Sunday, March 25, 2012

 

Me and Norman


I didn’t know Norman Edmund. Never met the man. Never talked to him on the phone. Hell, I was never even in the same city with him as far as I know. Nevertheless, he was a huge influence on me; couldn’t help but be. The amateur astronomy of the 1960s was basically two things: Sky and Telescope magazine and Norman Edmund’s company.

The who and the what? For you greenhorns who don’t know much about Edmund Scientific, and for you old timers who may be on your way to forgetting, Edmund’s company was born of World War II. He wasn’t a combatant in The War; health problems kept him out, but after the war he found a way to capitalize on its leavings.

War surplus is something else you younguns don’t know nuttin about. Iraq didn’t produce much if any surplus. Neither did Vietnam. But WWII, and, to a lesser extent, Korea, damned sure did. “Huh?” The services bought far more stuff—stuff of every kind—than they would ever need or could ever use before it became obsolete. This “surplus” was sold to civilian dealers for a song, who then turned around and sold it to Mom and Pop America for slightly more. For twenty-plus years after VJ-Day, you could buy anything from a pair of socks to an Army Jeep (or so the ads in the comic books said) surplus.

While you could buy almost anything surplus, the market had its greatest impact on the two scientific hobbies, amateur radio and amateur astronomy. Many was the ham—including Unk—who got started with an “ARC” Command Receiver. Tons of surplus electronic gear was sold to hams by local or national businesses (like New York City’s famous Radio Row) or given to us directly or indirectly by the Military Affiliate Radio System, MARS.

Surplus was almost as big a deal in amateur astronomy. Page back through the 50s and 60s issues of Sky and Scope with the aid of the wonderful Seven Decades Collection, and you will see tons of ads for aerial cameras and aerial camera lenses and elbow telescopes and eyepieces and other stuff that helped ATMs aspire to a slightly higher level than they could produce on their own. Plenty of amateurs had their first taste of those mysterious wide-field eyepieces thanks to a surplus tank periscope ocular (the yellow-tinted ones were slightly radioactive, not that we knew or would have cared).

Surplus didn’t really take off for amateur astronomers till the coming of Norman Edmund, who really kicked it up a notch. He started out just selling surplus, yeah, but before long he was making stuff out of it. Optical stuff. Astronomy stuff like telescopes and eyepieces. In the beginning, Norman’s products were “kits.” Often containing not much more than instructions and a few lenses (often with chipped edges). But it didn’t take long for the Edmund offerings to get more complex and exciting, starting with a kit for a 3-inch Newtonian reflector and progressing on to a complete line of ready-to-use telescopes and accessories.

What were the Edmund scopes like? They were not on the level of Cave and Unitron. They were on the level of Criterion (Dynascope): surprisingly good, but not top-drawer. Actually, Edmund’s scopes were maybe slightly lower in quality than those of Criterion, their main (astronomy) competitor. Mechanically, anyhow. Optically the two brands were identical.

Both firms used primary mirrors made by a contractor called “Upco.” I’ve never been able to find out much about this company, but they made excellent optics. The Upco mirrors in my Edmund 4-inch and Criterion 6-inch stand up to anything I’ve used over the years including Cave, and compare well to what’s produced today. I have been told the man behind Upco was Ohio author Sam Brown, the guru who wrote and illustrated All About Telescopes. Given the quality of Upco optics, I can believe it.

In just a few years, by 1948, Norman’s business, “Edmund Salvage Company,” had grown to the point where it was out of his garage and at that famous address, “Barrington, New Jersey,” with a slightly changed and more evocative name, “Edmund Scientific Company.” I imagined it must be a wonderful place. The art-deco look of the big Edmund building in the little pictures in the catalog only hinted, I thought, at the wonders that must lie within. Oh, how I dreamed of convincing Mama we needed to take a vacation to New Jersey, stopping at Edmund, and somehow, someway walking out with my very own Super Space Conqueror.

That never happened, of course. Even if I could have convinced Mama to travel to New Jersey (“NEW JERSEY? All them YANKEES?! I don’t think so, BUSTER!”), the old man’s car wouldn’t have got us halfway there before giving up the ghost. Even if it had, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the gas to get home. But I had the next best thing, I had The Catalog.

I could take a virtual trip to Edmund’s whenever I wanted. In study hall on delicious spring afternoons, or under the covers with a flashlight on crisp fall nights when I’d just come in from watching the stars. I’d open the little digest-sized book and be transported all the way to that magic cavern in Barrington. There was so much and it was all wonderful.

I don’t have single 1960s Edmund catalog left. Not surprising. I read ‘em to tatters. All I have left is memories and the pieces of the cover of the 1968 edition I used to make a Mother’s Day card for Mama. I cut out the groovy moiré patterns that graced that year, and did my best to make my crude lettering psychedelic so Mama could have a cool card. Today, almost anything can be found on the cotton picking Internet, and you and me can have another look at the Edmund catalog, the astronomy part of it, anyhow, right here. So why don’t we?

Telescopes

The first Edmund scope I ever saw, well before I laid eyes on the catalog, was the 3-inch Newtonian, the Space Conqueror. One of the members of our little teen/pre-teen club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, had one. I was both impressed and not impressed. In build quality, it took a decided back seat to my Tasco 3-inch. It had a cardboard tube instead of the steel tube of the Tasco. Its mount was formed of thin sheet metal like Daddy used for his radio chassis instead of my scope’s cast aluminum. The SC’s tripod was a super-spindly thing compared to the T’s sturdy wood one. Finally, the Edmund eyepieces, .917” microscope-sized dealies, were even smaller than the .965” Japanese standards of my Tasco.

And yet…and yet. Despite the cardboard, the shaky tripod, and the tiny eyepieces, the Edmund performed better than my Tasco. The planets were sharp and clear compared to what they were in my poor scope, which, as I’ve said before, made Jupiter look like something my Aunt Lulu’s poodle-dog threw up. The Space Conqueror even came with a good finder. Yeah it was in a cardboard tube, but it was a big (as me and my buddies reckoned such things) 31mm. The Space Conqueror’s mount was a little cheap looking, yeah, but it was an equatorial. Its latitude was fixed at 40-degrees, but even at our southerly location, you didn’t have to nudge in both axes as much as you did with my Tasco’s straight alt-az.

Daddy later admitted he almost ordered the Space Conqueror for me, but that its price, while pretty low, $29.95, was still more than that of the Tasco he found in a buddy’s pawnshop. Mostly, however, the Tasco looked better with its metal tube. Looks don’t always count for much when it comes to scopes, we found out. After using my buddy’s Space Conqueror, I immediately focused on Edmund (along with Criterion) as the possible source of More Better Gooder when I could figure out how to make that come my way.

The Edmund 4.25-inch Deluxe Space Conqueror, a.k.a. “Palomar Junior,” was that gooder for me. I won’t say too much about it, since I’ve written about it at length in the past; I will just say it was a revelation. Today (I still have my Pal, natch) its pedestal-mounted GEM seems overly shaky and its finder overly small, but even though it was not the 6-inch the person we bought it from used said it was, it was a dang sight better than anything I’d looked through before with the exception of Spring Hill’s 12-inch monster. It literally blew the doors off the smaller telescopes of my fellow BAS members.

Along with Criterion’s famous RV-6, the Edmund Super Space Conqueror was the subject of my dreams for years. That baby had everything: 6-inches of aperture, a considerably heavier duty GEM than what was on the Pal, and a REAL CLOCK DRIVE. I was torn by indecision: RV-6 or Super Space Conqueror? Luckily, I guess, I was too poor to have to make that painful decision. Today, I will say the RV-6 is somewhat better mechanically, but the Edmund is still a great old warhorse.

I’ve used plenty of 8-inch GEM-Newts from the 1960s, everything from Caves and Optical Craftsmen and Criterions, to rarer beasties like the Coast Instruments Treckerscope. But I have never run across an Edmund 8-inch (which was all Norman ever called it) in the flesh. Maybe there just ain’t many of ‘em out there. I reckon anybody who could afford the enormous price of one, 464 huge dollars (with the clock drive), would usually decide to save a wee bit more so they could have a Cave Model B Deluxe instead. Since I’ve never used one, I can only assume. My assumption is that, like the other Edmunds, the 8-inch was optically fine, but, also like the other scopes, a little shaky, even on Mr. Norman’s top-of-the line mount.

The Big Four Newtonians were not the only amateur-grade telescopes Edmund sold. There were refractors, too, a lovely 3-inch and 4-inch. Strangely, I never paid much attention to ‘em. “Strangely” because I read my drool-soaked Unitron catalog to pieces over the course of The Summer of Love. Maybe because, while attractive, the Edmunds didn’t seem special like the beautiful Unitrons. Their mounts were much the same as those on the Newtonians and so were their fittings. Edmund did not go out of their way to make them attractive in the catalog, either. While the Newts got a page—sometimes two—apiece, the refractors got no more than half-a-page each.

ATM Stuff

After the scopes, we come to the ATM parts, including mirror grinding kits. Once it finally dawned on me that I would not be able to easily accumulate the $200 required to purchase an RV-6 or Super Space Conqueror (I wasn’t afraid of mowing lawns, but I was lucky to have one or two customers a month in a subdivision full of pre-teen baby-boom boys), I turned to the art of ATMing. Oddly, I never bought a single part from Edmund, though they sold everything from eyepiece optics to complete clock-drive-equipped GEMs.

The problem, as it usually was, was M-O-N-E-Y. Edmund’s basic 6-inch mirror kit was $13.95. A. Jaegers, who ran huge two-page ads in every issue of Sky and ‘Scope, sold the same thing for $11.95. That might not seem like much to you, muchachos, but to me it was an entire month of Marvel Comics or, later, enough gas for a trip or two to my girlfriend’s house.

Accessories and Eyepieces

What do you do these days when you want to know when Orion’s gonna be high enough in the sky for you to get a good look at him? You fire up Stellarium or Cartes du Ciel on the computer, or, increasingly, SkySafari or SkyQ on the cotton-picking smart-phone. In the heyday of Edmund Scientific? We pulled out a planisphere.

In the absence of PCs, every working amateur astronomer needed a planisphere, and most of us young and poor amateurs had Norman Edmund’s Star and Satellite Path Finder. It was never clear to li’l Rod how it would help you find a satellite, and I suspected “satellite” was in the name merely to make the planisphere seem SPACE AGE, but it sure worked well, helping me plan innumerable observing runs. Lots of changes have come to Norman’s company over the ensuing 46-years, but the Star and Satellite Pathfinder (now renamed the Star and Planet Finder) is still being produced; I hand ‘em out to my students every semester.

Like the best of Norman’s products, the planisphere didn’t just work, it educated. On its reverse there was a wealth of information, including up-to-date positions for the planets. That’s not all. For your measly 50 cents, you also got a little booklet that’s one of the best explanations of how the sky works I have ever seen. It is filled with wonderful Sam Brown illustrations, and my students love it—mostly because of its cool, retro look, I reckon.

Then there are the Edmund eyepieces. I suppose I ain’t fully qualified to say how good or bad they were, since I—like all my buddies—was only ever able to save up enough to buy the company’s simplest models, the Kellners and Ramsdens (younguns: don’t ask). What can I say about those? They worked, but had all the liabilities of their simple designs, including short eye-relief, small apparent fields, and poor edge-of-field performance. Couple that with uncoated surplus lens elements, and you do not have a recipe for spectacular views, even in the slow focal ratio scopes of the day.

But we didn’t know that. Most of us were used to the even worse eyepieces that came with our cheap Japanese telescopes—horrors like Huygenians—and were amazed at how good Norman’s eyepieces were. Nevertheless, even back then I recognized the .965” ¼-inch (6mm to you younguns) Ramsden I bought for my Tasco as being the worst eyepiece I’d ever used. Today, it still is. Edmund did sell “better” oculars including Orthoscopics and an Erfle, but the company was not known for quality eyepieces till the coming of the much-admired RKEs in the 1970s.

What else did Edmund sell to 1960s amateurs? Just about anything you can think of. Including camera holders. These were not like today’s camera mounts; they were Rube Goldberg things designed to hold a camera in place over an eyepiece. The reason for that was that Edmund’s focusers did not have focus locks or eyepiece setscrews, and inserting a camera into the focuser via a 1.25-inch prime focus adapter would have resulted in either the focuser immediately racking out of focus or the camera falling to the ground or both.

You attached the holder’s base plate to the tube via four screws in four pre-drilled holes in the 4-inch and larger telescopes. A long metal tube was inserted into the base, and at its other end, a bracket with a ¼-20 t.p.i. bolt held the camera. There was enough freedom of movement to allow just about any camera to be centered over the eyepiece. And it actually worked. My initial afocal efforts with my Argus Twin Lens Reflex worked so well (I thought) that I convinced Daddy to try his fancy Single Lens Reflex with its removable lens. That camera, a great big Exacta, brought back nice prime focus and eyepiece projection Moon pictures.

Off-the-wall Stuff

Telescopes. Eyepieces. Mirror kits. All pretty much what you’d expect from any astronomy seller then or now. But Edmund went beyond that. The catalog was packed with outré, if not downright strange, stuff including a complete observatory dome. You had to supply the building to mount it on, but this was, the short blurb told us, a complete 6-foot diameter “no carry” solution for telescope owners. The catalog is short on detail—we were advised to write Edmund for more info—but I assume it was made of fiberglass. Who knows? I’ve never seen one or heard of anyone who bought one. The $595 price, at least $3000 if not as much as $10,000 in 2012 dollars, kept us Edmund Scientific-loving peons from finding out. Didn’t stop me from daydreaming about having one in my backyard with an 8-inch Edmund reflector inside, of course.

The Nova home planetarium ain’t really that off-the-wall; it was actually a wonderful little pinhole planetarium projector. It was the lineal descendent of the original Spitz Junior home planetariums you can read about here. I loved the Spitz one of my teachers lent me so much that I dreamed of ordering one of my own. That old devil money got me again. 30 dollars plus shipping meant this was past “birthday” and into “Christmas” territory, and at that price would have to be my main/only gift. Sigh.

The Spilhaus Space Clock was a trifle strange. In addition to a normal clock, this thing had a complex (analog/mechanical of course) display that would show the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets; sidereal time; Moonrise times; Moon phases; tides; and one hell of a lot more. It was beautiful, but given its price, $250 (equivalent to about $1500), I suspected it was more a thing some wealthy dilettante would have in his den to show off during cocktail parties than what a working amateur, even an advanced one, would have in an observatory. It is apparently rare and prized by collectors today.

Couldn’t afford the Spilhaus? You could keep up with the doings of the Solar System, or at least the Earth and Moon, in a simpler way for about 30 smackers with the Universal Planetarium Teaching Aid. This was actually not a planetarium but an orrery, a model of the Sun around which the Earth and Moon (on mechanical arms) revolved. I liked the look of it, but found one for the much more attractive price of 4 bucks in kit form from the old toy company, Remco. The Remco Solar System Planetarium, which we talked about last week, was actually better than the expensive Edmund in some ways, I suspect.

Books

Edmund offered a whole line of astronomy books, including seven titles by Sam Brown. When I dared to undertake making a mirror 40+ years ago, Sam was there, leading me through the trials with his All About Telescopes. When my friend Pat decided it was time for him to finally make a mirror just a few years back, my copy of All About was there for him, too, and was just as helpful as ever. You can still order All About Telescopes and one of Sam’s other goodies, How to Use Your Telescope from the latter day Edmunds (“Scientifics”), and I think you should, muchachos.

Fun Stuff

‘Course, there was one hell of a lot more to the Edmund catalog than “just” astronomy. There was everything from their famous chipped lens kits, which would allow you to build things like (single lens objective) telescopes and microscopes for almost nothing, to black lights, to little envelopes of Trinitite (the green glass formed by the fireball of the first atomic test), to my fave, The Science Treasure Chest.

This had a bit of everything: polarizing lenses, diffraction gratings, one way mirrors, prisms, you-name-it. Mama thought I was absolutely bonkers when I spent my five bucks of birthday money on one instead of on a slot car, but for once I proved her wrong. The elements of the Treasure Chest (that was exactly what it was) were the makings of a couple of science fair entries, including one that did right well, a diffraction grating spectroscope I built.

Unk remained an Edmund fan for over a decade, but began to lose track of the company as the 70s wound down. What happened between me and Mr. Norman? I changed some, setting my sights on the higher priced spread, like Cave and Celestron, but the main reason I lost touch with the company was that Edmund changed. After a short interlude where they continued selling their original telescopes in slightly modified form—the tubes went from beautiful white to garish red and the focal lengths of some were shortened—Edmund Scientific relinquished their leadership in amateur astronomy. By the time Robert Edmund, Norman’s son and successor at the helm, spun off the consumer part of the company, the Astroscan was all that was left.

I don’t want be too hard on Edmund. The astronomy marketplace was changing, and they, unlike Criterion and Cave and almost all the other old-line companies, at least managed to survive and keep a toe in the amateur astronomy water. The day of big, goofy German mount Newtonians had passed, and it was SCTs and bigdobs and fancy APO refractors for most of us from the 80s on.

Today, Edmund Scientific survives as a pair of companies: the independently owned Scientifics, which sells stuff not much different from what the old Edmund did, and Edmund Optics, the legitimate heir of Edmund Scientific, whose thick catalog appears in my box at the University ever’ once in a while. It’s all industrial optics and stuff for school laboratories, selling for prices nobody else would pay, but it is fascinating nevertheless. Every time I see that catalog with “Edmund” on the cover, I get a warm fuzzy. It’s 46 years ago and young Rod is peering into Mama and Daddy’s mailbox and seeing that little digest of wonder for the first time.

Mr. Edmund? I hadn’t thought about him in a long while, till the other day when I heard he’d passed away. Frankly, I guess I’d assumed he’d been gone for years. Nope, he lived to a ripe old age, a pleasant one I hope. He deserved it. R.I.P Norman Edmund, 1917 – 2012. Even those of us like Unk who didn’t really know you felt like we did. You helped some of us through difficult teen years and set us on the path to a lifetime of wonders.

Y’all can read a very nice article on Mr. Edmund and his company by Roger Sinnott rat cheer:   http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/home/137951448.html

Next Time: The Herschel Project Night 31

Comments:
I was lucky enough to grow up a few miles from Edmund Scientific in Barrington NJ. My 6" reflector was made from a kit purchased there. I still have and use it to this day. Many hours were spent roving thru the surplus room. I also still have a 12.5MM RKE eyepiece that is as good as most eyepieces around. I also dabbled in SW radio and the place in the Philadelphia area in the 50s was 4th and Arch st. Electronics surplus stores were lined up for several blocks. Thanks for the memories Rod.
Frank
 
I grew up in rural North Carolina in much the same epoch as you, Rod ( a little odd calling you Unk, since I'm older'n you (66)). I got a hand-me down (ah, he-double-l pilfered) an Edmund Scientific Catalog from my own, true Uncle John. Later I ordered my own catalog.

Anywho...Asa teenager, I worked in my Uncle Lenon's farm harvesting tobacco (I know, EVIL tobacco)! But in those days it was the cash crop for our farmers. I earned about a hundred bucks one summer and I persuaded my folks to let me get that 3" Space Conqueror. I was in heaven when it arrived.

Thanks for bringing back this and other fond memories.

Keep up the blog, please! I look forward every Sunday to reading it!
Don Horne
Nashville, TN
 
I ordered their 4.25" scope in the spring of 1977 (I was 12) and remembered how I could not afford the "clock drive" but was thrilled to be able to order the scope. When it arrived, it solidified a life-long passion for astronomy.

I grew up in Central NJ and Barrington, NJ was about an hour and 15 minute ride. I made the trip to the store after many years of drooling over their catalogs as a teen-ager. It was an interesting place. By the time I arrived, they were selling Celestrons, but still had a large war surplus inventory.
Edmund Scientific was a great place and holds a fond spot in my childhood memories!
 
This is too great! My six inch, chipped mirror blank is in a plaid lunch box in my closet. Started it 41 years ago. Eventually I bought the three inch reflector at a garage sale for $15!
 
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