Monday, September 4, 2017


Sunspots...  Yesterday I read a mention somewhere that there were big sunspots facing the earth.  So I got out my eclipse binoculars and took a look – and sure enough, I could see three gigantic sunspots right near the center of the sun's disk.  The image at right was taken this morning by the SOHO satellite, but it's pretty close to what I could see in the binoculars.  The three big ones were easily seen, and I also saw a hint of the one off to the right.  The smaller one to the left I couldn't see at all.

When I was a wee lad, I built a telescope (a 6" diameter hand-ground Newtonian reflector on an equatorial mount made from galvanized pipe!).   It was a terrible telescope by any reasonable standards today, because it's now possible to buy superb mass-manufactured optics at very low prices.  But for its time (and most especially for its nearly non-existent budget!), it was actually reasonably good.  I had a simple solar viewer for that telescope: just a piece of white cardboard that I could project an image onto from the telescope's eyepiece.  It was really awkward to aim that thing, and I had to view it at an angle because the telescope's tube was in the way – but it did work and I could see sunspots with it, which thrilled me at the time.  I'll note, though, that the direct observation with these cheap (around $35) binoculars beats the pants off that telescope.

A bit of a side-note here...  Building that telescope was an inflection point in my life, for several reasons.  One was very simple: through the telescope construction I met Norman Edmund, the proprietor of Edmund Scientific.  That company was located in Barrington, New Jersey, within bicycle range of the farm I grew up on.  Back in the '60s, it was a pleasant enough ride, about three hours on mostly back roads.  I bought my telescope parts from Edmund Scientific by mail order, but when I had finished grinding the primary mirror I needed to have it silvered and overcoated.  At the time, Edmund offered mirror finishing as a service, and I rode down there to deliver my mirror for silvering and over coating.  While I was there, I looked through the submarine periscope that was mounted in the showroom, and wandered through the aisles of surplus optics, astounded at what was on offer.  While wandering, Mr. Edmund came over and introduced himself, and offered to help me find what I needed.  I left with a bag full of lenses, prisms, and first-surface mirrors that he didn't charge me for – treasures to me.  Years (and many visits) later, I ended up working there part-time.  That exposure to all sorts of technology was another inflection point for me.  The main takeaway, in the end, was the sense that I could build anything if I set my mind to it.  Cost needn't be an impediment, as almost any kind of technology was available at low cost if you knew how to do it.  My start in electronics was exactly like that: I scrounged scrap TVs from TV repair shops, and stripped them for parts.  Using those parts, I built all kinds of things, including ham radio receivers and transmitters.  It was really rare that I needed to actually purchase a part – I could find (or make) nearly everything I needed from those old scrap TVs...

1 comment:

  1. My father built his first telescope while attending the University of Arkansas, before I was born. However, he continued with amateur astronomy for most of my early life and I grew up with Edmund Scientific catalogs and boxes around the house. He built everything, from mirrors, tubes, and mounts to mirror figuring test equipment. I have vivid memories of the dance around the 55 gallon barrel, grinding the mirror, and the high-intensity process of pouring a pitch-lap (with the significant probability of an exciting fire).

    I have his final telescope now, along with a lot of supplies (mostly from Edmund). Perhaps someday I'll finish that short-focus reflector he started but never completed grinding.

    I ended up marrying a New Jersey girl and living for years within driving distance of the Edmund store in Barrington. I've looked through that periscope, and even caught some of the last performances of the "light show".

    Thanks for the memories!