John Dobson, 1915-2014

The long-lived master of sidewalk astronomy died peacefully on January 15th. Emerging from obscurity in 1968, he introduced simple ideas that revolutionized how amateurs make and use large reflecting telescopes.

John Dobson
John Dobson leaves behind him a legacy as a revolutionary telescope maker.
A simple notice appeared yesterday on the website of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers: "It is with heavy hearts that we must report the passing of John Dobson. He died peacefully this morning, Wednesday, January 15th, in Burbank, California. He was 98 years old. He leaves behind a son, numerous close friends, and fans and admirers worldwide."

Ever since emerging from obscurity in 1968, when he left his order of Vedantan monks and founded the SFSA with students Bruce Sams and Jeff Roloff, Dobson has been a force of nature in amateur astronomy. He'll be remembered most for his novel approaches to making low-cost, large-aperture reflectors. The key was a simple, alt-azimuth wooden mount that anyone could build. Today millions of stargazers worldwide use these Dobsonian telescopes to sweep the nighttime sky.

24-inch Dobsonian in 1978
Members of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers unload their Dobson-inspired 24-inch reflector from a bus at the 1978 Riverside Telescope Makers Conference.
Dennis di Cicco
Dobson was a barnstorming evangelist for the simple joys of stargazing. During the 1980s and 1990s he traveled widely to talk about his two passions: introducing people to the night sky and pondering the complexities of the universe. As time passed, he became more focused on the latter, proffering a framework for cosmology that flew in the face of conventional thinking. (Here's a 6½-minute-long sample of that.)

Bob Naeye, S&T's editor in chief, got to know Dobson when he lived in San Francisco a decade ago. "I remember a number of occasions of doing sidewalk astronomy where John Dobson, Jane Houston-Jones, Morris 'Mojo' Jones, and I would each be at one of the four corners at a busy intersection. Our favorite spots were 9th and Irving, and 24th and Noe. When I was in the area a few months ago, I made a point of visiting those two intersections to bring back fond memories."

Dobson had slowed in recent years, not straying far from his home base in Southern California. In August 2005, at the annual Stellafane convention in Vermont, hundreds of fans feted Dobson as he turned 90 (a little early: his birthday was September 14th). I offered extended "Happy Birthday" wishes when he celebrated his 95th in 2010.

Dobson at Stellafane
John Dobson, about to turn 90, uses paper to help extinguish the candles on a cake at the Stellafane gathering in 2005. The cake was made to look like a giant pitch lap, a device used in making telescope mirrors.
Dennis di Cicco
The Sidewalk Astronomers (as they're now called) have a detailed biography of Dobson, and to mark his 80th birthday longtime acquaintance David Levy wrote a gracious profile that appeared in Sky & Telescope's September 1995 issue.

This year's International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, planned for March 8th, will be dedicated to Dobson's memory.

We all knew that John Dobson wouldn't be with us forever. Curiously, just a few days ago, I wondered how he was doing. I should have made that call to find out and wish him well.

17 thoughts on “John Dobson, 1915-2014

  1. Peter WilsonPeter W

    Saw Dobson give a talk about eight years ago. He had a lot of questions. Now that he’s with the Maker, may his soul rest with some straight answers.

  2. Kent Blackwell

    I only met John Dobson once, when he was 90. He had the enthusiasm of an 18-year old. One look at him and you knew the man loved this hobby of ours.

  3. Kent Blackwell

    I only met John Dobson once, when he was 90. He had the enthusiasm of an 18-year old. One look at him and you knew the man loved this hobby of ours.

  4. Roy RobinsonRoy Robinson

    Many years ago at a star party on Fremont Peak, John star-tested my lowly 8-inch, f/7.5 mirror and deemed it "slightly under-corrected, but smooth." He hastened to add (in case, I believe, I would be disappointed at less than perfection), "That’s great, because a mirror tends to over-correct when the ambient temperature is falling." Who can guess how many budding ATM’s he inspired. May the stars we love continue to guide you in your path through eternity.

  5. Roy RobinsonRoy Robinson

    Many years ago at a star party on Fremont Peak, John star-tested my lowly 8-inch, f/7.5 mirror and deemed it "slightly under-corrected, but smooth." He hastened to add (in case, I believe, I would be disappointed at less than perfection), "That’s great, because a mirror tends to over-correct when the ambient temperature is falling." Who can guess how many budding ATM’s he inspired. May the stars we love continue to guide you in your path through eternity.

  6. Michael Kampe

    This was the man who taught amateurs that they could make real and inexpensive contributions to astronomy. His innovations led to others, and ultimately to a revolution in amateur astronomy, overall. Mr. Dobson was truly a man who believed he could. We should all be so very lucky.

  7. Dennis Larcombe

    I also had Mr. Dobson’s help in figuring my 8" mirror at the end of a week long class in Kaslo, B.C. Although I have better telescopes now, I think I will keep that homemade one forever. Sorry but I do not have a picture of it to share here and it is back in Canada while I am in China.

  8. Sam Turner

    The words Dobsonian telescopes has been ringing in my ears for more years than I can remember, and so sad to read that John Dobson has passed away. I am on the other side of the pond, but no difference – he was the man! So, in retrospect between our two countries, I would nominate John Dobson and Patrick Moore as two of the greatest influences in the popularisation of Astronomy in modern times. Hats off to both!

  9. Joel Marks

    A great and wonderful man. The word limit for this blog does not permit me to include my reminiscence here of his visit to our home twenty years ago, but I’ve just posted it at my own site, All of the Above: The Lowdown on the High Up, if you’d care to read it. He just kept on going. I never thought I would receive today’s news of his passing. He’s up there somewhere.

  10. GeneH

    I’ve seen and heard John Dobson many times in person and on TV and each occasion was a new, fresh and enlightening experience.

    What a man, what a teacher, what a gift to humanity he was and especially to all of us who love to gaze into the heavens!

    We who have heard and seen him have been truly blessed. RIP John Dobson!

  11. Philip

    Although I do not own a Dob, I do use an alt-az mount.
    His design, so simple, yet so effective.

    I just would like to say "Thank you".

  12. Mark Lockhart

    I never met him except through his video on building a telescope. I must have watched that video a hundred times until finally I had the confidence to proceed. I would never have taken that step without his encouragement and plain explanations. it is hard to express the satisfaction of observing the universe with a mirror and telescope that I built with my own hands and then sharing that observation with my family and friends. In no small part I thanked John Dobson. Thank you, Mr. Dobson. May you rest in peace.

  13. David H

    Very sad to hear about Johns demise. It occurred to me that he and Patrick Moore must be having a great time up there trying to sort things out!!!

  14. Brad-VietjeBrad Vietje

    I had the great good fortune to meet John a number of times, and even host him at my home for 2 days when he was in Vermont for Stellafane about 15 years ago. He was interested in EVERYTHING. While paddling canoes on the Connecticut River with John and a few friends, we discussed the propagation of waves for at least an hour, and when we stopped on an island for lunch, he wanted to know "what is this tree?", What is this shrub?…"are these little berries edible?" (while trying a few)… "Why DON’T you know these things?’ he would scold in his characteristic way.

    I now do know all the trees and most of the shrubs, and have learned a lot about wild edibles, too. I have thought of John often, and not only when teaching Astronomy or telescope making, but when walking in the woods, and collecting wild edible food, and every time I get in a canoe or see a wave on the water.

    He made a large dent in the world, whether one agreed with his cosmology ideas or not. A life very well lived, indeed.

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