Sunday, August 23, 2009

 

Down Memory Lane via Bay State Road

OK, OK, just one more bout of nostalgia, and I promise I will be back to amateur astronomy as it is. For a while, anyhow. What prompted this latest Remembrance of Things Past was me pulling out the May 1967 issue of Sky and Telescope in the course of writing up a recent blog entry that was, in part, about Mallas and Kreimer’s long running S&T column, “A Messier Album.” Naturally, I couldn’t resist browsing through the rest of the magazine while I was at it, and I thought y’all would like to join me.

Hokay, let’s see here. When you removed “May” from that famous manila envelope, what did you get? As you may know, the magazine was in a larger format in those days, 8.5 x 11.5. It was purty thin, though, with this particular issue clocking in at about 63 pages—comparable to where it, alas, is today. The logo was that wonderful old script “Sky” and Times New Roman “Telescope,” with the different fonts a reminder that the magazine evolved from two separate entities, The Sky and The Telescope. Emblazoned on this month’s cover (above) was the super cool looking Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center, which Northwestern University plunked down on the shores of Lake Michigan. Cool as it looked, it didn’t even last thirty years, being torn down in 1995. The ostensible reason was that it was full of asbestos insulation, which would be too costly to remove. I would also guess encroaching light-pollution and ever-present humidity had something to do with this nice facility’s abandonment. What-ev, back to that fresh new cover.

Looking down the sidebar each issue featured (it wasn’t always puke orange, though, thank god), revealed the article lineup: “Some Notes on Tektites,” “Giant Prominence Photographed in March,” “A Messier Album” (caught my attention right off the bat). Below that, the Volume/issue number and the price. Which was 60 cents by ’67. That sounds cheap, but, let me tell you, the young Rodster had a hard time getting even two-bits together for the Fantastic Four Annual. It wasn’t like you was gonna buy it on a newsstand, anyway. Oh, maybe in a big city or a planetarium gift shop or some such. Down in Possum Swamp? No way Jose. You somehow came up with 6 bucks for a subscription, which meant you was paying a slightly kinder four-bits an issue. Man was it worth it.

Let’s dig in. First thing to catch my attention, as always, was The Questar Corporation of New Hope, Pennsylvania’s full page inside-front-cover layout. This company, as you should know unless you are absolutely soppin’ wet behind the ears, continues to sell its famous little Maksutov Cassegrains today, just as they have since the 1950s. I don’t know how long Questar had the inside front cover, but it was years and years and years. May’s page was impressive. Light on words, which were just a few column inches of small type, the advert was dominated by a big picture of the Lunar crater Copernicus shot by “Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Davis of Sarasota, Florida” with their Questar 3.5-inch. It’s a fine image that, despite being done with such a small telescope, compares quite favorably to any of the amateur Lunar photography of those benighted pre-webcam days. Looking at it makes me understand why I almost believed the Q3.5 could beat the laws of physics and show more Good Stuff than my humble homemade 6-inch Newtonians.

Next up, on page 271 thanks to S&T’s volume numbering scheme, is the masthead and the actual table of contents. At least one name in the credits should be familiar (I hope) to the Modern Amateur Astronomer, Charles Federer. Not only did he get Sky and Telescope started, he was instrumental in the founding of The Astronomical League. I was privileged to have a sit in his former office (inhabited by Kelly Beatty at the time) when I paid a visit to Skypub's old headquarters in 2006 just before they moved to a steel and glass corporate hive.

You youngsters who’ve never seen an old issue will likely be mightily impressed by the feel of the magazine’s paper as you prepare to turn the page. It was not overly thick, mind you, but it was decidedly more substantial than the tissue stuff the publisher must use today. It is a high quality semi-gloss stock that holds up year after year without much yellowing. It also had a certain odor that always slapped me in the face when I opened the manila envelope, and which, in Marcel Proust fashion, is inextricably associated in my mind with the amateur astronomy of the 1960s.

Yeah, I know y’all are anxious to have a look at all that luscious antique gear, but, believe you me, the articles was just as important to us. We read them, and re-read them, and sometimes re-re-read them, me and my teenage buddies, trying to absorb at least some of what was mostly over our heads. The lead-off in this issue, Darryl Futrell’s “Some Notes on Tektites,” while slightly forbidding in title was thankfully accessible to us little folk. Today, this subject is pretty ho-hum, with most geologists/planetary scientists agreeing that tektites, oddly shaped dark “rocks,” are bits of once-molten earth and are the result of big meteorite strikes. Back then, that wasn’t so clear, with some authorities believing these odd specimens were actually Lunar material that drifted to Earth after one or the other of our sister world’s bombardments. 1967 was near the height of Moon fever, so you can bet people read Futrell’s fine article with interest. Today, it’s surprisingly up-to-date, with him more or less giving the nod to the Earth as the source of tektites.

Onward! Next stop is a piece about the doings of an amateur astronomer, specifically the striking Solar prominence images made by one Gerhard Klaus. Even today, these detailed photos taken with a homemade coronograph equipped with a hydrogen alpha filter impress. Alas, beyond a few bare details, there’s little information about how Klaus did his thing. What kind of film? Where did he get the filter? How long were the exposures? This article, “Giant Prominence Photographed in March,” does refer us back to an piece describing Gerhard’s equipment, but that didn’t do me no good. I didn’t have the 1962 issues of Sky and Telescope and neither did the Possum Swamp Public Library. Purty pictures, though.

When I hear my fellow curmudgeons discussing the “new” Sky and Telescope vice the “old” Sky and Telescope (with what’s “old” depending on the age of the curmudgeon in question), one of the main topics for discussion is mathematics. Specifically, that there was a lot in the old issues and little in the new ones. Sorry. While Sky and Telescope’s contributors did slip in an equation or three when absolutely necessary, the pages of the magazine would never have been mistaken for the APJ. Arthur and John Cox’s “Cepheid Pulsations” is a good example. You’d think this would be a ripe field for numbers, but nary an equation or formula did I squint at. There are a few graphs, but mostly the authors just do a good job summarizing the current state of knowledge on these fascinating and important variable stars for even the most math-phobic laymen.

After “Cepheids” is a regular feature, “News Notes,” short items concerning professional astronomy. The most interesting blurb for me this time was the news that a 144-inch mirror blank for the European Southern Observatory had been cast. This would have, I reckon, have been the primary used in the ESO’s La Silla scope, which is still in operation, having been continuously upgraded over the years. There was also the announcement that Tinsley Laboratories has fabricated a truly huge mirror (for the time), a whopping 276-inches! When I read further, I was disappointed to learn this was not for a telescope, but for a “space simulation chamber” at JPL. It would be a few years hence before the Hale Reflector was outdone. That was by the Soviet 6-meter in 1976. ‘Course it was a BARKIN’ DOG optically, and never outdid the 200-inch in performance.

I won’t bother to jawbone about the next feature, “A Messier Album I,” since I did just that a little ways back. I will say that, if I haven’t been direct enough in my other mentions of that series, you should just get on the dadgummed Amazon.com and order the book version. Don’t ask questions, just do it.

Paging on past a short piece about a new satellite of some kind, we come to something both newsstand astronomy mags have revived in recent years in more elaborate fashion, reader questions. Back then, the questions were short, the column inches few, and the knowledge level of the questioners a wee bit higher (“How many quasars are there with measured redshifts?"), the ones that got printed, anyhow, than what we see today.

All our questions answered, we march forward to Sam Moskowitz’s kinda interesting article, “Visual Aspects of Trans Stellar Flight,” which can be summarized as, “How Would the Sky Look from Other Stars?” From today’s perspective, I was kind of surprised they let Mr. M (a NASA initiate) run on for six whole pages, but then I realized this would have been much more intriguing back when you couldn’t sit down with a computer program you bought from BestBuy and do the same thing in full color on a flat panel display. When Star Trek was new, this was “fascinating,” as Mr. S. would say.

Cool! More amateur stuff! “Amateur Astronomers” was another well-loved and long-running regular feature. Usually, it dealt with news of the day’s amateur organizations, mostly ALPO, and the Astronomical League, and the Western Amateur Astronomers. Its beat was also the few star parties of the day—Stellafane was the biggest do. Well I remember how wistfully I ruminated on what a Great Thing it would be to attend the League’s General Convention and spend days and days in the company of my fellow amateurs. Just attending seemed an unrealizable dream. If somebody had told me that one day I’d not only attend an ALCON, but speak at one, I would probably have had a spell (southern-speak for “some kind of fit”).

Appended to “Amateur Astronomers” was another small regular, “Amateur Briefs,” which summarized activities of astronomy clubs across the good ol’ U.S. of A. My teenage buddies and I always wanted to send-in something about our little neighborhood club’s doins, but we never did. Askeered to, I reckon.

On the same page as “Amateur Briefs” was an ad for prints of the Lunar Orbiter 2 photo of Copernicus. It’s mildly interesting today, but what a revelation it was back then, that shot of the great crater from a close and unfamiliar perspective. I remember the first place I saw the image, too, on the cover of an issue of My Weekly Reader back in the 6th grade. If the mention of that periodical gives you as many warm fuzzies as it does Unk, you will be comforted to hear the Weekly Reader is still being published—I just checked.

One of the features in this issue that continues to this day, though slightly renamed, is “Books and the Sky.” Most of what was reviewed this time was forgettable and forgotten, but one volume by a young astronomer, Cark Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe (with I. S. Shklovskii), is still in print 42 years later.

Whoo-hoo! Astro stuff! Tinsley Laboratories produced some amateur-level equipment (if you were a well-heeled amateur), but most of what they displayed in their big ads was like this groovy 30-inch fork mount Cass destined for a facility called “Leuschner Observatory.” I had no idea where this was in the day, but with Google at my beck and call in this latter age, it is revealed this is (now, anyway) UC Berkeley’s student observatory. Apparently the pretty Tinsley shown on page 300 is still in use by undergraduates. Good on it.

You kids will be surprised to find the centerfold of the old mag lacks a naked eye star chart. In the late 60s, this spot was the home of “In Focus,” a “spotlighted” large-size astrophoto (usually). This print version of today’s APOD continued in the magazine (but not in the middle) for years, until the real APOD made it obsolete, I reckon. This time out, a double-page shot of Luna’s Mare Fecunditatis taken with a 40-inch at Pic du Midi. Knocked my socks off. Today? Almost as good as what you or me can do with a C8 and a webcam on an average night.

Passing the centerfold, the ads become more numerous (well, for The Day). There’s one by Newtonian maker Optical Craftsmen aimed, this time, at pros and schools it looks like. Instead of a telescope, there’s some white-coated goober peering at something that could be a big primary mirror or could be his Mama’s dinette set table. Turn another page and, on the right, there’s a massive pro scope done by the long gone firm of Boller and Chivens (owned at the time by the also long gone firm, Perkin Elmer). That’s interesting enough, I reckon, but what got the Rodster’s attention was what was on the left, on page 306: Unitron’s full page interior placement. Even if you’re just getting your feet wet in our avocation, you’ve likely heard of the legendary (and now inactive) refractor maker. If you’ve stopped by Cloudy Nights’ Classic Scopes Forum even briefly, I know you have.

These beautiful and expensive white tube refractors were what we all wanted, still want, couldn’t have back then because of price, and can’t have now (most of us) because of the scarcity of surviving scopes (well-preserved ones, anyhow). In the mid-late 60s, the company ran what was essentially the same interior ad every month, month after month; it listed the lineup, from a 60-mm alt-az ($125.00) to a 6-inch “Photo Equatorial” ($6075.00). Sigh. If only. Were they really as good as we imagined them to be? I’ve been privileged to use several 4-inch Unitrons, and, yes, they are good—very good. The objectives aren’t as finely crafted as today’s Astro-Physics and Takahashi glass, perhaps, but, then, long focal length (f/15 most of ‘em) achromats didn’t have to be.

How about another amateur-oriented feature? The long-running “Gleanings for ATMs” was stationed here in the back half of the mag, right after all them book reviews. I enjoyed reading this column, sure—I was an apprentice ATM, at least—but rarely did what I found here do me much good. I reckon I was more on the Sam Brown level. The stuff in Gleanings? Subjects like this issue’s “A Cooke Triplet Astrographic Lens for the Amateur” was a smidge much for my “skills.”

One of Gleanings’ pages, 314 to be precise, holds one of this issue’s many small blurbs by outfits selling war surplus. You sprouts never heard of “surplus”? It’s a thing of the past, but in days of yore tons of obsolete or unneeded military gear was sold by civilian brokers. There was so much surplus left over from WWII that it continued to be peddled well into the 1970s. I don’t mean the kind of stuff you see today—boots and fatigues—but the good stuff: radios and optical gear and a lot of other cool things (with which my Old Man populated our suburban home—to Mama’s horror). ‘Nam didn’t produce the expected huge flood of surplus, so the trade dried up by the time the 70s was over, but many well-known amateur gear suppliers like Edmund and Jaegers got their start with war surplus and products (like eyepieces) made from surplus. A few, like John Meshna, whose small ad is on this page, sold only surplus. What was notable? The aerial reconnaissance camera lenses he had which could make passable RFTs or pretty good astro cameras.

Only a few of the firms who ran ads in May of 1967 still survive; University Optics, operated by the son of the original owner, is one of ‘em. In May of 1967 they were peddling, in addition to various ATM parts, Orthoscopic eyepieces. Differences from the Orthos they still sell (and are famous for)? These are flat-tops rather than the familiar “volcano tops.” Oh, and the prices they charged, which were considered as insanely extravagant then as they are thought to be insanely reasonable today. In May of ‘67, you had to pony-up derned near TWENTY BUCKS for a UO Ortho. That would be about $125.00 today, but, as always, that don’t even begin to describe the trouble me and my pals would have had coming up with a Twenty.

A page or two later there’s another still-familiar name, Coulter Optical, who every amateur or wanna-be has heard of even though the always-tiny Idyllwild, California company has been gone for the better part of a decade. This was long before the Odyssey Dobsonians, of course. 42 years ago, Coulter had a reputation for producing some seriously good optics for “reasonable” prices. Featured in the tiny May plug? A 12.5-inch Newtonian primary for the tidy sum of $175.00.

You want surplus? You want ATM parts (which me and my mates referred to as “Telescope Junk” as opposed to the parts we used in our ham projects, “Radio Junk”)? Especially parts to do your own pseudo-Unitron refractor? You came to A. Jaeger’s. This same exact (more-or-less) two-pager must have run for damned near twenty years. What did I get from that famous “Lynbrook, New York” address? I couldn’t dream of having one of their (still highly regarded) 6-inch achromat objectives, but I could and did have several of their 6-inch mirror making kits, which could be had for the painful but not impossible sum of $11.95 if, like me, you was willing to forego a pre-generated f/8 curve and hog-out the glass on your own.

Thumbing-on past Jaegers, you arrive at another monthly, “Observer’s Page.” No, this was not usually about somebody with a Palomar Junior trying to find M101. While the subjects here were sometimes of interest to young-squirt Rod, most often, like this edition’s “Photographing Star Spectra,” it went over my head or my abilities—or both. But that’s fine. Good, actually. It was cool to have something to aspire to.

When I eventually gave up on them spectra, my attention was caught by one of the aforementioned amateur-oriented Tinsley ads. Specifically, one for a delicious-looking 8-inch classical Cassegrain on a German mount. How much? If you had to ask, etc., etc.—which was hinted at in copy that mentioned this was a telescope "for perfectionists." In today’s morning light? I don’t know about “perfection,” but these Casses do have a good reputation still.

One more page over is the spiel of a company whose products 14-year-old me could at least imagine owning. Well, probably not the featured product this time, a humongous 18.5-inch Cassegrain on a monster of a mount, but one of the smaller Newts Tom Cave featured in most of his every-month ads. Maybe.

Facing-off against Cave’s mind-blowin’ 18-inch, was Criterion’s little interior spot, which was a hodgepodge of accessories—focusers, cameras, eyepieces. Most charming is the company’s afocal-style camera mount, which they called the “Dyn-O-Swing.”

The next sizeable advert shows Brandon's line-up of attractive (and, we thought, expensive) eyepieces. I hardly noticed ‘em. Staring right back at me on the facing page was Celestron Pacific’s insanely groovy-cool C16. This big mother of a fork mounted CAT stimulated my imagination from the get-go. Course, that was as far as it went, seeing as how the price of this big SCT was a cool $11,500. Hell, I suspect many of my friends’ folks (and mine) hadn’t paid that much for their houses! Be that as it was, all my pals and I admired the Celestron Blue and Whites (we didn’t actually know they were blue and white, since the interior of the magazine was still strictly black and white). Little did we dream that Celestron’s Tom Johnson would begin to make his wonder-scopes affordable—sorta—just three years hence with the release of the fabled Orange Tube, which eventually spelled doom for the classy B&Ws.

On we go. On the left is Star Liner. Never knew anybody who had one of these Newts, but they looked sweet in their pictures. That was not what I would have paid attention to this time out, howsomeever. That was Scotty’s, Walter Scott Houston’s, small “Deep Sky Wonders” installment on the same page. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact Scotty’s little monthly sky tours (technically part of the “Observer’s Page,” I suppose) had on budding deep sky hounds such as myself. This time, he took us on a tour some of them mysterious NGC galaxies with the aid of that “professional” atlas, Skalnate Pleso. I was not always able to follow in his footsteps—though making a 6-inch had helped—but I always at least enjoyed hearing (yes) Scotty tell me about all the marvels he found.

Also of undeniable interest was Edmund Scientific’s standard full-pager. Yep, they used to be the go-to guys for the poverty-stricken amateur astronomer—in spades. One thing that always puzzled me, though, was why they had such putrid advertisements. Instead of featuring their much-wanted 6-inch Super Space Conqueror, they chose, instead, to run postage stamp sized pictures of fifteen or twenty various products. Which included such non-astro-geegaws as a “space blanket” (!) and a primitive mechanical computer. Maybe they thought they didn’t have to push the 6-inch, and could rely on word of mouth. They were wrong. As I noted last time, Criterion beat the pants of’n them.

Oh, well. After Edmund is the every-issue “Celestial Calendar.” Included were most of the things we were desperate to know in the pre-computer age: minima of Algol, Galilean satellite data, planet positions, yadda, yadda, yadda. What’s surprising is that the magazine accomplished in two pages what it takes some astro-rags of today five or six to do—sometimes not as well.

Yeah, there was no monthly star chart in the centerfold; instead it’s back here at the very end and is on a single page (the Southern Hemisphere is on the reverse). How good? Real good. It’s a mite small, but I still, e’en with my faltering eyes, prefer the sharp white on black graphics. The accompanying text, “Rambling through the Skies,” was at this time being done by Charles Federer. While most of us remember George Lovi most fondly in this slot, “C.A.F.” did a fine job, with “Rambling” accomplishing a lot in a half-page, fine enough that I don’t think the multiple pages in the middle of today’s S&T are much of an improvement.

Almost done. The inside back cover is taken up by Criterion’s “Real Value,” the RV-6 Dynascope. If you want to know more about the VW of reflectors, see last week’s entry. All I’ll say here is that I musta spent lotsa of time staring at this (constantly recurring) ad, since it is as familiar to me now as it was forty-plus years ago.

Close "May," and we depart the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the company of Unitron’s 2.4-inch alt-az refractor, which is splashed across the back outside cover. While Little Feller Me had decided he might as well dream big, and was mostly het-up about 4-inch Photo Equatorials, he was still attracted to little sister, and wondered if she, like the 3.5-inch Questar, would really beat his homebrew 6-inch Newt as Unitron’s copy seemed to at least imply.

And that was that. Or not quite. Unlike today, when the astro-rags get a quick scan and maybe an afternoon’s detailed examination, the old Sky and Telescope had to last. And it did. Is that a criticism of today’s magazine (and its competitors)? Not at all. In quite a few ways, the current pub is superior. Back in them moldy-oldie times, S&T, as I've said many times before, was amateur astronomy month to month; it was savored and revisited for want of anything else. Hell, not only did we not have Astromart, even Astronomy Magazine was six years in our future. The old amateur astronomy was fun, yeah, but Fun is Fun and Done is Done. Most of the fun was because we were young and everything was new. I sure wouldn’t want to go back to the "glory" days of once-a-month astronomy magazines and thermonuclear terror. To hell with the rose-colored specs, I’m a-gonna log-on to Cloudy Nights now.

Comments:
Man, I remember every single one of those ads. What a rush!
 
I used to read it in the Library as I could not afford a subscription. It is truly amazing how much astronomy has changed since then.

I would not mind to see some of the math come back. It seems to me that in today's society that math is avoided like the plague. When I am in the monthly JPL CHARM teleconferences, the scientists actually sometimes apologize for the mathematics in their Powerpoint presentations!

Rod I hope you do not keep math from your astronomy students. Math is great for explaining concepts that words fall short of.

Your nostalgia themed blog posts are fine by me, a junior geezer at 52.
 
Hi Matthew:

I don't keep it from my students (as appropriate for the course's level). In fact, you'd get much more from me than you ever did from Sky and Telescope. :-)
 
Coincidence: May, 1967 was when I graduated from Southport High School in Indianapolis. SHS was one of two high schools in the city that had a student telescope. Ours had been built from scratch by previous students, and was good enough to see the clouds on Jupiter, but only on those very rare nights when there were few clouds in the sky. Sky and Telescope was not available on newsstands in Indy, so I wasn't aware of that magazine in those days.

It was 35 years before I bought a Celestron 114 GT that is still my "for fun" telescope.
 
I started subscribing to S&T in the 70's, and the lone survivor of my collection, the July 1975 issue, has an article on black holes with plenty of math in it. It also includes a picture of Einstein wearing a black tie instead of sticking his tongue out, so they were really going for high tone back then.
 
49 Bay State Rd in Cambridge is now the headquarters of AAVSO.

-drl
 
I'd heard that...and I am REAL glad to hear that address continues as a landmark in amateur astronomy.
 
You can see it if you poke around on Google street view. It's funny to see what a nondescript place was the origin of so many memories and so much firing of the imagination. I had a "Letter to the Editor" get published through there when I was a teen (remember the cover with the bent streak image of the Sun setting over Boston?). I'd sure like to visit.

I once looked up the place where Astro-Physics refractors are made - 10 years' deep worth of orders. It's just a warehouse on a country road in Illinois.

-drl
 
Emblazoned on this month’s cover (above) was the super cool lookin’ Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center, which Northwestern University plunked down on the shores of Lake Michigan. Cool as it looked, it didn’t even last thirty years, bein’ torn down in 1995. The ostensible reason was that it was full of asbestos insulation, which would be too costly to remove. I would also guess encroaching light-pollution and ever present humidity had something to do with this nice facility’s abandonment.

Seeing that photo of the cover sure brought back memories. I grew up 10 miles from Evanston and saw the observatory on the Northwestern campus many times. In 1994 I got to use the 16" scope (in the smaller dome) to observe the impact of comet SL9 on Jupiter. By then, the building was heavily damaged from leaks. The optics of the 16" (made by Boller & Chivens) were excellent, but the image seemed kinda dim. After looking at Jupiter, we decided to look at M51. The grad student operating the scope couldn't find it, and finally I borrowed the control paddle & found it. It too seemed awfully dim. So I looked down the tube and saw the dirtiest mirror I have ever seen. It looked like dirt was dumped on it. A year later the observatory was demolished. The scopes (16" & 40") were bought by Lowell observatory. I read in the local paper that the Lindheimer family, who donated the money to build the observatory, was very unhappy with the decision to demolish it. Dearborn observatory is still there, which houses an 18" Clark refractor which I have also observed with.
 
Thanks SO much for this comment, EJN...! The Rest of the Story, as they say :-)

--Unk
 
Hi DRL:

A lot of folks imagined Skypub to be a huge skyscraper. Me? When I visited, I thought it was charming.
 
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