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John Dobson and Delphinium
Brian Rhodes 
 

Sometimes it is the smallest detail that can spark imagination.

 

A friend described a large piece of glass he had at home. It was about 6”x2”, you can grind it to make a telescope he said. I thought that is amazing! About half a year later, early in 1968, I bought an 8” mirror kit from OpticaBC and followed instruction in Gene Teixeira book, 55 gallon barrel and all. I ground and then polished with a black tar lap on ceramic tool, but figuring the curve was beyond me, Foucault testing? There has to be a better way.

 

Asking friends, I finally met John Dobson who said come over and we will work on the mirror up at Mt Tamalpais. So that is what we did, from the back of his van, up on the mountain eating yogurt with frozen grape juice concentrate (John called it purple iceberg) and polishing the mirror.

 

John used a point source of light to correct the parabolic curve of the mirror by comparing the out of focus disk of light at the eyepiece. John said that the out of focus disks of light should look identical both inside and outside of focus for a perfect mirror. He used the tiny reflection from a power pole insulator as a point source of light.

 

Thanks John for opening my eyes and clearing the dark cloud of complication. John’s telescope making is pure genius.

 

The intersection --- Meet me up on Jackson and Broderick tonight to show the stars, John said. It was there that I met Joni Jackson. She helped John with telescope making classes and sidewalk astronomy. She could play the guitar and wrote a song about the iron in our blood, my brother, from exploded stars.

 

We walked on Mt. Tamalpais during the day, and showed stars at night. In just a few months I had an 8 incher and then a 16 incher and was showing the stars to people at Jackson and Broderick. My very first views of the Moon and Saturn through a telescope, was at that intersection.

 

There are not many people up in Pacific Heights just walking around, so we started taking our telescopes too Ghirardelli Square where more like two thousand people looked through our scopes every weekend. We never went back to Jackson and Broderick.

 

Jeff Roloff ---- I never met the two young boys that John cofounded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers with (Bruce Sams, Richard Snell, 9 – 12 year old) their parents didn’t let them run around I guess, but I did meet Jeff Rolloff. Jeff was an 18 year old university student of Geology. He went on a lot of our adventures.

 

Jeff, Joni, John and I would hike all over Mt. Tamalpais trails every Saturday and Sunday for several years. What a beautiful place to walk, sometimes the mountain is covered with Blue Bonnets, Larkspur, Delphinium, sprinkled with bright orange poppy. That’s what John wanted, hike up those trails, exercise, eat good food; John was an inspiration in many ways. We asked many questions about the universe, physics and of course nutrition. John could always answer your questions and make you understand most of the time, at least he got you thinking.

 

John liked to entertain the public using telescopes and explain what it is you see in the universe. I thought yes I would like to help John in any way I could. So when he asked if I wanted to build a 16 incher next, I said yes. The 16 became our workhorse, for a year or so, until the 24 got built.

 

I like woodworking and had a lot of tools, so building the scope was lots of fun. I wanted a tail gate that hinged from a box and also to slide the tube in and out of. So that’s how I constructed the 16 incher (Cyclops). I guess John liked the box design because later we constructed the 24 incher (Delphinium) the same way. It looks like a cannon, people would say.

 

My 4th and Anza shop had a couple of John’s old first telescopes that he had built while up in Sacramento. The telescope he called “The Little One” was an 18 incher. It had a slight wobble and squeaked.  We removed most of the Teflon bottom bearings leaving just 3 - that fixed the wobble. The side bearing was only about 1” diameter metal pipe with a flange screwed directly to the tube. The metal on wood had a squeak. We tried grease and that failed because it turned way too easy. We cleaned off the grease, and it worked ok.

 

John lived in the basement at 1600 Baker St. in San Francisco. The house was old Victorian two story built with redwood, owned by Lenny, don’t remember his last name nor am I sure he was Russian. But that basement was packed full of Lenny’s family belongings including a very large snooker table. There was very little room left for John who had the small room squeezed into a corner.

 

John’s room was stacked with war surplus optics, portholes, boxes, books and his tiny foot pumped organ that he loved to sing songs of praise in ancient Hindu Sanskrit. The swami at the Berkeley church liked to have John sing for the congregation. He sang at that church many times, with his foot pump organ.

 

I helped John with getting telescopes out to the public for about 6 years 1968 to 1974. At first on the sidewalk, and then later hauling the 24 incher to every star party, state park, national park and the Hopi reservation that John wanted to go to.  I hauled it first with my 1966 Dodge Van and then years later with an old school bus.

 

I converted a small trailer to carry the rocker.  Getting the rocker on and off the trailer took 4 people. The skinny, small tires quickly wore out, half way up Mt Diablo, so I made an adapter plate to fit Volkswagen wheels.  I hauled the 24 incher to Mt Diablo many times before it had any paint.

 

We finished building the 24 incher just in time for a road trip to Death Valley. There wasn’t time to get it aluminized so John had it silvered. John said the silvering guys scrubbed the glass too hard and ruined the edge. It was in Death Valley at Furnace Creek that John tested the optics using the sun reflecting from a raven’s eye. John re-corrected the curve after the trip.

 

A company up in the Mission District gave John two five gallon buckets of Day Glow paint, one blue and one red. We painted the 24 incher mostly with the blue, then mixed the two colors to get purple in which to paint the free hand shapes. Once the paint was on, John named the 24 incher Delphinium.

 

One time we drove to Portland Oregon, where John bought over a ton of portholes from a ship salvage yard. We over loaded our vans and drove home. I think that it was on this trip that we saw comet Bennett in the early morning sky (April 1970).

 

On one of our adventures we went to Mt. Shasta to work on John’s 12 inch binocular. We stopped on the way at Shasta Lake and went for a swim, I swam out twenty feet or so, while John swam out so far I could barely see him. He had previously built the giant binocular for a family living at Shasta; it was complete except prisms needed installing. We had the binocular ready and tested it on the day of the first moon landing, while still at Shasta. We could not see the lander, but what a view.

 

Urania ---- Urania Hunter and her two kids, Uranio and Yolo, went on a lot of our adventures. She usually rode with John, but we did make some trips where we all rode the old school bus. John had a traveling family for a bunch of years.  Uranio was about 5 and Yolo about 1.

 

Lots of Sidewalk Astronomers would meet us at star parties, I liked Doug Berger, he really knew the stars, and so did his friend John Bally. Doug named his 16” telescope Das Edelweiss. I also liked it when Lee McDonald showed up, he showed us Stephen’s Quintet, Corona Borealis and other galaxy clusters.

 

Herman Fast also loved the stars and with his little 4” he cataloged pairings of stars. He was a little guy with white hair and lived down in the tenderloin in one of those cheap hotel rooms. John would go pick up Herman for some of our sidewalk shows, and sometimes I would. On one star party up on the Santa Cruz Mountains, Herman and I left early and beat everybody to the observing site. Then it started snowing a lot, in no time it was 6” thick and the road department closed the road. Nobody else made it up there and we couldn’t leave. It was very cold, teeth chatter, all nighter. Herman never dressed heavy, just a couple shirts and a brown suit coat and slacks.

 

Earl Watts had a 16 incher and brought it to many star parties. Years later I saw a photo of Earl standing next to his 16 incher published in a magazine. The magazine was a special reprint from Telescope Making magazine called “How to Build a Dobsonian Telescope” copyright 1980. Bob Kestner wrote the articles about building the Dobsonians. The editor is Richard Berry who also has an article on how he built his 20.5 incher. Doug Berger and Das Edelweiss are also shown.

 

At the end of the publication is story called “An Interview with John Dobson” (reprinted from Astronomy) written by Ben Mayer. In this interview John does mention that I was the backbone and guts of the sidewalk astronomers … thanks John.

 

Tom Baker was a music teacher and lived in the east bay down by Hayward. He had a beautiful house up on a hill and a black very shiny grand piano. I went there with John to visit Tom, who had built a 10” scope in one of John classes.

 

Anyway, on the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference web site, in the archive section on past conferences 1971 they mention that this was the first appearance of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers who brought a 24” f6.5. Yet the 1970 article says that Brian Rhodes won a merit for his 16” and Tom Baker won first place for optical excellence (that is a testament to John’s telescope making ability).

 

Well April 1970 must have been our first year; there is no mention of the 24 incher. We must have traveled with just my 16 incher and smaller telescopes. I never went to any star party without John.

 

Anyway; the rtmcastronomyexpo.org site is great to go through, especially the archive, it’s a trip through time. The RTMC author does say that it is a work in progress.

 

In the 1971 article there is a picture of 24” Delphinium and 16” Cyclops, shown above. On our 1972 trip to Riverside they mention that Sidewalk Astronomers telescopes were painted in “Flower Power” colors. I also made the 1973 and 1974 trips to the RTMC at Idyllwild.

 

Cliff Livermore (lived on Alameda Island) went on some of those early trips. He had built an 18 incher in one of John’s classes, Cliff named the scope Ruthie. For some reason John wanted to make it into an off axis, unobstructed reflector. So that is what John did, at my 4th and Anza shop, he polished and figured without rotating the mirror, took a couple of weeks. It was finished in time for our 1971 road trip to RTMC and Death Valley. At RTMC Cliff’s scope won 2nd place for Uniqueness of Design, an 18” unobstructed reflector.

 

We had lots of telescope power on that trip. We stayed at Death Valley showing the stars to thousands of visitors, and as always John gave a slide show every evening while I tended the scopes. On our return trip we spent a night somewhere near Squaw Valley behind a residential area to have a star party for the people there. On the way home, descending Donner Pass, Cliff’s trailer ball came undone. The trailer with Ruthie’s rocker passed in front of me, leaped over the guard rail and disappeared down a 100’ cliff. There was nothing left to salvage, luckily he kept the mirror onboard his station wagon, so it was ok.

 

For years I worked at every function, published a monthly newsletter, got it mailed and help organize our next adventure. I also published around 50 copies each of about 4 of John writings on cosmology and physics. I typed those writings, copying from Johns handwritten originals, had them printed on parchment type paper, and bound.

 

The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers received their nonprofit corporation status thanks to member John Anderson, a corporate lawyer.

 

In 1977 I went to work full time and no longer had time to help John very much. In about 1979 I helped John rebuild the rocker for the 24 incher. Gerard Pardeihan took over hauling the 24 incher. He is artistic and repainted the 24 incher using an air brush to make the end of the tube dark blue and sprinkled with stars. So when the telescope stands straight up the end of the tube seems to disappear into the sky.

 

For the first few years, when I first met John, he drove a silver color Corvair Van, until a piston melted at Button Willow CA. Shortly after that John bought a new two tone green and white Chevy van (1973?).

 

There are three old photos of the early days that I would like to comment on. (Sidewalk Astronomers website sidewalkastronomers.us and John’s Facebook page)

 

In one photo, (probably 1972) we are up on Glacier Point over looking Half Dome with the 24 incher loaded, rocker on the trailer, 12 foot tube stuffed into my 10 foot white 1966 Dodge van. We were packed up and ready to go home after spending two weeks there, I was handing John something to eat.

 

A second photo, the same photographer wanted also to have a picture of the 24 inch mirror. Even though the mirror was already packed away, I said ok, but let’s get Half Dome reflected in it.

 

In a third photo, we are standing in front of the 24 incher at the California Academy of Sciences. The guy on the left is Brian Rhodes, young lady in the middle is Joni Jackson, and John Dobson is on the right. In the background is John’s Sun Telescope. The round sign hanging on the rocker of the 24 incher is my art work, made on ¼” plywood so that I could easily attach it to the back of the trailer while transporting. 



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