Sunday, October 07, 2012


Uncle Rod and Uncle Al

Al Nagler, that is. I met him at the Texas Star Party years ago and have talked with him on the phone a time or three—but who hasn’t? Al is friendly and gregarious and always willing to talk to any amateur astronomer. But this is really more about me and his eyepieces and the changes they’ve wrought on our avocation. Or maybe what it’s really about is the evolution of eyepieces over my near 50 years (ulp!) as an amateur. Even in that case, Al and TeleVue are a huge part of the story.

When I got started in 1965, most of us didn’t give too much thought to eyepieces. At least me and my fellow teen/pre-teen buddies in our little club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, didn’t. Not at first. One or two eyepieces came with your telescope. You used them to look at stuff. If you only had one, you could use the Barlow that was usually in the box with the scope to give you one more magnification.

The eyepieces you got with your wonder-scope? That depended on the scope. Those of us who started out with Japanese import telescopes were at the bottom of the power curve. Most Tasco/Sears/Jason telescopes came with multiple eyepieces. Almost always two and sometimes three. That was the good. The bad was that what you got, with a few exceptions, was very simple ocular designs, usually of the Huygenian persuasion. That was how the sellers could afford to include several “eye-lenses” as some of us called ‘em.

These oculars, sometimes also referred to as “Huygens eyepieces” consisted of two simple lens elements. The books, or at least some books, say a Huygenian can be OK with a longer focal length telescope. Maybe so if your focal ratio is in the neighborhood of what Huygens himself used way back in 1654—say f/200 or so. Even with a long Tasco refractor these poor things are bedeviled by short eye relief, tiny apparent field of view (AFOV), and much chromatic aberration.

The designs of our eyepieces were not just punk, the execution of those designs left a lot to be desired. The oculars that came with most of our telescopes were what we came to refer to as “the little ones.” At first, these eyepieces, “Japanese Standard” eyepieces with barrel diameters of .965-inches, seemed OK, about like the eyepieces for the microscopes we used in school or maybe found under the Christmas tree. That changed when some dog—Unk in the case of the B.A.S.—moved on up to a Real Telescope, like an Edmund or Criterion.

Once you got beyond the least expensive Space Conquerors and Dynascopes, you got real eyepieces, 1.25-inch barrel diameter American Standard oculars, to go with your real telescope. The designs were still simple, mostly two element Ramsdens and three element Kellners, but they were at least somewhat better than the Huygenians, and the larger diameter barrels allowed slightly more field. In general terms, the 1.25-inch eyepieces were and still are of higher quality than the .965s, though there have always been a few good .965ers around—Takahashi has made some excellent ones like their LEs over the years.

How were the Ramsdens and Kellners? The Ramsdens with their two simple lenses were pretty bad. Mostly, they share the foibles of the Huyenians, if to a lesser degree:  excess color, small fields, tight eye relief. Their main attraction was that they were cheap and would do a reasonable if not perfect job on telescopes—like Newtonian reflectors—with smaller focal ratios like f/8 and f/10 that stymied the Huygenians. Ramsdens are bearable, or at least they were bearable for us sprouts who didn’t know no better.

Kellners are a lot like the Ramsdens and Huygenians, but with a doublet achromat as the eye lens. The Kellner is better at everything. The eye relief ain’t so hot, but it is still better than the Huygenian in that regard, color is pretty well controlled, and the field is reasonably large, or was by the standards of the time—somewhere around forty degrees of apparent field of view. The drawback? The eyepieces tended to fall apart at shorter focal lengths, with performance getting worse when you got shorter than 15mm or so. The short eye-relief, especially at short focal lengths, made high power Kellners a royal pain to use and consequently rare.

‘Course, we all wanted more better gooder, and most of us sprouts (and adults in the avocation) were at least dimly aware there were better eyepieces than Ramsdens and Kellners, and that one might dramatically improve views through almost any telescope. At first, the name of that better eyepiece was “Orthoscopic.”

With four lens elements, the “Ortho” is more complex than any of the previous eyepieces. Its arrangement makes what can be a nearly perfect eyepiece at some focal lengths. Distortions are very minor across the field. Alas, that field is the Ortho’s downfall, with its AFOV being restricted to a miniscule (by modern standards) 40 – 45-degrees. More serious, perhaps, is the eyepiece’s lack of eye relief, making shorter focal length ones impossible for eyeglass wearers to use.

Even today, a good Orthoscopic can be an impressive, and we sure loved them in the late-sixties/early seventies. In theory at least. The problem with the Ortho for us wasn’t lack of apparent field or lack of eye relief; it was our lack of cash. An Ortho from Edmund would set you back about $15.00 (compared to $5.00 for a Ramsden), and one from Criterion was about the same, equivalent to at least $75.00 in today’s miniscule money. Yet most of us, including Unk, began to accumulate a few of these babies as we finished college and entered the workforce as the seventies began to wind down. I was crazy about the Vixen Orthoscopics that were beginning to come in from Japan. But by that time most of us, those of us who were focused on the deep sky, had moved past the Orthoscopic and were embracing a new (old) design, the Erfle.

The Erfle really wasn’t new, having been designed by Heinrich Erfle back in the First World War for military use. But they were new to us kids and really to amateurs in general. Prior to the sixties any commercial astro gear was rare, but by the time our days in the Sun (and under the stars) began, the equipment industry was burgeoning in a small way, and as the seventies came in, the usual suspects including Edmund and Criterion as well as upstarts like Celestron and Meade were selling Erfle eyepieces, if not that cheaply, with one going for as much as $30.00 by the mid 1970s.

What would all that moola get you? A cool-looking five-element eyepiece for which you would sometimes need a 2-inch focuser (or just a 2-inch visual back for your C8). Cool looking not just because of that big 2-inch barrel, but because of the humongous eye lens. When you finally glommed onto one and inserted it into your Orange Tube, you were presented with this gigantic field. With an AFOV of 60  - 65-degrees, using one of these puppies was like looking through a spaceship porthole. Who wanted to go back to peering at stuff through a soda-straw sized Orthoscopic?

Not that the Erfle was or is perfect. It suffered from a variety of problems, most centering around poor edge of field quality. Erfles are particularly prone to astigmatism, and they suffer from ghost images, too. B-U-T…at longer focal lengths they are bearable even today, especially in a slower scope. Longer focal length eyepieces were not a problem back then, since most of us were trying to get a little less magnification out of our new f/10 SCTs. Ghosting? We were using these things on the deep sky, not bright stars or planets, so that was not a problem, either.

As amateur astronomy, or at least the business side of amateur astronomy continued to grow, a formerly exotic design, the Plössl, signed in. This eyepiece, composed of two lens doublets, couldn’t match the Erfle for AFOV, but the edge of that 50 – 55-degree Plössl field sure did look a lot better. Unk became a fan of the legendary Celestron Silver Top Plössls in the 80s, but that was not the big eyepiece story of the decade. That was TeleVue and THE Nagler and Al Nagler. Uncle Al, that is, the first person I recall being given the now-common amateur astronomy honorific “Uncle” after the legendary original, Unk Albert Ingalls.

Al Nagler started out just like a lot of us starry-eyed young-pup astronomers in the 1950s and 1960s, but he quickly showed he was going to take things just a wee bit farther than most of us. In the late 60s, most of us schlemiels were still trying to figure out how to build a 6-inch Newtonian that would take us deeper into space than our puny 60mm refractors. Al? In the early 50s he’d already hand-crafted a prize-winning 8-inch—an 8-inch Newtonian was a huge, and I do mean HUGE, telescope in the 50s and 60s.

Al didn’t rest on his laurels; he became a regular at Stellafane, and it was obvious he was a rising star of an ATM. The 1960s found him at Farrand Optical working on the optics for the Apollo LEM simulator. Al’s story is one of a talented hard worker who, in 1977, started his own company, TeleVue Optics Incorporated, located (then) in Spring Valley, New York. The only surprising part of the Nagler story? His company didn’t start pumping out eyepieces and refractor telescopes for a little while.

TV’s first big product was for TVs, lenses for projection televisions. One of the common features of the mirror-ball festooned discos in the age of Saturday Night Fever was a projection TV. Since there were no commercially available color flat panel displays, tubes projected images onto a curved screen almost the size of the HD TVs we have in our living rooms today. The projectors were crude and the images dim, and a good projection lens was essential and that was what TeleVue supplied.

Not that Al had abandoned astronomy, not hardly. By the late 1970s he was also selling a line of Plössl eyepieces. By this time, most of us Jane and Joe Amateurs had had some experience with “symmetrical” oculars, but Al’s Plössls turned out to be something special, with much attention being given optical quality and build quality. Reviewers and rank and file amateurs noticed how sharp the TV eyepieces were. We were further attracted by a price, $45.00 initially, which, while not cheap, was doable for most of us who’d started out as kid astronomers in the 60s. Almost from the get-go, Al established himself as the king of quality eyepieces.

Unk Al had something special in mind for his next big product. An eyepiece that not only equaled but surpassed the apparent fields of the Erfles by a fair margin with an 82-degree AFOV as compared to the 60-something of the older eyepieces. More importantly, Al, using the experience he’d gained working on the NASA optical systems, was able to achieve a big field that was impressively sharp and aberration free, even when used with the increasingly fast optics of them new-fangled “Dobsonians.” Not only was the Nagler the first new significant eyepiece design in many years, it was far more complex than anything else being marketed to amateur astronomers at the time, with some of the eyepieces being made up of eight lens elements.

In 1980, the first Nagler, the 13mm, went on sale. It wasn’t cheap; in fact it was scary expensive, $250.00, which is equivalent to at least 600 of today’s smaller greenbacks. You’d a-thought we-all would have laughed Al Nagler’s Nagler out of town: imagine paying more for an eyepiece than you did for your telescope! But we didn’t. The few reports we were getting said Al’s claim that viewing with the Nagler was like walking in space was true. And maybe the preaching of Al and Lumicon founder/owner Dr. Jack Marling that eyepieces contribute a lot to a telescope’s performance was finally sinking in. Bottom line? We all wanted a Nagler, even if we couldn’t afford one.

A 9mm and a 4.8mm followed the 13mm by 1982, and as the 1980s wore on more focal lengths were introduced along with an improved models of some of ‘em. The Type II Naglers and the monstrous and, for the time, monstrously expensive ($425.00) 20mm Nagler coming out in 1986. I reckon all us old timers remember Al’s funny but succinct ad for the 20mm. Anyhoo, that was about where my story with Al began. Not that I immediately rushed out and bought the 20, young engineer not long out of the military with a young family that I was.

I continued on happily with my Vixen Orthos, a Konig  or two, and, when I wanted More Better Gooder field wise, a University Optics Erfle I’d finally acquired. It was not bad at all in my SCT, if not perfect either. In other words, I was a happy little camper because I didn’t know no better.

That changed one fall night in 1993 at one of the first Deep South Regional Star Gazes I attended. While taking a break from my telescope, which at that particular time was an 8-inch F/7 Coulter Odyssey 8-inch, and strolling around the field I came upon the setup of a nice feller, a fellow Coulter user. Except this was a big dog of an Odyssey. I can’t remember if it was a 13-inch Odyssey I or a 17-inch Odyssey II, but it was way bigger than my humble 8. This kind soul asked me if I wanted a look at M13 before it got too low. I said, “Sure,” which he responded to with, “Hold on a minute. Let me put the 13mm Nagler in the focuser.”

To say my first look at the Great Globular with a Nagler was a game changer would be an understatement. Dern good thing I wasn’t standing on a ladder or I’d have been knocked off it. The first thing that struck me, surprisingly, was not that huge 82-degree field, but how sharp and tiny the cluster stars were. And how good the contrast between those stars and the background field was. The pea-picking Coulters were not exactly optical marvels, but the Nagler went a long way to making this one act like a marvel. Even without a coma corrector—I didn't know pea-turkey about coma correctors in the early 90s, anyway—the stars at the edge of the field of this f/4.5 scope were dang good. As good or better, I thought, than they would have been in a narrower field ocular. I just looked and looked, probably outstaying my welcome, but I couldn’t help it.

So I started dreaming of a Nagler of my own. Not that TV was the only game in town when it came to 82-degree AFOV eyepieces. Al had been competing with Meade for a while in Plössls and soon enough they came out with their own “Naglers,” the Ultra Wide Angles, that, with some justification, a lot of us referred to as “clones.” Clones, maybe, but good ones, and in slightly different focal lengths than the Naglers.  Some people really liked ‘em, liked ‘em better than the “real” Naglers. Some still do. Honestly, differences were fairly minor. But only when compared to Al’s original eyepieces. The difference was that Unk Al continued to improve and upgrade his eyepieces with the Type II Naglers and beyond. Meade made no real changes to their UWAs till 2006.

Christmas of 1995 I finally got a Nagler of my own, a 12mm Type II thanks to the dear Miss Dorothy. I loved the 12 very much and I used it happily for over a decade. I was never really a Nagler hog, though. I got back into astrophotography in the mid 90s and progressed on to CCDing and webcamming when those things came into the picture. When I did “just look,” I tended to think my 12 Nag was enough. With an f/6.3 reducer on the C8, or barefoot on the C8, or with the TeleVue Big Barlow on the C8 I had a purty fair range of magnifications with the single Nag. If I had to have “way down low,” I slammed in my trusty 2-inch 38mm Rini Super Plössl (sorry you younguns missed Paul Rini’s plain but lovable oculars). Oh, I sometimes ruminated wistfully on the 20mm Nagler, but never got around to buying it.

One thing other than Unk’s basic stinginess diverted him from the Nagler path: TeleVue Panoptics. I loved and still love these 68-degree eyepieces. They are very fine. I have the 35, the 27, and the 22, and they perform splendidly in my driven SCTs. No, you don’t get quite the spacewalk effect you get with the Naglers, but almost. And they are cheaper. Considerably cheaper, which is always a draw for little old me.

I did eventually get more 82-degree eyepieces, but not Naglers. As the 1990s ran out, the Mainland Chinese optical giants began spitting out spacewalk eyepieces. At first, they were pretty punk, with field edges near bad enough to make my Aunt Lulu’s poodle dog throw up his Gravy Train. But they got better in a hurry. In 2006, a series of 82-degree eyepieces that ranged from “almost as good” to “a little bit better” than Naglers appeared. These were and are sold by William Optics as the Uwans, and are also available from Orion (U.S.) as the Megaviews. If there is a down-check to the Uwans, it’s the limited number of focal lengths, 4, 7, 16, and 28 millimeters and the fact that the Chinese maker has, like Meade with its Ultra Wides for so many years, not continued to improve the oculars.

Did the Chinese clones or semi-clones hurt TeleVue? Not really. Plenty of amateurs realized that while the fare for a TeleVue was higher, it got you THE BEST. In some cases a Meade or a Uwan might be slightly, ever so slightly, better in some focal lengths, but it was slight and that was offset by TeleVue’s consistently better build quality and customer support.

In the early years of this new century, Uncle Al was in the doldrums as far as I was concerned. Oh, he continued to release new and better eyepieces, making it all the way to the type 6es in the Nagler line, adding focal lengths, and introducing zooms and specialty eyepieces like the Radians. I was waiting for something on the blow-you-away order of the introduction of the first Nagler, though, and began to think that might not ever happen.

Then it did. In 2008 I purchased an eyepiece that changed everything again. Some time before, my good buddy Pat Rochford and I had begun hearing a rumor that Al was gonna do it again: this time with a hundred degree apparent field eyepiece. Surely that couldn’t be true? 100-freaking-degrees? It was true, and the first look through one—coincidentally maybe, again a 13mm—that Pat and I had out on the Chiefland Astronomy Village observing field convinced both of us we had to have one.

I spent one November CAV starparty doing nothing but using my two Ethos eyepieces--I couldn’t resist also buying the 8mm that followed the 13 out the gate. I looked at everything in my 12-inch Dobsonian. I looked at every halfway decent object I could think of because every object looked new again. The experience, which I can only call EXTREME space walking, was just like the time I put my eye to that old 13 Nagler. After that I could never go back to 55-degrees. After the Ethos, I didn’t think I could go back to a mere 82.

Over the last several years Unk Al has continued to add more focal lengths to the Ethos line, a line of eyepieces that even the naysayers—and there are a few of those—admit is probably the best series of oculars ever released. As always, though, Al has competition. This time from Explore Scientific, whose ES 100s are, like the Meade UWAs were, a little less expensive and available in slightly different focal lengths. Will ES, unlike Meade, continue to upgrade and expand over the long run? Only time will tell, but Scott Roberts and company seem to be pulling ahead of TeleVue in innovation at the moment, having just released a ground-breaking (and expensive) 9mm eyepiece with a dadgum 120-degree apparent field.

And good on ‘em. Honest competition never hurt anybody. I am not immune to the allure of better and cheaper, muchachos, not hardly. My eyepiece box ain’t TeleVue only—hell, I even have a Zhumell 100 in there. And yet, and yet... When I want the best, I keep coming back to good, old Uncle Al. Things haven’t changed in that regard since the night I put my wondering eye up to that funny looking eyepiece and nearly fell into its field.

Next Time: The Star Party Zoo

Trying VERY hard not to think what Ethos would be the best compromise for the C8 here, any takers?
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