Dobson at 1993 MKSP-SQ

Remembering John Dobson

Iconic American telescope maker and astronomy popularizer John Dobson died on January 15, 2014, in Burbank, California, after a brief illness. He was 98.

By Ken Hewitt-White

Dobson at 1993 MKSP
John Dobson talks telescopes at the 1993 Mount Kobau Star Party in British Columbia.
Courtesy Gary Seronik

John Dobson was the eccentric but ingenious inventor of the Dobsonian telescope, though Dobson himself preferred the term “sidewalk telescope.” He was known to amateur astronomers worldwide for his infectious enthusiasm, his resourceful ATM skills and, to a lesser extent, his contrarian views on cosmology.

Dobson’s life was a long sequence of improbable highlights. He was born in China in 1915, but at age 12, he moved with his family to the United States where, in 1943, he earned a degree in chemistry at the University of California. Yet just one year, later Dobson eschewed mainstream life to become a monk in the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco. There, over a period of 23 years, he worked on reconciling Vedanta spirituality with the science of astronomy. (This, in part, led to his unorthodox cosmological musings.) Desiring to see the universe for himself, the penniless monk began fabricating rudimentary reflecting telescopes. After marvelling at the Moon in his own optics, he thought, “Everybody’s got to see this.” Dobson would sneak out of the monastery at night, scope in tow, to show the neighbourhood the celestial sights.

By the late 1960s, his monastic life over, Dobson was building ever larger instruments out of readily available parts: reinforced Sonotubes and surplus plywood for the mechanical components and thin porthole glass for fashioning into parabolic mirrors. His telescopes were low-cost, light-weight and user-friendly. Toting them around town, Dobson embarked on a quest to take astronomy to the people — first on the sidewalks of San Francisco, then in the national parks. He also staged mirror-making clinics at star parties and taught telescope-making classes across California and beyond. In this way, Dobson got folks from all walks of life to make telescopes and to see the universe for themselves.

My memories of John Dobson are mainly from the early years. I met him in 1974 at the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference in southern California. (Typically, he was conducting a mirror-making workshop called The Three-Minute Pitch-Lap.) In 1983, I invited Dobson to Canada to tour with me through the parks of British Columbia and Alberta. After that, Dobson came to Canada frequently, being a guest of the Mount Kobau Star Party on several occasions. Naturally, the organizers put The Master to work judging entries in the telescope-making competition!