back. The Pal and its optics had been somewhat protected for a while. But then the plastic cover I’d fashioned for the scope got removed and lost or used for something else, the aperture covers disappeared, and generations of spiders began to call it “home.” Just before my return, the OM had tried a limited rehabilitation, repainting the mount and focuser in misguided but well-meaning fashion. What a shame, but as I mentioned in “Me and My Pal,” I now had a nice Orange Tube C8 and quite a few other things—like getting started in an engineering career—to occupy my mind over the next seven or eight years.

By the late 80s, though, I had more time on my hands, and the discovery of a manila envelope chock-full of the Moon pictures the OM and I had taken back in the 60s provided the impetus to finally do something about PJ. I hauled the little telescope out of storage, gave it a quick once-over cleaning, pulled the primary and secondary, and sent them off to be recoated. The finder looked hopeless, so I replaced it with a 6x30 single-ring job I bought from Old Man Novak--y’all remember Kenneth Novak, doncha? He was the king of telescope parts from the 60s all the way through the 80s. The mount? It still, almost unbelievably, moved more-or-less smoothly, so I left it alone. Same with the rack and pinion focuser. With the application of a little lube to the gears it worked well enough despite its odious color.

In due course, my little primary returned. Man, oh, man. The body might be in sorry shape, but the heart, the tiny 4.25-inch mirror, looked as good as ever. I got it back in its nice, adjustable cell and got PJ outside for a quick look-see. Takin’ into account that the street where my (ex) wife and I lived was streetlight and security light hell, the telescope did well. My basic impression was that despite conditions much worse than what they’d been from the folks’ yard back in the 1960s, I could see more with My Pal than I ever saw back then. No, I still couldn’t pick-out many/any stars in M13, and M57’s donut hole was hard to see, but even under the poor skies M22 gave up sparklers and M8 looked far more extensive than back in The Day. In part maybe because I had 20 more years observing experience under my belt, but mainly because the eyepieces I was using, Kellners and Orthoscopics from Orion’s old Explorer Series and Celestron’s Circle Ts, were light-years better than the primitive and uncoated Ramsden and Kellner that came with the scope.

Did I use Junior? Oh, hell yeah. For the next three or four years gobs of photons went down the OTA on a regular basis. The then-Editor of my club’s newsletter asked if I’d do a column for him, and I hit on the idea of a series that demonstrated what could be seen of the deep sky from light polluted areas, including with small scopes like My Pal. That series of columns, which I called “From City Lights to Deep Space,” became the basis for a book a decade later, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. I used bigger and “better” scopes for the observations that went into Urban Astronomer, too, but there’s plenty of Pal in there. It would, in fact, not be out of line to say the book would not have been written without the little Edmund.

Most of those Pal Junior observations were culled from my logbooks from the late 80s, though. By the mid 90s the little scope had gone back into hibernation, now in Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault upstairs. Last time I remember using it was at a club public star gaze on the occasion of a Lunar Eclipse. I was between grab ‘n go telescopes at the time, so PJ stepped into that role (though you couldn’t grab that pedestal mount and go very fast with it) on an evening that was Sucker Hole City.

And that was that until I started thinking about my poor ol’ scope again last year. What turned my mind down that dusty corridor was a blog entry I wrote that concerned another old telescope of mine, the Tasco 11-TE I used for a while when I was in the Air Force. I mentioned the Palomar Junior in that piece, and as is the case lately with quite a few things from the old days, the little Pal began to be increasingly in my thoughts. That culminated in the complete article about PJ. At the end of that entry, I mentioned I intended to completely restore the telescope in 2009. I had thought about doing that quite frequently, but didn’t seem able to resolve to get to work till I put it down on paper. I then felt committed to what I was nevertheless afraid might be an overwhelming task.

Step One was an assessment of what needed to be done. One rainy weekend afternoon (we’ve had a lot o’ them lately), I opened the door to the Vault, carefully navigated the towering and teetering stacks of old Sky and Telescopes, and eventually maneuvered my way to the dark corner where My Pal had been sitting for better than a decade. When I removed Junior’s protective trash bag, I was pleasantly surprised. My memory told me the Edmund was a mess, but my eyes saw different. The paintjob on the OTA was actually pretty good. Oh, it would need a new one, but the OM had done well, and it wouldn’t require a crazy amount of sanding. There were quite a few holes in the OTA that would need filling—holes drilled by me or the OM at various times over the years for installation of handles, auxiliary finders, and other stuff. Yes, the focuser was painted that odd blue, but the paint had been applied lightly and evenly and the crackle finish beneath was still prominent. I figgered a thin coat of black and it would be as good as new.

More difficult would be the replacement of a focuser knob. One of the last times I’d had the scope outside, one of the knobs had literally crumbled to dust in my fingers. The finder could probably be reworked, but I thought replacing it might be best and easiest. If I could find a replacement, which I doubted I could. A peek at both the primary and secondary mirrors showed their surfaces looked good after 20 years since their last trip to the coater’s and would be fine.

PJ’s GEM mount was still functional, but would need considerable work. Not a trace of the lovely gray-crackle finish remained on mount or pedestal. It had obviously been heavily sanded prior to the coat of black gloss spraypaint. I assumed that was because the mount had become badly corroded after a few years in the folks’ uber damp carport (where pore Junior rode out the notorious Hurricane Frederick). I further noted that some parts that shouldn’t have been painted had been and would need cleaning. Some bare metal parts that had not been painted showed some rust and/or a thick layer of grime and would need a large helping of elbow grease. Finally, something was wrong with the declination setting circle, but I could not figure-out what. It was mounted at the lower end of the dec housing and was upside down. It appeared, though, that it would be impossible to move it to the scope-cradle end of the dec shaft where I seemed to recall it used to be, as in that position it would interfere with the RA circle. I’d have to think that one over.

As I always do before undertaking any kind of ATM project, I consulted with my best buddy, Pat, before doing a blamed thing. He had just completed a similar restoration of his first scope, a 60-mm Sears (“Circle T”) refractor. I told him I’d like to do the same thing with my second scope, the Palomar Junior. Not only did Pat allow as how he thought that was a good idea, he was enthusiastic to get to work on the Pal. Pat is one of those creative and talented individuals who simply cannot abide being without a project of some kind. He’s lucky to have me as a friend, as I for sure send plenty of work his way. I am handy enough at things electronic, but when it comes to mechanical issues and paint, expect disaster. The first step would be for me to see if I could acquire the parts—a focuser knob or two and a replacement finder. I warned him this would probably take a while if it were successful at all. I imagined I’d spend weeks and months scourin’ the danged eBay and Craig’s List and spendin’ way too much moola.

Little did I know salvation was only a few mouse clicks away at Cloudy Nights. As most of y’all know, the Cloudy Nights website, which used to mainly be notable for its scope and gear reviews, also has a full array of astro forums. Actually, these days the CN Forums are probably even more popular than the site’s reviews. Among the topics of these numerous and excellent groups is “Classic Telescopes.” What you will find on this Bulletin Board (that shows how long I’ve been in the online astronomy game) is continuous discussion of old telescopes, with a slant toward the 60s and 70s and to refractors, especially small and famous refractors of Japanese origin made by Unitron and others. But there is considerable talk about old reflectors, too, including even small ones like My Pal. More important than the “what,” though, is the “who.” Classic Scopes is inhabited by some of the friendliest, smartest, and just gull-derned nice folks it’s ever been my pleasure to be associated with in amateur astronomy. There are never flames nor backbiting; just good folks sharing their love for classic telescopes, often the scopes of their youth.

I wasn’t overly hopeful given Classic Scopes’ orientation to refractors, but I posted a holler for help anyway, saying I was desperate for a Palomar Junior focus knob and finder. Almost immediately, I got not just advice, but multiple offers to give (not sell) me the parts I needed. It seemed impossible, but in just a little while I had those knobs in hand along with a replacement pinion gear and the washers to go with it “just in case.” And not long after, a box arrived in the mail with a near-pristine 6 x 23 Palomar Junior finder inside. All else I needed to get started was paint.

That, it became obvious, would be the next problem. I found out the spray paint companies had discontinued the crackle/crinkle finish gray paint that was the Pal mount’s trademark. I talked this over with Pat, and we decided that—for now at least—the thing to do would be to paint the mount with a layer of the “texture finish” spray paint that’s now in vogue and overcoat that with gray. Paint and parts in hand, it was time to deliver my charge to Pat, who’d begin to work his magic.

Once Mr. Pat gets started on a project, he goes full bore. Still, I was a mite surprised to hear from him barely a week later: “Finished!” We made plans for me to come out and take First Light the next evening, Sunday. Naturally, Sunday dawned to blue skies that slowly began to cloud to near full overcast by early afternoon. Such is life in The Swamp. Pat called wanting to know if I was still coming out and to make a confession. With a nice moon hanging in the sky Saturday night, he couldn’t resist takin’ a peep with PJ. I wouldn’t say Pat had been a doubter when it came to my tales of Junior’s optical prowess, but I think he was maybe jus’ a mite skeptical.

There was a tinge of awe in his voice now, though, “Rod, that little mirror is damned good.” I wasn’t surprised; that’s what I’d remembered. The outfit that made Edmund’s primaries, Upco Optics (they made Criterion’s Dynascope mirrors as well), was renowned for quality, and they’d lavished plenty even on this little spherical mirror. It has a very good figure and is quite smooth indeed. I was pumped to hear somebody besides me praise PJ, though, and told Pat that clouds or no clouds, I’d be over to his place before sundown for our Half-Moon Star Party.

Why “Half-Moon Star Party”? There’d be a nice gibbous Moon hanging in the sky, and also in homage to the Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes forum’s famous Full Moon Star Party of yore. No, we wouldn’t have any hulking Goto refractors (the Japanese company, not a go-to computer scope) or luscious Unitrons, just PJ and Pat’s Sears. Still, I expected it would be a lot of fun and a real blast from the past. As I headed east across Mobile Bay, I even began to muster a little hope we might actually see somthing. Yeah, the clouds were pouring across the sky like some dark and deep river flowing to a stygian sea, but they seemed to be mostly north of my destination, Fairhope. It was clear we wouldn’t be able to try the little scopes on the deep sky, but the Moon for sure. Maybe. And if I was truly lucky, Saturn perhaps. That would be a real coup, since the ringed wonder was one of the first objects I observed on the Pal’s real First Light night. It seemed like more than mere coincidence that on that evenin’ in 1966 the planet’s ring system was nearly edge-on, just as it would be again on this night.

When I arrived at Pat’s Stargate Observatory, I found he had the scopes ready to go, setup outside on the grass. Upon seeing the vista imaged above, I had to stop for a minute. If there’d been somewhere to sit, I would have had to sit. It was as if the intervening 43 years had all been swept away. The world was young again, a world where Americans dared to make dreams real, where young men aimed for the Moon with new rockets and youngsters like Little Rod dreamed of takin’ their place someday. Did I shed a tear? I’ll leave that to your imaginations. Once I got a grip, I took a close look at both scopes, starting with Junior, of course.

Pat had done a beautiful job. There would need to be a couple of little extra touches, I thought, but the scope was 99.9% of the way there. The Sears 60-mm? It just looked incredible, almost as if it had come off the factory floor yesterday. You’ll note that Pat refinished his ol’ pup in black and white instead of the scope’s original teal (?) and blue. He told me he had never liked the color of the scope, and who are we to gainsay that in the name of historical accuracy? These little telescopes are not antiques. Not yet, anyway. What’s important is not how closely you mimic their original condition, but how closely you reestablish the link they once had with your heart, and Pat had done a hell of a job of that with both telescopes.

That was how they looked. How did they work? The clouds had more or less moved out of the way by Sunset, and I wasted no time getting PJ pointed at the Moon. Despite some haze, Luna was beautiful. Incredibly sharp all across the field and very contrasty from terminator to limb. Yes, it’s a spherical mirror, but at nearly f/11 it’s able to perform incredibly well. With modern eyepieces, Pat’s TeleVue Plössls, the little scope was likely delivering better images than it ever had.

One other thing that no doubt helped was that the mirror was now center-dotted thanks to Pat, who’d also cleaned it. Yeah, at this focal length dead-on collimation is not as critical as it is in faster scopes, but every little bit helps. I didn’t bring any of my own eyepieces out, so I’ll be interested to find out how Junior does with something like a 16-mm UWAN. I still have both the ½-inch and 1 inch Ramsden and Kellner oculars (no danged metric system back then, little pards) that came with PJ, but haven’t located ‘em yet. Some months back, I put ‘em somewhere where they wouldn’t get lost, and, naturally, now I can’t remember what that place was.

Hows about PJ's GEM? After Pat’s rework, mostly cleaning and polishing the declination and RA shafts, the mount’s motions were every bit as smooth as I remembered them being in the summer of ‘66. The only slight downer now as then was the lack of tube rings. Point at certain areas of the sky, and the eyepiece ends up at weird angles. What to do? Just what I did way back when. Move the polar axis off north, use the thing as a “mutant-alt-az,” and just keep on trucking. I noticed the scope seemed less vibration-prone than I remembered. Did Pat’s TLC help that, or am I maybe just getting a mite more forgiving in my old age? Little of both, I reckon. If necessary, I believe it will be possible to position Celestron’s vibration suppression pads under the pedestal leg tips.

On to the Sears. This little refractor is a “Sears,” of course, only in the sense that they sold it. It was actually made by the well-regarded Japanese optical firm Towa. Like Tasco, back in them days Sears (and Montgomery Ward) were importing some excellent, well-made telescopes. One look through Pat’s baby showed it to be no exception. Despite the fact that there was a between-the-elements smudge in the little 20-mm eyepiece (likely the Canada balsam used to cement ‘em together was givin’ up the ghost after 40 years), the Moon was mind-blowingly sharp. I can’t wait to try the scope with the pair of good “Diamond Z” .965-inchers I’ve got squirreled away for the day when I am able to replace my long lost Tasco 11-TE.

The Towa folks didn’t just slap a good objective in a cheap department store body, though. The Sears’ mount was a real eye-opener. Though it is EQ-1 sized (EQ-2 at a stretch, maybe) the difference in quality between this and today’s small Chinese GEMs is flat-out amazing. The motions are butter-dripping smooth, and the slow motion gears are oh-so-silky. Also amazing are the sweet little touches nobody would think of putting on a 60-mm refractor today. The RA and Declination slow motion cables, for example, have different shaped knobs on their ends, so you know which is which in the dark. Before this night, I was a confirmed 60-mm skeptic. Back in the day I thought ‘em “too small.” In this latter age, I’ve looked askance at the claims for their optical and mechanical quality I’ve read on the Cloudy Nights. After an evening with Pat’s 60, though, I’m a member of the amen chorus, brothers and sisters. These old scopes can be both a surprise and a joy. The quality is there.

‘T’warn’t long, unfortunately, before that cloud river changed course to run straight over our heads, blotting out even the Moon. No, I didn’t get a glimpse of Saturn, but that will come. Back home, with the Pal on display in the living room, I just sat and gazed at that long white tube and gray mount for half an hour, reliving our many happy times. The more I looked, though, the more something seemed wrong.

The declination circle just couldn’t go where it was. You’d have to stand on your head to read it. I pulled out a reference photo of a PJ I’d printed off, natcherly, the CN Classic Telescopes Gallery, and tried to figure out what the hail was going on. A little head-scratching and it became clear what the problem was. When the OM had reassembled the mount after its paintjob all those long years ago, he’d put it together with the declination housing upside down. One end of this housing is longer than the other, you see. He had the short end up instead of vice-versa. I took the mount back apart, flipped the dec housing around, put everythin’ back together, and there was now clearance for the dec setting circle to go in its proper place as seen in the photo. I also spent a little time cleaning the dec and RA shaft endcaps down to bare metal, their original condition, and fabricating an ersatz Pal Junior showercap/dustcover using a picture found on the CN (of course).

What comes next for Unk classic-scope-wise, muchachos? Well, I intend to keep my eye out for a Tasco white-tube 4.5-inch reflector, but there’s no hurry there. I find I’m just as anxious to do a lot of looking through the Palomar Junior as looking at it. I don’t know that I’ll get my old friend out every clear night (my CATs demand their ration of photons), but I know I will be outside with PJ a lot this summer, just like the hallowed summer of ’66, those innocent days just before the distractions of girls, cars, and rock and roll music when My Old Friend and I spent every sultry night wondering and wandering by starlight.

Comments:
Rod,

I got my Edmund 4.25" back in '73. Spent "my life savings" on it in 8th grade!

I still have this baby. Took my best digital photo of the '03 Mars opposition with it (surprisingly - it was my grab-n-go at the time and that particular night was the BEST seeing that I got), as well as a solar projection of the '07 Mercury transit.

I can't really use my 8" SCT for solar projection! And I don't care to use my 16" Meade dob for solar projection either! I have no discomfort using the old Palomar for this. Many a time in my youth I used to burn paper at the eyepiece focus. How cool!

I sometimes wish that I would use it more. However, I would NOT want to use that worthless little finder too long, and I would likewise want to utilize some modern eyepieces! Like you, I did the "polar shift" more often than I'd like to admit. Can't count how many times I tripped over that danged three-footed monster either.

So, I've resigned to the fact that I want to keep it as it was, warts and all. It still has its' original aluminized mirror job and has been well-kept despite its' life in garages in Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania over the years.

It is an antique to me, like me, and will hopefully be seen as such by my heirs one day. I'm glad and surprised that it has weathered so well after all of these years. A boat-load better than I have!

I think you've finished this topic, but I wanted to let you know that it was a good one and was appreciated. Edmund had some great optics for a small, beginner scope.

Jim Twellman
 
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