John Dobson – ‘Sidewalk Astronomer’

The ‘legend’ – John Dobson

John Dobson has been called the “Pied Piper of Astronomy.” He is arguably one the most influential personalities in amateur astronomy in the last 50 years. The legacy will last  as long as the legend.

He has almost single-handedly revolutionized backyard astronomy by bringing it out to the street, making it accessible for anyone who has ever looked up in wonder, and asked “Why?” John Dobson was born in Peking (Beijing), China, on September 14, 1915. His maternal grandfather was the founder of Peking University.

His mother was a musician; his father taught Zoology at the University. In 1927, John and his family moved to San Francisco due to political and social unrest in China. John had 3 brothers: Ernest, Lowry, and Harrison. John’s father accepted a teaching position at Lowell High School and taught there from 1927, until he retired in the 1950’s.

John Dobson poses with one of his home-made telescopes in Monmouth, Oregon

After completing a degree in Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley in 1943, John worked in a number of defence-related jobs. John was what he describes at a “belligerent” atheist. Attending a service at the Vedanta center in San Francisco, he realized they were on to something and soon after, he joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order.

He spent the next 23 years in the Monastery. When he joined the Order, known for its intellectual rigor and public service, he was given the assignment of reconciling the teachings of religion with those of science.

A Yearning To Build

Having graduated from the university as a chemist, he wanted to see for himself what the Universe looked like, so John built his first telescope in 1956. It was a 2″, made from a lens he got in a junk store and an eyepiece from an old pair of Zeiss binoculars; through it, he could see the rings of Saturn. One of his fellow monks told him that it was possible to grind a telescope mirror, so John then made his first mirror out of a marine-salvage 12″ porthole glass.

When he looked at the third-quarter moon with his finished telescope, he was surprised and deeply moved by what he saw. His first thought was, “Everybody’s got to see this.” So began John’s long commitment to public-service in astronomy.

John Dobson lecturing in San Francisco in the 1980s. Credit Mark Leet

John was transferred to the Vedanta Monastery in Sacramento in 1958 and started getting seriously involved in telescope making. The first telescope he made at Sacramento was a 5-inch reflector; the mirror made from the cut-out bottom of a discarded gallon jug.

A Need To Share

It was John’s greatest delight to share the beautiful things he saw through the telescopes with others. One of his friends was so amazed by what he saw through the 5-inch telescope, that he told John, “You’ve got to make something bigger!”, and donated some salvaged portholes.

The portholes had to be smuggled into the monastery in fertilizer boxes. John also had to screen his own sand for grinding and made his own rouge out of garden supplies (ferrous sulphate and oxalic acid).

All of this had to be done without attracting the attention of those members of the monastery who felt that his continued telescope making and public service astronomy were not an appropriate pursuit for monks or the best use of his time.

All On A Budget

The noisy job of grinding mirrors had to be done under water to deaden the sound. Since John was a monk and had no money, he had to find a way to mount the mirrors using scrap materials that could be gathered up at no cost. His telescopes were made from discarded hose reels, lumber core cut-outs from school house doors, and scrap wood.

Such was the humble origin of what has come to be known as the “Dobsonian” telescope. These are Newtonian telescopes. A Dobsonian mount is really a type of alt-azimuth telescope mount. What makes its so unique is its simplicity, it moves up and down, left and right.

No Patent Needed

John never thought of getting a patent for his design although many suggested it. It’s like re-inventing a cup, we’ve had cups all along, and if you try to patent a cup with a handle, you can’t. While patenting his design might have been difficult, it wouldn’t have been difficult to copyright the name “Dobsonian”, but that was never something John even considered. His mission was to get as many telescopes out there as possible by making it as easy as possible, not making it harder with restrictions.

Sharing The Enthusiasm

The desire that drove John to make more and larger telescopes, and to put himself in increasing peril of expulsion by monastic authorities, was to give everybody the opportunity to see the Universe first-hand. He put discarded wagon wheels on his telescopes to facilitate wheeling them around the residential neighbourhood surrounding the monastery – delighting kids and adults with the views of the night sky.

John Dobson leads a group of amateur astronomers in discussion and gives points on how to make their own telescopes, called Dobsonian telescopes

Naturally, when people started to look through John’s telescopes some of the neighbours and their kids wanted John to help them make their own telescopes. He realized that this would make his life more difficult because his AWOL hours from the monastery would increase. Nevertheless, he continued and expanded his activities, till he was asked to leave the monastery in the Spring of 1967, after 23 years as a monk.

Ironically, the “last straw” event was a mistake, they thought John was absent with his telescope but in fact he was weeding the lawn out side the wall, out of sight. He was not expelled because the monks were against his telescope making, but because it was perceived to be taking time away from his monastic duties.

Sidewalk Astronomy Is Born

With no “profession” and an overwhelming desire to show the night sky, John decided to dedicate the rest of his life to public service astronomy and hitchhiked to San Francisco. Then as now, John had many friends, and they helped to keep him fed, clothed, and sheltered. He retrieved some of his telescopes from Sacramento and set them up at the corner of Broderick and Jackson streets in San Francisco every clear night.

Thousands of people looked through the telescopes while John talked to them in detail about what they were seeing. (This practice is still an integral part of Sidewalk Astronomy: astronomical information must be supplied by the telescope operator so the viewers can understand what they see.) Eventually, John was able to support himself by teaching classes in telescope-making and astronomy at the Jewish Community Center and at the California Academy of Sciences.

The Birth Of An Idea

In 1968, some of the kids who had made telescopes under John’s guidance, and who joined him in setting up scopes at Jackson and Broderick, started a public-service organization named the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. As the organization grew, larger telescopes were made and taken out to the streets. By 1970, the Sidewalk Astronomers had a 24-inch telescope which was freeway portable.

Members of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers unload their Dobson-inspired 24-inch reflector from a bus at the 1978 Riverside Telescope Makers Convention

The possibility of showing deep sky objects to large numbers of people through very large telescopes led the growing band of Sidewalk Astronomers to National Parks and Monuments, Native American reservations, and out of the country to places where “dark skies and the public collide.”

There’s nothing like individualising your Dob Scope

In 1978, Swami Swahananda, formerly of the San Francisco and Berkeley Vedanta centers and recently transferred to Hollywood, invited John to give a series of lectures at the Vedanta Society of Southern California. The lectures were a great success so he began teaching telescope making and for 26 years, he continued to teach in Hollywood, spending at least two months there each year. The Brothers at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood have always supported John and his vision.

A Writer Emerges

While John was no longer a monk, his beliefs and his former task of reconciling Vedanta and science had a great influence on him and his interpretation of the cosmos. He has written two booklets, Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science and Astronomy for Children which explain his thoughts and prove him to be as much a philosopher as he is a popularizer of astronomy.

Sidewalk Expansion

Because of his influence, millions of people all over the world have looked through the telescopes of the Sidewalk Astronomers (the San Francisco was dropped when chapters started forming worldwide). John has helped to simplify the art of mirror making enabling thousands of children and adults with no previous experience or special training in optics to experience the joy of turning slabs of glass into powerful eyes into the heavens with their own hands.

The “Dobsonian” mount has made large, “user friendly” telescopes affordable and accessible to the general public. Thousands of people have made their own sturdy, low-cost telescopes under John’s direction or on their own by using his simple design.

Telescopes with light-weight mirrors previously considered unusable, long focal ratios previously considered unmanageable, and apertures previously considered unthinkable are now in the hands of lovers of astronomy around the globe. With so many home-made Dobsonians showing up everywhere, commercial telescope makers joined the trend and now most offer relatively inexpensive Dobsonians.

Immeasurable Impacts

Because of the popularity of home-made and commercial Dobsonians, it is impossible to measure the impact John has made on amateur astronomy and because of the changing role of amateur astronomy in discovering comets and other celestial objects, it is equally impossible to measure the true contribution his inspiration has made to our knowledge of our Universe.

Timothy Ferris, in his book, Seeing in the Dark, states, “the amateur astronomy revolution was incited by three technological innovations – the Dobsonian telescope, CCD light-sensing devices, and the Interent.” When asked about the “Dobsonian Revolution”, John usually replies that all previous revolutions were fought with cannons on Dobsonian mounts.

In 2004, Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science was retitled, BEYOND SPACE & TIME – Is there an uncaused cause behind the Deep Field? and is now available. Another new title THE MOON IS NEW, a novel, is also in the publishing process and should be out early in 2005.

The stable part of a Dobsonian telescope is the mount

John has recently been shown in two documentary films. In the first, “UNIVERSE – The Cosmology Quest”, John appears along with Sir Fred Hoyle, Dr. Halton C. Arp, Dr. Margaret Burbidge, Dr. Geoffrey Burbidge, Dr. Jayant Narlikar and a host of other astronomers, cosmologist, and philosophers questioning the currently popular Big Bang Cosmology.

A Second Tribute

The second film, released in the summer of 2005, A Sidewalk Astronomer is a profile on John in tribute to his contribution to amateur astronomy. Completely unscripted, it provides a unique insight into a likewise unique individual.

Until 2008, John spent most of his time traveling and spreading the art of telescope making and sharing his views on cosmology to amateur astronomy clubs around the world, as their guest. He spent a short two months of the year at his home in San Francisco and another two months in Hollywood, the rest of the time he was teaching in Oregon, Connecticut, Chile or even Siberia. While John was no longer a monk, he still lived very simply, spending most of his time in the homes of amateur astronomers.

Health Issues Arrive

In the spring of 2008, John suffered some health issues that have considerably limited his ability to travel as he had in the past and ended up permanently residing at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. He had not become a monk again, but was accepted into the community surrounded by the caring brothers and members of the society. With their continuing support, he still did his sidewalk observing and gave talks to the Vedantans and amateur astronomers on a limited basis.

John Dobson was arguably the most influential person in amateur astronomy in the last 30 years. He almost single-handedly revolutionized amateur astronomy. In a September 1, 2004 article in the Wall Street Journal, he was characterized as one of history’s greatest popularizers of science.  (Image Credit: Griffith Observatory)

John Dobson died peacefully on the morning of 15 January 2014 in Burbank, California. He was 98. He leaves behind a son, numerous close friends, and fans and admirers worldwide. During the past four decades, uncounted thousands of observers have Dobson to thank for letting them enjoy views of the heavens through larger (and often much larger) telescopes than they could have afforded prior to his invention.

His Legacy Lives On

John Dobson’s life has been a tremendous inspiration to a great many people. The Sidewalk Astronomers continue to serve the public with large telescopes, providing free “star parties” and slide shows under dark skies and city lights, encouraging the citizens of this planet to think and wonder about the Universe and give them a chance to see its beauty with their own eyes.

A Lasting Legacy

To members of the Sidewalk Astronomers, John continues to provide guidance and inspiration. His unending desire to always keep learning and discovering things for himself has affected all of those around him. One of his favourite sayings is “If you figure something out for yourself, it doesn’t make no never-mind who figured it out first, its yours.”

His life of enthusiastic, selfless public service and his genuine love and concern for this planet and those that live on it are the foundation and guiding principle of our organization. Dedicated to Public Service Astronomy.

Source: The Sidewalk Astronomers. All rights reserved worldwide.

      A Message from Pam Shivak

As the new Coordinator of the Solar Sidewalk Astronomers, I thought it fitting to have a Solar SUN-day! Join Sidewalk Astronomers around the world in this celebration of the sun by taking to the sidewalks, street corners, parks, libraries or any public place and setup solar scopes.

Celebrate SOLAR Sidewalk Astronomers SUN-day with a Public Solar Star Party on (or about) September 11th, 2016!

This is the inaugural event of the new Solar Division of the Sidewalk Astronomers, so we invite you to join in this exciting event! SSA-Sunday is just one part of John Dobson’s Month long celebration of his life and legacy! On Sept. 14th, 2015 he would have been 100 years old!

Read previous post:
Monster Mile-Wide Asteroid Whizzes Past Earth

A massive two kilometre-wide asteroid has made a dramatic “near...

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid-Sampling Mission Ready to Launch

NASA's first-ever asteroid-sampling spacecraft is poised for an on-time liftoff Thursday...

Extreme Ballooning – On Titan

A small Oregon company is working with NASA to develop...