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John Dobson

September 14, 2015

John Dobson was the Julia Child of amateur astronomy. Child brought French cooking to a wide audience, in part by showing that you didn’t need expensive ingredients to whip up good dishes. Dobson brought skywatching to a wide audience by showing that you didn’t need expensive ingredients to whip up a good telescope. His recipe has been repeated thousands of times.

Dobson was born 100 years ago today in Beijing, where his father was a teacher. His family returned to the States in 1927, and settled in San Francisco.

John Dobson, 2012 [AlanJWylie/Wikipedia]John Dobson, 2012 [AlanJWylie/Wikipedia]Dobson earned a degree in chemistry, but soon turned to more spiritual pursuits. In 1944, he joined a monastery of the Vendata Society, a religious order founded in India.

Dobson wanted a telescope to explore the link between astronomy and religion. He didn’t have the budget for one, though, so he built one. He used an old porthole glass for the mirror, and the cardboard cores of hose reels for the tube. Most important, he designed a mounting that was simple, lightweight, and easy to use.

The design caught on. Dobson was spending so much time on his telescopes that he left the monastery in 1967. The following year, he co-founded an amateur astronomy group. Before long, Dobson was a frequent speaker at astronomy events around the world. And his telescopes — known as Dobsonians — became ever more popular.

Dobson died last year. But his legacy of bringing astronomy to a worldwide audience lives on.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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