Norman Edmund, Optics Entrepreneur

Norman W. Edmund, legendary founder of a company offering a profusion of optics to the public for 70 years (and counting), died January 16th in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 95.

Norman Edmund
Norman Wilson Edmund (1916-2012)
Edmund Optics
Sidelined from serving in World War II by an early bout with tuberculosis, Norman Edmund got the idea to start selling optical parts that he acquired as war surplus. He formed the Edmund Salvage Co. and placed his first Sky & Telescope ad in the September 1945 issue. Taking up a full page, it began in bold type, "Unusual War Bargains in Lenses and Prisms." The listings included color filters, reticles, mirrors from tank periscopes, and a 1.8-inch f/11 achromatic objective for making your own small refractor.

That first ad also offered two sets of small surplus lenses and a 50-page booklet titled "Fun with Chipped Edge Lenses." Elsewhere in the same S&T issue, competitor Harry Ross proclaimed that his own products were "Not Salvage — Not Rejects — Not Junk!" Despite the dig, Edmund kept on selling the popular chipped-edge lenses (inexpensive seconds, aimed at experimenters) for decades to come.

Initially Edmund worked out of his home in Audubon, New Jersey. "I once heard that Norm kept his stock of lenses, etc., in boxes under his bed," recalls William E. Shawcross, former managing editor and later president of Sky Publishing Corp.

These typical Edmund catalogs show the evolution of the product line from the surplus optics and astronomy market (1958), through a flirtation with alternate energy and parapsychology items (1975), and then to a vast array of research-grade optical components (1996).
Roger Sinnott

Then in 1948 Edmund opened a larger facility in nearby Barrington, New Jersey, and changed the name to Edmund Scientific Co. The firm soon attracted worldwide notice, and its product line grew to include a remarkable 3-inch f/10 Newtonian reflector for just $29.50. This scope came as kit and was "easily assembled; a nine-year-old can do it!" It had a cardboard tube, wooden legs, and interchangeable tripod heads for alt-azimuth or equatorial operation. (Full disclosure: This 3-inch was my first telescope. My brother and I pooled our allowances in 1956, and it opened the night sky to us.)

Astroscan telescope
Edmund's iconic Astroscan, introduced in 1976, is easily recognized by its unique, bright red enclosure.
Night Sky: Craig Michael Utter.
Longtime astronomy writer James Mullaney recalls, "I met Norman several times. The most memorable occasion was at a national convention of the Astronomical League in Haverford, Pennsylvania, I believe in the late 1950s. Buses took us to Barrington, and Norman was out behind the building grilling steaks for everyone with a chef's hat on!"

During the late 1950s and '60s the company expanded its line of traditional Newtonians, refractors, and mirror-grinding kits. When Norman Edmund's son, Robert, took the helm in the mid-1970s, the firm introduced the novel Astroscan, an all-red, low-power, 4-inch reflector for tabletop use.

Present-day Edmund Optics, where Robert continues as CEO, has a tribute to Norman on its website here.

12 thoughts on “Norman Edmund, Optics Entrepreneur

  1. Mike Lynch

    My first telescope was also the 3" Edmund scope, the Space Conqueror. It, too, opened my eyes to the grandeur of the universe and the hobby I still love.

    I hope his family will have many happy memories of Norman Edmund. He made many memories for those of us who have used his company’s scopes to explore the night skies!

  2. Paul Rybak

    In the late fifty’s I received a Edmund catalog. I showed my Dad a 6" reflector I wanted. He got so enthused that he ended up building an 8" but parts from different companies. Mirror and Cell from Cave, mount from (I think, Magnuson) and tube from Edmund. Then built a 12×12 observatory with a roll-off roof. We eventually built a 16" cassegrain in 1967. So Edmund really sparked my astronomy hobby.

    A company on the North side of Chicago, American Science Center, almost seemed like a branch as they sold a lot of Edmund products with many surplus items. They are now American Science Surplus selling all kinds of discontinued, over-runs etc.

    But I owe my interest in astronomy indirectly to Mr. Edmund

  3. Peter Becker

    This was a very good report and tribute about Norman Edmund. Edmund’s 3 inch reflector was also my first telescope, which I purchased in 1969 with money raised feeding the minister’s cat while the minister was on vacation,and with birthday money. As a 13 year old, the 3" was my portal to the Universe. I saw great wonders from my backyard and spurred me to continue in the hobby. The 3" still works and I take it out now and then. I looked forward to the arrival of Edmund’s catalogs and looked through them carefully. Mr. Edmund did a great service to an aspiring generation of young scientists amazed at the night sky at a time our nation was first venturing into space.

  4. John

    Edmund Scientific got me started in Astronomy, too. I was a little later in the game, getting started in the 1980s. Edmund’s telescopes were good, but what I thought was most helpful was their literature. Department stores at the time offered some competition in telescope choices, but Edmund’s user guides and sky guides were unmatched. I loved the drawings in those books. Thanks to Edmund Scientific, I quickly went from knowing nothing about the stars to finding my way around the night sky with ease and viewing the moon, planets, and Messier objects using the Edmund 60mm Voyager 6001 table-top refractor. I later purchased that 8-inch f/5 reflector with the equatorial fork mounting. That was such a beautiful looking instrument. I used it to photograph Halley’s Comet as a tiny fuzz ball from my back yard in the fall of 1985, well before it could be seen through the eyepiece. I really felt like a scientist then! Sadly, over the years, the Edmund scopes got left behind and all I have are the memories. But I can still identify the stars and planets faster than today’s youth armed with their iPhones and sky map apps, and I still love astronomy and enjoy the night sky from my back yard every bit as much as I did in the 80s. Thanks, Edmund Scientific, for not only selling me a telescope, but also for teaching me what I wanted so much to learn in a time before the internet (and before I knew about Sky and Telescope magazine), and for helping me develop what became a lifelong interest in the stars. And Norman, may you rest in peace.

  5. Earle Spamer

    Edmund Scientific was better than Disneyland for impressionable science kids. Hours spent dreaming over their catalog. And Barrington NJ was on the moon for all I knew — imagine what I was like when one day I unexpectedly rode past Edmund Scientific. I was an avowed Edmund shopper whenever I had a few bucks, introduced by another "junior scientist" fifty-some years ago now. I learned as much from the catalog as I did from the things I could buy. It was much, much more than telescopes (though they were right at the top of my list). And all that great stuff pointed me into a great career. Norman Edmund probably understood the impression he had on kids like me. Gee, thanks, Mr. Edmund! You made a difference.

  6. John K

    My second telescope was Edmund Scientific’s 6-inch Newtonian, which I purchased ca. 1959 out of my allowance on their time payment plan. I still have the tube, mirror, and eyepieces, but have lost the equatorial mount — which my dad helped me permanently attach to a steel tube set in concrete in the back yard. I loved that scope and did a lot with it, but I appreciated Edmund’s booklets and catalog (wish book) as well. I also still have the sheet-film astro camera I built with many parts from Edmund, including shutter and lenses. I even entered college intending to major in Astronomy, thanks in part to Edmund and their wonderful products. Thanks, Mr. Edmund!

  7. Ernie

    Very nice story, Roger.

    I too received an Edmund 3-inch reflector as a gift in the early 1960s. I loved that scope and I also loved the Edmund catalogs. I eventually built a 4-inch f/15 refractor from Edmund parts and kept that scope until well into my adult life. I still own a set of vintage Edmund eyepieces. There were two major brands in my young amateur astronomy days – Edmund and Sky and Telescope.

  8. Ian Frazer

    The hours I spent in the ’60′s dreaming over the catalog… sigh.
    The things I "wasted" my allowance on (according to me parents)… deep sigh.

    The fun, the mystery, the explanations I received, the wonder of science, of trying, and testing, and failing, and, yes, succeeding… priceless.

    Thank you Mr. Edmund. Your gift to the kids of all ages cannot be estimated. Rest in peace.

  9. Andre Fleuette

    When I was 11 I would go over and over his catalog and think of the next project I could afford from my paperboy money. I remember the proud day I went into his store with my father with enough money to buy all the components to build my first reflector, grinding a 6" mirror in the basement of a convent, I learned more about optics then most in their lifetime. Thank you for making those opportunities available within a paperboys budget.

  10. Graham Wolf

    What a guy!

    Edmund Scientific has long been a respected name:- even down here in NZ astronomy for decades. Who can ever forget those wonderful RKE eyepieces:- particularly the 28mm efl version (which was a “must have” in any deep sky observer’s “wish list”). I’ve used the 15 and 28RKE (and 2.2x Edmund Barlow) on both the 61cm OC reflector at Mt John University Observatory (MJUO) at Tekapo in 1983, and also the 41cm Ruth Crisp Boller and Chivens R-C at Black Birch, when I was an astronomer at Carter National Observatory in NZ. With the latter instrument, NGC2070 (Tarantula Nebula) was a breath-taking sight at 200X!

    Whilst not up to the optical design class of the Televue eyepieces being developed later, those RKE’s were a joy to use… I affectionately still regard trhem as the “poor man’s plossl”. Before joining Carter National Observatory, I also had the pleasure of using RKE’s and an Edmunds 20cm f5 fork driven Newtonian (owned by David J. Curtis of Dunedin) to obtain NZ’s first visual observations of Comet P/1 Halley in August 1985.

    I’ve come across quite a number of Edmunds astro-products over the years. To suggest that Norman Edmund was an astro-entrepreneur (and well ahead of his time) is to understate the obvious.

    Thank you Mr Edmund for having the nous and foresight to place “value-for-money” affordable telescopes and eyepieces within the range of so many young amateur astronomers, and thereby foster a a world-wide participation in this exciting field. You have surely helped create quite a few of today’s top professionals out there. We all owe you heaps for that!

    Regards and clear skies…

    Graham W. Wolf:- Barber Grove Observatory (BGO)
    Lower Hutt, New Zealand

  11. JIM LAWRENCE

    I’m looking through the Edmund Scientific catalog that came with my new 3" Edmund Telescope as a Christmas present in 1957. On page five of this catalog I experienced my first case of "Aperature Fever". The 6" Edmund Reflecting telescope, (stock#85,024), complete with mount, tripod, and finder, boasted "up to 575 power" and a price tag of $245.00, definitely out of reach for an 8th grader’s budget.
    But I dreamed via the catalog about Mr. Edmund’s telescopes for many years. In 1968, while the astronauts circled the moon, I showed my wife the moon through the 3" telescope. My wife regrets asking me to let her look through the telescope, because I became re-hooked…and this time for the rest of my adult life.
    Today, I own 3 large scopes that start at 12 1/2". But the interest generated by Mr. Edmund’s 3" telescope led me into a career as a T.V. weatherman and later a meteorologist. I got my initial because the general manager saw one of my scopes that I brought to the station. So, Mr. Edmund had quite an effect on my life. P.S. Please bring back the 6" so I can fulfill a childhood dream.

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