5 Great Telescopes That Changed Amateur Astronomy
Posted by Brian Ventrudo
We came across some ads for classic telescopes from the 1950′s to the 1980′s, and we were stricken with astronomical nostalgia. We drooled over some of these ads in our younger days, and if you’ve been around long enough, perhaps you did too.
To be honest, almost every telescope available today is just as good or better than the offerings of 30-40 years ago. And the prices in real dollars are much lower. But it’s still fun to look back and consider how far the tools of amateur astronomers advanced over the last 30-40 years. Thousands of these old telescopes are still in use today.
There’s nothing like the look and feel of a fine refractor. Long, sleek, and serious, a refractor LOOKS like a real telescope. Today, refractors are back in style. But in the 1970′s, Unitron was one of the few and certainly the preeminent maker of well-engineered refractors, many of which bristled with eyepieces, finders, and guidescopes for astrophotography. These telescopes mesmerized solar system observers and hardcore optical purists.
Questar was the Rolls-Royce of telescopes. First introduced in 1952, they merged art and fine engineering to produce a 3.5″ and later 7″ Maksutov-Cassegrains with tack-sharp optics and Swiss-watch mechanics. These scopes were used by astronomers, National Geographic photographers, and even NASA engineers. Questar was for those who wanted and could afford the best: the 3.5″ model sold for almost $6,000 in today’s dollars!
Celestron has changed ownership over the years, but they’re still going strong. In 1971 they became the first to mass-market Schmidt-Cassegrains, which put compact large-aperture scopes into the hands of thousands of ambitious amateurs. In the ’70′s, Celestron was known for its trademark orange tubes on its 5″, 8″, and 14″ Schmidt-Cassegrains. But in the 1960′s, Celestrons built white-tube SCT’s for universities and professional observatories, in sizes from 6″ to 22″.
We move downmarket now, but to a no less venerable telescope. The Criterion RV-6 Dynascope was for serious amateurs with limited budgets, and more sold than almost any other scope of the time. The optics were sharp, the mount solid, and the clock drive smooth and reliable. This scope, along with its 8-inch sibling, sold well through the late ’50′s to the mid ’70′s. Criterion then made a major blunder with the Dynascope, its 8-inch Celestron SCT wannabe which featured lousy optics and a shaky mount. The product killed the company.
After the SCT craze of the 1970′s, an obscure ex-monk named John Dobson brought aperture to the masses by creating a telescope that combined large optics with a cheap and simple altazimuth mount. The Dobsonian telescope was born. But Dobson was no capitalist. It fell to a company called Coulter Optical to build and market a 13.1″ scope that sold for less than an 8″ SCT. Dobsonians remain an immensely popular design to this day. They sell for $50-$100/inch of aperture, half the price of an SCT and 1/10 the price of a top-notch refractor. A perfect telescope for the visual observer.