James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Evening With John Dobson

I am one of the fortunate amateur astronomers in this world who had the chance to meet and spend some observing time with the man whose name is synonymous with the Dobsonian telescope.

I was 22 years old at the time, and it was the summer of 1985. Please forgive me if I have my dates wrong since it was 25 years ago, but it was either on Saturday August 3rd or Sunday August 4th of that year. I grew up in the small town of Elkwater in the Cypress Hills Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. During that summer, Alberta Culture and Recreation had hired John to do a number of shows at various provincial parks in the province, and ours was one of them. I had a good interest in astronomy by this time and had spent a fair bit of time under the stars myself. This was at a period of time before John had become the legend that he is today. The only Dobsonian telescopes around in those days were the ones that people had made themselves, there was very little commercial production, or at least, nothing like there is today. The magazines Astronomy and Sky and Telescope were just starting to warm up to the idea of the "Dobsonian mount" as a viable model for a large aperture instrument with some easy to use characteristics and features.

During the late afternoon, John took his van down on the field and unloaded his sky canon. This was his smaller model telescope, it housed an 18 inch mirror, and it was huge. It was clearly the largest telescope that I had ever seen in my lifetime up to that point.

As darkness began to descend on the park, John took the stage at the amphiteatre, and gave a brief talk and showed some slides. One of the first things I noticed about him was that he had an eccentric turn to him, he just struck me as someone unlike anyone I had ever met in my life. Of course his background, being born in Beijing, spending years in the monastary, and holding a degree in Chemistry is a pretty unusual combination to begin with.

The evening weather was less than perfect. But just as he finished we got a break from the clouds, and a core group of people walked on down to the scope in the field, where as kids, we used to play baseball. There were maybe 10 people. John pointed his instrument at M57, and one by one people ascended the tall ladder to glance at the Ring Nebula. I was treated to a view unlike anything I had ever seen before. There was no disputing what we were looking at. And clouds came and went and gradually people drifted away and returned to their campsites, but I stayed. I spoke with him a bit about the construction of this rather crude looking instrument that resembled a gun canon from a war ship more than a telescope. We had a chance to view a couple of more objects, M27 and M71 and they were equally breathtaking. At the end of the evening I helped him to remove the scope from its mount and load it in the van, shook his hand and thanked him very much for the chance to look through this large scope.

I had no idea at the time of the legend of a man I was meeting, but I knew that I wanted to keep doing astronomy. Within two weeks I had bought my first real camera for doing astrophotography, and started to build the base for a domed observatory to house my 6 inch scope, which I never completed. Within two months I was on my way to pick up my Cave 10 inch scope, and the following summer I built my roll off roof observatory. I really think that hour or two I spent with John Dobson convinced me that this was a valid and fantastic hobby. And if I was into this hobby before then, that time we spent together put me in with both feet and my face to the fire.

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