Sunday, July 15, 2012

 

The Parade’s Gone By


As my fellow old-timers will agree, amateur astronomy has changed in the last half century—though opinions will differ on whether that’s been for the good or bad. I don’t think much remains the same as it was in the mid-sixties when Unk got started. Well, I’ll qualify that statement to say, “Everything has changed about the gear we use.” Amateur astronomy has not changed in that it is still a special sort of pursuit for a few thoughtful people fascinated by The Great Out There.

One other thing that has not changed is that amateur astronomers are obsessed by telescopes. That being the undeniable case, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what has changed in the equipment market. Dang near fifty years is a long, long time, but I was still amazed to sit down with the June 1966 copy of Sky and Telescope magazine and see just how many of the oh-so-famous telescope makers in that issue’s advertisements are not just gone, but long gone, and usually barely remembered.

Edmund

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: in the sixties and well into the seventies, Edmund Scientific WAS U.S. amateur astronomy. Their ad in the June 1966 Sky and Telescope is a full page, but is not lavish. It’s mostly made up of little black and white pix, some of which don’t even concern the company’s astronomy products. Didn’t matter. We all knew Edmund was it, where most of us went or wanted to go for what little astro-stuff we could afford.

That continued well into the eighties, though Edmund’s prominence in the astro-market had been waning since the seventies. What changed Edmund Scientific was the retirement of its founder, Norman Edmund, and, more than that, the change in amateur astronomy. By the seventies’ end, the traditional Newtonians sold by Edmund and most other U.S. scope manufacturers were on their way out, displaced by the new Dobsonian Newtonians and by the higher tech and more astrophotography-capable Schmidt Cassegrains sold by those west coast upstarts, Celestron. Unlike some of their competitors, Norman’s son and his staff had the sense to cut back on scopes, and were thus able to keep on trucking.

Edmund Scientific is still around, but it’s not the Edmund it used to be; it’s been split in two. There’s Edmund Optics, which is the direct descendant of the original company, but its focus is different. Mostly it’s devoted to selling optical and other “scientific” supplies to industry and the educational market, mostly the latter, I would guess. Like similar outfits, many of their prices are high and nobody other than a secondary school or college would consider paying them. They do still sell the famous Edmund RKE eyepieces for reasonable prices, but last time I checked the catalog, they were listed as microscope eyepieces. Sigh.

The other half of the cleaved Edmund is “Scientifics,” the consumer part of the business, which is independently owned, having been sold off some years ago. Not that that made much difference. The stuff they are selling is about what Edmund Scientific was offering before the sale. There’s even astro-gear. Amazingly, some of the old stuff is still there, like Sam Brown’s How to Use Your Telescope and The Mag 5 Star Atlas. Telescopes, though? All that’s left in the catalog or on the website other than Celestron and Meade products is the little Astroscan.

Criterion

If there was a competitor for Edmund in the hearts and minds of li’l Rod and his amateur buddies of fifty years ago, it was Criterion. They won us over by selling a line of Newtonian telescopes that were more reasonably priced than most and also performed better than most. Especially the RV-6 six-inch, which even staunch Edmundite Unk had to admit was a cut above Norman’s Super Space Conqueror. Uncle Rod and many other amateurs still love and use that simple but effective telescope even unto this day.

What happened to Criterion? The same thing that caused Edmund to move to the shallow end of the astronomy pool: SCTs. Unlike Edmund, however, who knew how to read the cotton-picking tea leaves, Criterion decided to take on Celestron on their own turf, producing a line of Schmidt Cassegrains, the Dynamaxes. You can read the whole gory story in my Used CAT Buyer’s Guide, but the bottom line is that Criterion was unable to produce consistently good Schmidt Cassegrains.

That was purty disappointing for us Criterion fans who had expected great things from the company given the (relatively) high quality of their German mount reflectors. Luckily for them, Criterion’s owners, a father and son, knew when to give up the ship and bailed out in 1982 just before the Halley debacle, selling the company to Bausch and Lomb. The then-huge B&L no doubt thought they might do some serious business with SCTs with the big Comet on the way. While B&L did turn out a good CAT in the form of the 8-inch 8001 Pro, by the time they found their feet in the bidness the astronomy gear crash was upon us and they quickly shut the whole thing down.

While some of the old telescope companies survive, at least in shadow existences, and some, like Edmund, are more or less still in the astronomy game, nothing has been heard of Criterion since the 1980s. I’ve halfway expected B&L or somebody else to resurrect the name and plaster it on cheap imported scopes from China, but that has not happened, which is maybe a good thing.

Jaegers

Third place for Unk and his fellow penniless teenage amateur astronomers of the Age of Aquarius was occupied by a little company out of Lynbrook, New York, A. Jaegers. They didn’t sell telescopes other than the occasional Tasco, but they sold dern near everything else. Lotsa WWII surplus, but, most of all, amateur telescope making components. Tubes, focusers, complete GEM mounts, primary and secondary mirror mounts, even mirror making kits.

Jaegers had a big two page ad in Sky and Telescope, but they ran the exact same ad month after month for over a decade, which led to young Unk considering them a little low-rent compared to, say, Edmund. That didn’t stop me from buying from ‘em of course—quite the opposite. Being as bereft of funds as a twelve year old amateur astronomer can be, their stuff was a god-send. Just a year or two after the June ’66 issue of S&T appeared in the folks bright green mailbox, I took the bit between my teeth and used the $11.95 I’d laboriously saved (and begged from Daddy) and bought one of Jaegers’ “Astronomical Kits,” to grind and polish my own 6-inch mirror.

What happened to Jaegers? The same thing that happened to Edmund and Criterion: the wind-change in astronomy. By the 1980s, the ATM market had begun to collapse.  Us teen astronomers from the 1960s now had the money for store-bought telescopes, and didn’t have time for ATMing what with getting careers and marriages started. The period at the end of the Jaegers sentence was a fire that caused severe damage to their shop.

A. Jaegers is remembered fondly, not just for their Newt parts and pieces, but for their achromatic objectives. Their 4, 5, and 6-inch lenses and the refractors amateurs fabricated with ‘em are sought after and can fetch surprising amounts of moola today. And Jaegers may not be completely gone, continuing in a ghostly existence today. A couple of years ago good buddy Phil Harrington reported that Jaegers has a storefront in Millbrook New York, and I see Jaegers stuff for sale on Surplus Shed’s website every now and then.

Cave

If there is a company amongst the old guard that is as well thought-of or maybe even better thought of today than they were in 1966, that is Cave Optical, the maker of the famous Astrola GEM Newt telescopes. They were a big presence in S&T in the sixties and on through the seventies, and were much admired by us in the peanut butter and jelly brigade, though there was no way we could afford Mr. Thomas Cave’s creations. Adding to their mystique and reputation were the facts that Cave was not just the owner of the company; he was an observer of legendary repute. And Astrolas were the choice of the day’s top names in amateur astronomy—folks like pioneering astrophotographer Evered Kreimer.

Were Cave’s telescopes as good as their reputation? Has that held up over time? Mostly yes to both. Not all Cave optics are good, some are bow-wows. Most, however, are pretty good, and some, especially those done by Cave’s superstar optician, Alika Herring, are superb. The scopes themselves, the mounts and OTAs, are OK, but not that great by today’s standards. Those long, gleaming white tubes and big GEM mounts look cool even now, but in typical 60s fashion they are shakier than they look.

Cave could probably have carried on through the 1990s and beyond despite the changing market due to the stellar reputation of Astrola Telescopes. Alas, Tom Cave, who was Cave Optical, was forced to retire in 1979 due to failing health and sold the company.

“Astrola” is still alive, off and on at least, with Hardin Optical, who purchased the rights to the name, occasionally marketing eyepieces and other gear under that brand. Certainly Cave is alive today for amateurs who appreciate a good Newtonian. Prices for used Astrolas continue to climb, and the dream of many amateurs is finding a big honking 10-inch or 12-inch at a yard sale for fifty bucks. Unk? After admiring Astrolas in the pages of The Magazine for a decade, he fulfilled his dream by purchasing an 8-inch in the 1970s. Only to find it really wasn’t the scope for him. So it goes.

Starliner and Optical Craftsmen and Pacific Instruments

I lump these three together because I don’t know a whole lot about the businesses that produced them. I have used their scopes, so I do know something about those, however. The bottom line is that the three produced traditional Newts not much different from any of the others on the market. Pacific Instruments did add a few semi-innovations to their mounts, but not enough to really make them stand out. The optics? I’ve used all three brands in numbers that reflect the small numbers produced. Pacific Instruments scopes generally impress. Starliner sometimes does. Optical Craftsmen? Not so much.

What happened to these companies is what happened to all the other small/garage businesses in astronomy in the seventies-eighties. Pacific and Optical Craftsmen, anyway. Starliner continued on until at least the mid 1990s, even running small ads once in a while. I doubt they produced many telescopes—if any—after the 80s, though. A buddy of mine gave ‘em a call out of curiosity in the early 1990s. The person he spoke to—maybe the company’s owner—didn’t seem much interested in telescopes, and was especially not interested in selling telescopes.

Unitron

Ah Unitron, Unitron, Unitron. By god, they are still some beautiful telescopes. In The Day, their ads in Sky and ‘Scope, one full inside page and the back cover, were almost holy. ‘Course their prices, which began at 125 bucks for a 60mm alt-azimuth refractor, made little Rod want to holler “Holy spit!” (this is a family oriented blog, y’all) when Mama wasn’t around. $125.00 in 1966 greenbacks is equivalent to about $1000.00 now, and Unitron’s prices just went up from there. Neither Unk nor any of his pals in The Backyard Astronomy Society were ever able to order a telescope from that vaunted address in Massachusetts—though one kid in the neighborhood, not one of our members, did score the 2.4-inch Model 114despite the hours we spent fantasizing over the little Unitron catalog.

Unitron telescopes were high in quality and are still fairly impressive today. Their achromatic objectives can’t hold a candle quality-wise to modern refractor glass, of course, but they still do pretty well given their high f/16ish focal ratios. You probably won’t be surprised to learn Unitron telescopes are highly sought after today by aging baby-boom astronomers attempting to relive or rewrite their youth. Over on the Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes bulletin board, the mere mention of the U-word causes an immediate stampede of fanboys.

What killed Unitron? Like everybody else, they were hit hard by the recession of the seventies, and even moreso by the growing interest in astrophotography. Imaging Stephan’s Quintet with an f/16 scope did not have much appeal, after all. Most fatally, the Japanese company Unitron bought its parts/scopes from, Nihon Seiko, went out of business. Unitron continued selling refractors and mounts through the 80s, and their website showed a couple of telescopes in the product lineup as recently as the late 1990s (though I doubt they could have supplied one by then). Unitron is actually not dead; it is still alive selling microscopes.

If little Unk had read the above paragraph in 1966 he would have been shocked to learn that Unitron did not make its own scopes. He would have been doubly shocked to learn that most of the parts used to make the scopes, and usually the entire scopes and mounts, were made in Japan, just like the dreaded Tascos. Like Tasco, Unitron (“United Trading Company”) never made a thing. They imported Japanese parts and telescopes, just like Tasco. Generally the scopes they sold were of far higher quality than the Tascos, but not always.

Tasco

Until recently, you didn’t hear many amateurs talk about Tasco, even though they played a huge—if often uncredited—role in the amateur astronomy of the 1960s, at least amateur astronomy as practiced by us younguns. There is no doubt more of us had Tascos than Edmunds or Criterions.

I went into the details here, but the fact is Tasco imported some excellent telescopes, including ones made by or including components by legendary Japanese companies like Goto and Royal. The dirtiest little secret of them all? That Ford Pinto of amateur telescopes, the 4.5-inch Tasco Lunagrosso, was equal to most and superior to some American-made telescopes of similar aperture.

As I wrote in the above-linked article, what ended Tasco was the retirement of their owner coupled with a need, or at least a desire, to compete in the Halley driven telescope market of the mid 1980s by importing cheaper and cheaper scopes. The name “Tasco” is still around and on plenty of the inexpensive Chinese telescopes that inhabit Wal-Mart at Christmastime, but that company has no relation to the original. The most surprising thing, given how me and my mates used to badmouth everything Tasco, is how almost any Tasco telescope is now much desired by, yep, nostalgic Boomer amateurs. Never thought I’d live long enough to see that, y’all.

And so the parade has gone by. Most of the companies who ran those drooled-over ads in the summer of 1966 are no more or have changed beyond all recognition. Do I miss the amateur astronomy of that long gone time? Once in a while. Who ain’t nostalgic for their youth? And my youth was amateur astronomy. That is tempered, of course, by the knowledge that I am having just as much or more fun in the amateur astronomy of today, and am seeing one hell of a lot more. Still, muchachos, when Unk’s eye is at the eyepiece of his RV-6 it is not unusual to hear him emit the occasional sigh.

Next Time:  DOWN CHIEFLAND WAY!..

Comments:
Rod,

I too fondly remember those days of old. I bought an 8 inch Cave Astrola.. It was a beast but had wonderful optics. I too drooled over the Unitron ads and the full page Questar ad in Sky and Tel. When I could finally afford a Questar I finally realized it was only a 3.5 inch telescope built like a jewel though. I remember putting together a 5 inch refractor with a Jaegers objective. Anyway another great article as always.

Best regards,

Pat Noisworthy
 
Yeah, that's a big "me too" on the Questar, good buddy. Though I still think about getting one every once in a while... As for the Astrola? A couple of times of loading it back in the car in the depths of an Arkansas Ozard Mountains winter is what killed that "dream scope" for me. LOL.
 
I have an eight inch Cave that needs some serious restoration work. She was given to my by a college science department about 10 years ago. The focuser and mount are bad, but the optics are "WOW". The scope I believe is an f/7. One of these days I will have the mirrors re-coated and mount it on my Losmandy G-11 and see how she works with a CCD.
 
Millbrook? I don't recall saying that, Unk. Last I saw (2004), Jaegers had reopened *Lynbrook*, their original town, but at a different address. www.ajaegers.com
 
Millbrook, Lynnbrook, they are both "brooks" ain't they?! Oh, well, I've got to admit my memory is ONE of the things that's been going south lately. LOL.
 
Sigh...nothing but amazing. I love Unk's blog. I'm a little younger, but not a lot, and spent many formative years as a teen and young teen in the 70s drooling over the same catalogs, for the same reasons. Jaegers, Edmund...yup, bought stuff from them.

A buddy got an RV6 and yes, that was the bomb-diggedty of our crowd. (Till I mowed enough lawns to build an 8" with a mirror from Coulter, I had to go bigger than Jim, of course!)

Now staring my 50's in the face, it's all changed, and I too fondly look back at those uncomplicated days. On the other hand, I sure like that CCD imager and GOTO! I figure I earned 'em, after decades of starhopping with the Skalnate Pleso, by golly.

And...the stuff I drooled after, I can now afford...especially since used scopes few understand are often crazy cheap on Craigslist! So now I have a 4 1/4" Edmunds Deluxe Space Conqueror, an original astroscan, a 3 1/8" inch Jaegers refractor..and a massive piece that screams Science with a capital S, a Unitron 76mm photo equatorial, festooned with guide scopes and finders, and which I set up with trembling hands after 30+ years of wanting one so bad I could taste it, but never dreamed I'd ever even see..let alone in my living room. It's a rare day you get something you've wanted so long for so bad, and boy was it a good day. Especially for $200 2012 dollars! (The ad said make an offer, and apparently, I was the only one who would commit to one!)

anyhow, thanks again for your blog, Unca Rod
 
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