Happy Birthday, John Dobson!

Ask any long-time stargazer who has had the greatest impact on amateur astronomy, and two names will surely come up.

The first is Russel W. Porter, who (with help from Albert Ingalls of Scientific American) jump-started amateur telescope making in the 1920s. Every year more than 1,000 amateur astronomers still gather atop Breezy Hill in southern Vermont, where Porter and the Springfield Telescope Makers first gathered to test-drive their glass-and-metal creations.

John Dobson
His legacy as a revolutionary telescope maker now firm, John Dobson has turned his thoughts to revolutionary concepts of cosmology.
The other is John Dobson, who turned telescope making on its head during the 1960s and '70s by using simple materials to produce low-cost, large-aperture reflectors. Today millions of stargazers worldwide use Dobsonian telescopes to sweep the sky, though (as Dobson himself will tell you) these are really just Newtonian reflectors affixed to the simple alt-azimuth wooden mounts that he popularized.

Dobson turns 95 on September 14th, and astronomy activist Thilina Heenatigala wants everyone to join him in sending birthday wishes. You can either send a message to wishdobson95@gmail.com or post a comment on Heenatigala's Dobson-turns-95 website.

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
These days Dobson isn't barnstorming the U.S. to drum up interest in telescope making and to share the joys of simple stargazing. Instead, he's espousing a personal concept of cosmology that is, to be charitable, at odds with conventional thought.

Here's a recent snippet, captured last January by filmmaker and Dobson documentarian Jeffrey Jacobs: "The Big Bang model takes nonexistence for granted and gets the universe out of nothing, whereas what I see as my model takes existence for granted — but not space and time." You can get a fuller glimpse of Dobson's universe in this 6½-minute excerpt from a recent interview.

But make no mistake: two or three decades ago, Dobson was a force of nature in telescope-making circles, a man who singlehandedly revolutionized concepts of aperture, portability, and ease of use. In 1968, he cofounded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, which continues to thrive. Three years later he and his group rumbled into the Riverside Telescope Makers' Conference with a 24-inch f/6.5 reflector housed in a thick cardboard tube.

A few years before I joined the Sky & Telescope staff, Dobson sent an article on his unconventional techniques to the magazine for publication. Charlie Federer, S&T's founder and editor, rejected the submission. ""While your shortcuts undoubtedly help to demonstrate large amateur telescopes," Federer wrote in reply, "they can hardly lead to satisfactory instruments of the kind most amateurs want in these large sizes." Dobson still has that letter.

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
In the end he did get his due in S&T. He authored a long article titled "Have Telescopes, Will Travel" in the April 1980 issue, and David Levy offered a gracious profile of Dobson in the September 1995 issue, to mark his 80th birthday. Dobson also wrote, together with Norm Sperling, How and Why to Make a User-Friendly Sidewalk Telescope, a hardbound book as remarkable for its wooden front and back covers as for the telescope-making wisdom dispensed between them.

So here's to you, John — and I hope to help celebrate your centennial five years from now!

9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, John Dobson!

  1. Wally

    Congratulations to a remarkable astronomer of our time and his reaching this advanced age.

    I was privileged to meet and talk with him briefly a few years back in Ventura. Sharp as a tack and full of ideas and vitality.

    I look forwards to his centenary and meeting him again – if I’m so lucky.

  2. Jim Toohey

    Great telescope design, and congratulations to Mr. Dobson on his 95th.

    Meanwhile, Kelly, let’s have some full disclosure about who this man is.

    The film “A Sidewalk Astronomer” describes Dobson as “a former Vedanta monk of the Ramakrishna Order.” His “personal concept of cosmology that is, to be charitable, at odds with conventional thought,” as you called it, is Hindu theology and nothing else.

    In the past John has been hardhearted, even cruel to many people he’s worked with. Let’s hold off on the sainthood for now — I’d be interested to know more about the real John Dobson, who’s done some important things but has a lot of baggage and issues that are inseparable from the man himself.

  3. Wolf

    Jim, it’s natural in mammals to focus on the differences (that’s how a mountain lion can spot food between the equality of the bush)..maybe that’s why we focus on the bad spots instead of being positive.

    Who cares if he has been tough, hard-heartened through his life? we celebrate his achievements in astronomy , he’s not a spitirual leader, so he must not be judged as such. If his cosmological theory has some theology in it..it’s just reasonable, the man is 95, close to death and closer to G-d than we are…he’s seen a lot more then us.

    I feel your point, but aren’t we all a bit evil as well?

  4. Patrick-ThibaultPatrick Thibault

    I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by John Dobson a number of years ago, at the Minnesota Science Museum. He was provoking, stimulating and challenging to his audience.

    His discussion of cosmology, and his beliefs about its reality opened up some debate. But, whether you look at the universe in a spiritual manner or as a manifestation of physical laws and principles, Mr. Dobson’s unorthodoz notions were entertaining.

  5. Anthony Cook

    John Dobson’s 95th birthday will be celebrated during the September 18 free public star party at Griffith Observatory (Los Angeles). The Los Angeles Astronomical Society and the Sidewalk Astronomers will provide telescopes for day and night viewing, a Dobsonian telescope will be constructed during the day, and the public will have a chance to greet John Dobson, hear a brief presentation by him in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, and sing happy birthday to him.
    Details will appear on the Observatory’s website, http://www.griffithobservatory.org

    Note that the conceptual design of the venue, Griffith Observatory, was the 1931-1935 work of Russell W. Porter — one of many “side projects” that he was involved with during his work on the 200-inch Hale Telescope.

  6. Bill Simpson Slidell LA.

    He opened the view of the heavens to the masses and, in doing so, changed the world we live in forever. Not many people can say that, nor have their name become part of the English language, along with people like Newton. We are all in his debt.

  7. Bill Simpson Slidell LA.

    He opened the view of the heavens to the masses and, in doing so, changed the world we live in forever. Not many people can say that, nor have their name become part of the English language, along with people like Newton. We are all in his debt.

  8. Scott

    He popularised a hobby that would otherwise be limited to rural areas and wealthier people. Although much congratulations is due him for being an outspoken advocate of amateur astronomy, the heavens were always there. Kind of like the park in the neighborhood that the kids don’t play in because it is too hot/cold outsdie.

    No embellishment is needed. Happy birthday, John Dobson!

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