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It’s been just under a year since we had an update about the CPSC’s favorite target: Those little spherical magnets commonly known by the brand name of BuckyBalls.

As you may recall, BuckyBalls came on the market a few years back, made quite a splash, but were then hounded by the Consumer Product Ssafety Commission to the point where these magnets were effectively banned.  Another spherical magnet supplier, known as NeoCube, also fell by the wayside, but a 3rd company, the almost unknown Zen Magnets (who apparently were first in with the product but last in overall sales due to BuckyBalls and NeoCube’s aggressive wholesaling campaign.) made the effort to fight back at the CPSC and actually won their court case.

Sadly, that was not the end of it. Zen Magnets has spent the better part of the past year just getting things in order for a new rollout of the classic spherical magnet product. Meanwhile they are bracing for another possible round of legal battles with the CPSC.

It might not come to that. The CPCS commissioner is on record as saying the following:

“We’re doing this without taking the time to learn the lessons about why we failed the first time, or if there’s any need for the rule… I think this is a factor of pure ego, and this agency has taken the thoughtful opinions of the 10th circuit personally, and we just wanna win for winning’s sake…”

The CPSC removed the rule on 3/1, as ordered by the court. But almost immediately the commission voted to implement a new rule regarding magnets. The precedent is set, however, so a rule as draconian as the last one would be lost in court even faster.

Meanwhile, what happened to the other companies? No idea what happened to NeoCube – their inventory was sold Zen Magnets (which may have caused them quite a bit of a legal headache) and we can assume they are long gone. Zen Magnets is in position to restablish spherical magnet sales. The folks who made BuckyBalls? Well, while Zen Magnets was fighting the legal fight against the CPSC they released a set of tiny rare earth magnets that they sarcastically named ‘Compliance Magnets’

Perhaps taking a hint from these Compliance Magnets, the makers of BuckyBalls released SPEKS. A set of rare earth micromagnets that is also compliant with the CPSC’s old rule.

Time will tell if they succeed with this product. Having personally handled such ultra-tiny magnets I find they had some appeal, but lacked the fidget potential the classic larger Spherical Magnets posessed.


As for our store? Well, we have our own (as the top image shows), and can sell them until another ban comes down. Sadly we can only sell these in-store at the moment.


Our ‘10 Fun Facts about Labware” blog post was actually pretty popular (the internet loves lists), so we thought we’d do a sequel to talk about other oddities of the labware world.  Here we go

10) Condensers are all about the surface area and Hollywood loves them – So you’ve got some gas, right? And you need to get it back to liquid state, right? Because that gas is gonna disspiate if you just let it run free, but how can you get it cool enough to turn liquid in a limited amount of space and have that liquid end up in a flask or something else? The answer is a Condenser!graham

Condensers (particularly Graham condensers) are popular in Hollywood depictions of laboratories as they have that neat swirly tubing inside another tube. Run some colored liquid through them and they look awesome!

But why all that swirly tubing? Well it turns out that you need a decent amount of cooling to turn a gas into liquid. So the curling tubing is actually trying to expose the gas in the tube to as much of the cooling liquid that fills the outer tube. That liquid (usually just water) is fed in from the top and drains out the bottom as it would otherwise get too warm to cool down that gas before it exited the tubing.

Hollywood, BTW, loves showing condensers because it is neat to watch liquid swirl through all that spiral tube, even if it would serve no purpose as shown.

9) Attachment sizes and what they mean – Every now and then you might encounter a piece of labware that has some numbers associated with it. 24/40, 19/22 , and many other sizes. So what does this mean?

3590Well this is a measurement to see if one piece of labware will attach with another. The sizes denote ground glass openings on the flask, condesner, etc and therefore should be compatible with a labware with the same kind of measurement. When these attach, the ground glass openings provide enough friction to keep them connected but not so connected that they cannot be seperated easily.

As to the actual numbers and what they mean – the first number corresponds to the diameter at the end of the ground glass zone (so 24 is 24mm) while the second number corresponds to the length of the ground glass zone (so 40 is 40mm).


8) Evaporation flasks  – So the opposite of condensation is evaporation. Naturally there are a lot of ways and reasons to evaporate liquids, the most common being to simply boil it. But sometimes you need a less…energetic way of evaporating liquids (volitiles like alcohols, for example, may not rotaryevaporatorappreciate flames). So one common method is to use a rotary evaporator:

Rotary evaporators are fairly complex systems that pretty much just speed up (and contain) what would otherwise happen to low-boiling points liquids exposed to room temperatures. You’ll sometimes see special evaporation flasks with oval shapes: these are designed to get the maximum surface area on the heat section of a evaporation system.


7) Filtration:
Sometimes you may spot a Erhlemeyer Flask with a tube sticking out of it. 5444-2This is called a filtering flask. It uses a couple of other pieces of equipment to operate: First a felxible tube is attached to the glass tube and then to a pump (powered or hand operated). A stopper with a hole is put into the top of the flask which goes to a filtering funnel known as a Buchner Funnel. Some filter paper is placed into this funnel. You then activate your pump (which means you have some hard work if a hand pump is being used). The liquid in need of filtration is then slowly added inot the top of the funne;. The drop in air pressure pulls the water through  the filter paper and funnel leavs behind any solids or other materials.


6) Volumetric Flasks:
1886If there is a ‘piece of labware most likely to be repurposed’ it is the Volumetric Flask. With its long stem and round bottom it is possible they beat out ‘small beakers turned into shot glasses’ by being turned into flower vases. But the volumetric flask actually has an important role in chemistry. If you need to make a solution of a particular Molar (a measurement of how much of a reagent is in a set quantity of solution) the best way is to use a Volumetric Flask. Measure out the quantity of reagent for the solution you are making, and add it to the measured solution in the flask. IT is as accurate as you can get and the best way to mix said solutions. The Volumetric Flask combines the accuracy of a graduated cylinder with the mixing ability of a normal flask (Such as a Ehrlenmeyer flask or round-bottom flask)

5) Separatory funnels:

This odd-looking inverse teardrop shaped piece of labware may, oddly enough, be more familiar to some readers 3218of this blog post as they are often used in beer brewing and similar hobbies.  Separatory Funnels are used when you need to seperate two liquids from each other (such as oil and water, yeast and water, etc.). The differing densities of liquids well seperate out inside the funnel (some shaking may be involved). Once sepearted the more dense liquid can be drained out the tube in the bottom, leaving the less dense liquid remaining in the flask.

4) Labware for a new generation (Class A Coding)

OK, so this is an issue for laboratories where critical measurements are required. As we mentioned in our previous chapter there is special labware known as ‘Class A’ labware. This is labware certified to extreme accuracy and even has to be certified, either by the batch or individually (which is more expensive). The problem is that labs may be required to show that their labware is certified for one reason or another. The certification, however is usually a piece of paper that gets filed away or lost, leaving the lab struggling to find the right papers and possibly contacting the manufacturer. So what solution is there? A modern one where your Smartphone can check your labware’s certification. That’s right, Class A labware’s certification will soon be bar-encoded!


Now rather than running to the file cabinet you can simply catch the barcode on your Smartphone and your certification will come right up! Couldn’t be easier!

3) Lipless and Lipped Test tubes

So test tubes come in two forms – with a lip (which helps with pouring) and lipless (which….has no real advantage). Plastic test tubes typically are lipless to reduce expense. In fact it is not certain why lipless test tubes are made except that many folks buy them for no-laboratory uses. Most of the ones we have sold a the store are repurposed – usually to hold flowers (its a thing).

2) Types of plastic labware and what they do

So we discussed plastic labware in the previous chapter. But there are actually several types of plastic that are used in labware. Polyproylene (PP), for example is economical and very hard to break. Unfortunately is it also not as transparent as glass and may be hard to read the markings. Polymethylpentene (PMP) is as clear as glass so is much easier to read. Unfortunately, it is also much more expensive than PP and may be more p50902brittle. It becomes a question of priorities.
1) Plastic Pipettes and their uses

Little plastic pippetes are another item in heavy use outside the laboratory. These little soft plastic droppers come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Some are measured, some are not. They can come sterile or not, etc.

In the lab and medical field they are used to draw small, controlled quantities of liquid. In medicine they are used to grab a sample of blood from a source (they are not used to draw blood, obviously).

Outside the lab? The limits are people’s imagination! Gold Hunters use them to draw the small flakes out of liquid known to have gold flakes.. Bakers use pipettes to both insert fillings into cupcakes and cakes (to make patterns they could not do otherwise) or even just fill them with coloful icing and stick them into the cake to make an attractive ‘bulb’ cake ornament. In addtion to icing, liquers can be used, or other flavorings. Food artisans have taken to using pipettes to ‘inject’ fruit with various flavorings as well!





For the hobby of astronomy, the biggest obstacle of all time is light pollution. Hands down. The more lights in yiour area, the less you will see.

We try to fight it when we can. Petition for lights that reduce upward glare, maintain some dark sky locations, and advocate for limiting new lighted areas. But on an individual level, there is only so much we can do to fight light pollution.

One of those things is to employ a light pollution filter.


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This is a repost of our usual post-holiday telescope primer for new telescope owners:

So you got a new telescope for the holidays: A Quick Primer for new telescope users.

Be it X-mas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Solstice or Giftmas this is the season for getting telescopes as gifts. Sadly, many of these scopes might be rushed into usage and some critical steps might be 016skipped. This can result in a frustrating experience for a budding young astronomer who may give up their new hobby prematurely. This can be avoided if you only take the time and a few precautions to make certain you get the baby steps out of the way without too much tripping and falling.

1) Do as much as you can during daytime first!

I can’t stress this too much. Many folks assume they can assemble their telescope right out of the box at their chosen viewing spot – in the dark. Suffice it to say this is not a good idea. Assembling out of the box at the viewing site might be an extreme example but you should certainly try working your scope and getting the ‘feel’ for it during the daytime as much as possible. Take your telescope outside during the daytime and point it at a nearby tree or other object (the object should be at least 1/4 mile away). Use this object to align the finder scope (see below) as well as test how the eyepiece focuses. Try changing your eyepieces between the low and high powered ones to see how that works as well. Move the telescope in large movements as well as using the slow motion controls as well. When you do these things in the daylight you can get a much better feel for how they should work than if you try them at night. Also if you drop an eyepiece or loosen a screw you have a decent chance to find it. Get your mistakes out of the way when the sun is up.

2) Assemble your telescope properly

This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many folks skip a few steps or don’t attach parts, or don’t read the instructions properly. We’ve seen telescopes in for “repairs” just after the holidays that were just put together wrong, or some critical final steps were ignored (slow motion controls not attached, counterweights not placed). Most of the time, there are very few non-critical elements of a telescope’s construction. So be sure to follow the assembly procedure carefully. Allow yourself a couple of hours as well (maybe three hours for certain models of dobsonian telescopes) for the assembly. Don’t assume you can just put it together a 1/2 hour before you plan to head out and view.

3) Align your finder scope. Align your finder scope! ALIGN YOUR FINDER SCOPE!

Get the point? Many folks ignore this step until the last minute and we can tell you that trying to work a telescope without an aligned finger is very,very, very hard. Even the lower 084magnifications on a short focal length telescope only see a little under 1 arc degree of the sky. This is a tiny portion of the sky so hoping to find an object with just the eyepiece is really hard to do. There is a reason why almost all telescopes come with a finder scope. So make sure to align it (During the daytime per suggestion #1) . If your telescope comes with a red-dot finder instead of an optical finder scope, be certain to carefully align that as well during the daytime – and don’t forget to switch it off! A dead battery in a red dot finder is nobody’s friend.

4) Did you get an Equatorial mount? Figure out how it moves!

An equatorial mount has some great advantages over a regular altazimuth (altitude-azimuth) mount. It can track, be motorized, and the larger ones can even be used with setting circles to locate objects in the night sky. But these are only true if you take advantage of the equatorial mount’s features and set it up properly. During the daytime (suggestion #1 again!) try a rudimentary set-up of the equatorial mount. This does not have to be super accurate as some telescope’s instruction manuals may require, just enough to get mostly accurate tracking for a little while. Perhaps more importantly, get a feel for how the telescope moves – you are used to moving things in an up/down left/right fashion. Now you need to get used to moving the telescope in declination and right ascension. Try moving the telescope from one target to another using the mount properly during the daytime to get a better sense of it. One thing to keep in mind is that the counterweight is there for a reason – it shouldn’t be pointing down all the time.

If you have a larger Equatorial mount keep in mind that you can use the setting circles to help find objects in the night sky with the help of a star atlas. But this means you have to learn to use it. Read your instruction manual carefully. You might also consider downloading a Sidereal Time app for you smartphone. You’ll see why once you figure out the details of using your Equatorial mount.

5) Choose your first targets wisely!

Many folks go out with their telescope and just point it at the brightest thing in the sky. This is fine if the brightest object is a planet or the Moon, as there is lots to see. But very often at this time of year the planets might not be out until very late and the brightest thing in the sky is the star Sirius. Problem is, Sirius is just a star and stars appear as just a point of light even when magnified through your telescope. This can be a very boring target and can be disappointing if it is the only bright object. So make certain before you go out for your first night’s viewing that you know what will be up! Most telescopes these days come with some rudimentary planetarium software that can show you what the sky will be like on any night. Failing that there are online websites that do the same thing (sometimes better). Planispheres can also be used, and if you have a Smartphone or pad you should download a planetarium app like Google Sky (its free). Depending on what time of the month it is, the Moon may not be up during evening hours. Since we suggest the Moon as a great first target for your telescope you might want to wait for it. Failing that, try to look for the brighter planets.

6) Got a computerized telescope? Take advantage of free smartphone apps to make it much easier to set up!

We’ve been kind of ‘meh’ about computerized telescopes in the past, and are still a bit wary of a telescope where 70% of the cost is in the computer andGoogleSky motors and not the optics. But we have softened a bit since they have become a bit easier to use – and not because they changed, but rather our phones did.

Computerized telescope makers kind of make it seem like a computer means your telescope will magically find things in the night sky. All you need to do is toss it into your yard and enjoy the viewing. But that is not how they work. To set up the telescope’s computer you need to point it at two named stars so it can calculate where everything else in the night sky is located. This used to mean that to set up the telescope you had to have good knowledge of the night sky to find those stars -which kind of defeated the purpose.

But now smartphones are ubiquitous these days and there are plenty of planetarium apps out there for free that will help you identify those stars. Smartphone planetarium apps are not super-accurate (they can be off by as much as an hour)  but they will help you spot and identify bright stars that you need to aim your telescope at to orient the computer.  This makes the computer orientation much easier to do than trying to learn to use a planisphere or star map on the fly.

7) Learn, learn learn!

There’s a host of information for astronomy newbies on the internet and in books. Amateur astronomers are very keen on sharing their knowledge and experience with you. Check out the major magazines online websites such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy. There are a zillion astronomy websites with forums as well you might wish to peruse. Even on this blog we have a collection of Telescope Tips you should check out for helpful advice. Also consider joining or at least contacting your local astronomy club – you can find all kinds of help from them, as well as many other benefits from membership (such as loaner equipment).

If your first night with your telescope is a good one, then you’ll have a much better time with the hobby. But always remember a little planning goes a long way!

Happy New Year!

Interested in buying telescopes?


The holidays have us pretty busy, so here is our Microscope Buyer’s guide for those seeking to buy one!

Spectrum Scientifics Microscope Buyers Guide

Congratulations! You’ve decided to buy a microscope! A microscope is a wonderful instrument that can fascinate kids and adults alike. With proper care, a microscope can last a lifetime. But buying a microscope can be confusing for the first time buyer. There are so many different designs, it can be a bit overwhelming. This guide should help you make the proper choice in deciding on a microscope model.

First let’s start by discussing the different designs of microscope. We will break microscopes into three different categories: Compound Microscopes , Inspection/Dissection Microscopes, and ‘Other’. We’ll cover these one by one.

Compound/Biological Microscopes : Compound (or Biological) microscopes are the models designed to be used with slides. They are high powered; using multiple objective lenses (the lenses that point at the slide) to typically provide 40X, 100X, 400X and sometimes 1000X right off the shelf. Modern compound microscopes usually have some sort of illumination from below to light up the slide. Depending on the design of the compound microscope it may have features like binocular eyepieces (two eyepieces, but do not provide stereo vision) a mechanical stage for moving the slide easily, coarse and fine focus (for easy focusing) and different lighting designs.

The disadvantage of a compound microscope is that you pretty much must use it with slides. You can’t just plop a bug, coin, or plant leaf onto the microscope and expect to get a decent image. Compounds aren’t designed to do that. You can cut up the leaf/bug/whatever and make it into a slide with some effort and a slide-making kit, but that does take some time and only lets you view s small part of the the found object.

Inspection/Dissection Microscopes: Inspection/Dissection microscopes are designed to be used with any object you can fit on the microscope’s staging area. This can be coins, stamps, bugs, plant parts, circuit boards, small animals, or whatever else you might find. Inspection Microscopes often have much lower magnification (10x-40x is typical), much wider viewing fields, and very often the binocular versions give true stereo vision. This allows the viewer to ‘work’ (I.e. dissect) on the object being viewed and get a true sense of depth of objects like coins. Inspection Microscopes may have only 1-2 levels of magnification verses the 3-4 on compound microscopes. The microscope will also have top-down lighting, and some may have bottom-up lighting as well. The eyepieces used in many mid-range inspection microscopes are often larger and more comfortable to use.

The disadvantage of a compound microscope is that its magnification is very low and you cannot use it with slides. That means if you want to see cells, bacteria, or other very tiny objects you will need to get a compound microscope as well.

As you can tell from these write-ups, these two designs are very different from each other. Before we discuss the third category, let’s compare and contrast these two designs:

Features: Compound Microscopes vs. Inspection/Dissection Microscopes

Compound Inspection/Dissection
Magnification High: 40x and up Low: 10-40x typical
Levels of Magnification 3, sometimes 4 (40x, 100x 400x typical) 1 or 2*
Lighting From Bottom From top (or top and bottom)
Viewing Monocular or Binocular, but not true stereo Stereo Binocular
Viewable Objects Slides Coins, stamps, bugs, plants, circuit boards, etc.
Extra Features (depends on model) Mechanical Stage, Coarse & Fine Focus, Bottom light
    *Some models of Inspection Microscope have a continuous zoom from 10x to 30 or 40x

This chart should give you some idea of the basic comparison.

We haven’t forgotten about the third category of microscope: Other. This category covers some odd designs that work as specialty instruments. Some examples of Other microscopes would be:

Hand-Held Microscope: These are small, pocket-sized microscopes used in a fashion similar to Inspection/Dissection microscopes. They may have higher magnification than Inspection microscopes (30-100x power), often have a built in light, and are light and portable. Their main disadvantage is they have a limited viewing field- you must put the scope directly on the object being viewed. Their optics & lighting are also rarely up to the quality of full-sized microscopes, and moving to find a specific part of an object can be tricky. Still they are great in the field where a full-size microscope would be unwieldy.

Digital Microscopes: Many traditional microscopes can have a digital camera built into their structure, or can have their eyepiece replaced with a digital camera. But some microscopes are designed from the ground up to be used as high-power digital microscopes. These items have no eyepiece, only a CCD camera and an objective lens. They may have fixed or variable magnification, and the computer screen resolution will vary from model to model. Many ‘toy’-like designs have VGA quality graphics, which is 480 x 640. This level of quality is acceptable for kid’s use but is not sufficiently detail for any real work or study. Usually 1.3 Megapixels is the highest quality available for devoted consumer digital microscopes. If you desire higher resolution a compound microscope with a digital microscope eyepiece might be in order.

High Power Magnifiers: A hand-held magnifier is a very different instrument from a microscope, seeing as how most magnifiers have about 2-3x magnification and microscopes can go as high as 1000x. But some close work magnifiers have very high power (10x and up) and the line between a microscope and a magnifier starts to get blurred. As far as optical design goes, they are still very different animals: The magnifier has just one lens (or set of cemented lenses) while the microscope has both an objective and eyepiece lens. Although the difference is there, the jobs they cover get blurred. If you need a lower powered microscope or a high power magnifier, make certain you are choosing the correct tool for your viewing needs.

Hybrid Microscopes: Given the difference in use between a compound and an inspection microscope it didn’t take to long for some folks to come up with a design that tries to do the job of both microscopes. Usually this is done by taking a compound microscope design and adding a top-down light to the system. These designs can be a great boon to parents or buyers who cannot decide which usage they would prefer. The disadvantage is that like many other things that try to do multiple jobs, they are not the best at either job. Most often hybrid microscopes are better at being a compound microscope than an inspection microscope (mostly due to the higher powers of a compound microscope), but at least the option for using the microscope both ways is available. Consider a hybrid if you can’t decide between designs, but remember it won’t do the job as well as a devoted microscope.

Toy Microscopes: Many ‘toy’ microscopes are available on the market, usually they are either plastic hand-held models or plastic versions of compound designs. The former can be great fun for small children who would like to have something to view nature close-up but can still handle their not-always-delicate hands. The latter, however, is usually to be avoided. Cheap plastic bodies and cheap plastic lenses will give the viewer a very poor experience indeed. Companies that make these items often pile on junk accessories like plastic ‘viewers’, poor slide making accessories, and other gimmicks to cover the fact that the instrument is junk. Avoid these if at all possible.


So now that we’ve discussed the various microscope designs, we should talk about that are features of microscopes:

DIN Objectives: DIN stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung – Don’t worry about that. Just understand that DIN eyepieces are set to a higher standard the the average beginner microscope. DIN objectives are generally universal so you can take one DIN objective out of one microscope and thread it into another. DIN eyepieces are often a bit more costly.

Digital Microscope Eyepieces: Digital eyepieces can be a great boon to your viewing experience. When plugged into a computer they can be used to view objects on a much larger screen, and the images can be saved, modified, emailed, etc. Some digital eyepieces can make movies as well. Some microscopes have digital eyepieces built into the body of the microscope, but almost all non-toy microscopes can have their eyepiece’s removed and replaced with a digital microscope eyepiece. The image quality from a digital microscope eyepiece can go from VGA (or even TV) quality all the way up to 5.0 Megapixels or even more.


One nice feature about microscopes is that they don’t need a whole lot of accessories to get a good experience. But there are a few things you can get to increase your viewing experience:

Prepared Slides: Professionally made slides are always excellent to have around. They let you see objects with a quality that few can match. They also may be of specimens that may be very hard to obtain. Consider having a few prepared slides to enjoy.

Slide Making Kits: Sooner or later you will want to make your own slides. This will involve blank slides, coverslips, a razor (for cutting samples) and some mounting medium. These can be bought individually, but it is often more economical and convenient to buy a kit.

Special Slides: Blank slides with concave dips can be obtained for holding liquid samples. This is excellent for examining microscopic life in pond water and other sources.

Slide Boxes: Once you make your own slides you should store them properly in a slide box. Don’t leave them to get dust and scratches.

Microtome: If you make a lot of slides, cutting thin sample sections with a razor can get annoying after a while. A microtome can help. It is a mechanical device that helps cut a thin sliver off the sample. Think of them as working like the meat slicer at your deli only on a much smaller scale. Microtomes can be hand driven devices for around $75 to fancy automated item costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars.


As mentioned above, before you decide on what model microscope you want, make sure you know what it is you want to do with it! Fun can be had viewing both prepared slides and making your own slides using a compound microscope. But it can also be a real thrill to take objects straight from the backyard, or even from your pockets and put them under an Inspection/Dissection microscope. If you have needs beyond having fun observing (research, coin collecting, etc), make certain that your microscope does that sort of job first and foremost.

Happy viewing!

The holidays mean less time for blog posts and more people looking into buying their first telescope. With this in mind we are reprinting our telescope buyer’s guide for the season:

Spectrum Scientifics Telescope Buyers Guide

There are several telescope buyers guides available on the Internet, some good, some not so good. At Spectrum we are writing from our experience with customers and hope to make this simple and helpful.

Towards that end, the first and in some ways only rule of telescopes is:

Aperture is King!

Aperture is the diameter of the main lens or mirror of the telescope. The bigger it is, the more light the telescope gathers. Do not judge a telescope by its magnification, and stay away from any brand of telescope that sells itself on excess magnification claims (300x!, 600x!, etc.). This is sure sign of poor quality.

More light gathering means better, brighter images, assuming all other things being equal. Decent commercially sold telescopes usually start about 60mm in size (about 2.3”) and go to 20” diameter or more. Roughly speaking, every 2 extra inches of aperture doubles the light gathering capacity of the telescope.

The big problem with getting more aperture is that it increases the size and weight of the telescope. Having a huge, giant telescope with lots of light gathering power has little benefit if it is so heavy you never want to take it out and use it! A minor, but critical caveat to the ‘Aperture is King’ rule is that the small, portable telescope that gets used all the time is more powerful than the giant telescope that never gets moved out of the garage.

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Few telescopes in this world are as….distinct as the Edmund Astroscan, I mean, _look_ at it:


The Astroscan may hold a record for the longest running mass-produced telescope on the market, possibly only beat out by some of the classic Cassegrain models. It is also was one of the most controversial telescopes made (at least that wasn’t an outright scam or waste of people’s money). A simple search for the Astroscan in Astronomy forums reveals that the little red telescope has many detractors, and many defenders:

“I’ve never seen one that was in collimation”

“I love it! It is so easy to use!”

“Its an old design that should have been put to rest a long time ago, there are much better models in that size and price range!”


The back and forth actually reminds me more than a little bit of of the old Mac vs. PC wars on newsgroups, where PC advocates objected to people buying things that might not have been as  powerful or economic as what they used and Mac advocates vehemently defended their choices with rabidity and dared to be a fraction of the marketplace. Of course, in this case the scale was much smaller.

So what was the story behind this little telescope? Why was it so different than other telescopes? What happened to it? Why was it so loathed and loved? I shall try to answer these questions with my limited experience of having worked for Edmund Scientific for the last couple of years that the Edmund family owned the Scientifics division (The Edmund family still owns the Industrial Optics portion of the company).

In The Beginning

In 1976 the Edmund Scientific company started developing a telescope that would be its flagship model. The idea was to make something that was easy to use, easy to transport, and wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970’s Living Room. Given that in that era almost all commerically sold telescopes were tripod mounted things that took up a lot of real estate when set-up this was bit of a sea change. The optical system was developed so that the customer would not have to do any maintenance (or collimation) that reflectors often required. It was also designed with an optical window so that dust and other debris entering the tube would be minimized. The body was developed out of ABS plastic to be as durable as possible, and was smooth enough so that it would ‘roll’ on its base without being so slippery as to move with a hard breath.

Some decisions were made for its contruction. It initially did not have any aiming mechanism as it being a rich field telescope was assumed to be good enough to along (it wasn’t). The problem was mostly aesthetics: Any aiming mechanism would spoil the clean lines fo the Astroscan’s body. Eventually a sheet metal aiming deveice was developed that helped. Later models, as shown in the above picture, had a red-dot finder added for aiming.

The Astroscan was aimied squarely at novice users and this was both a help and hinderance. Hardcore amnatuer astronomers were grumpy that so much effort was put into a telescope that wasn’t aimed at their needs, and didn’t address what they felt was ideal in a beginner telescope. The validity of their arguments continues to be debated to this day.

A harder barrier for the Astroscan to overcome was its low-power. Being a rich field telescope with only 1 eyepiece included it had what seemed like an anemic 16x magnification. This was in an age where retail department store telescopes were sick with ludicrious claims of unattainable magnification (640x!!!!). Edmund had hope to have their new telescope sold by wholesale as well as through their famous catalog, and seeing this stylish but-low-powered telescope next to the fake claims of cheaper telescopes was a hinderance to those long-term wholesale plans.

Other features of the Astroscan were controversial: To reduce costs the focuser used a rubber wheel (as opposed to a rack and pinion system) that would press against the eyepiece’s base and move when the focuser knob was turned. But this wheel would develop ‘flats’ that made for a bumpy focusing experience, and in very cold weather it could shrink and not ‘grab’ the eyepiece properly. That said, some people loved it, include the founder of Orion Telescopes, Tim Geisler.

Other features of the Astroscan would be introduced later, mostly as accessories: A threadable solar projection system, a moon hook that would allow the Astroscan to be mounted to classic Equatorial mounts, a camera-style tripod that was designed especially to allow the Astroscan’s base to thread onto it, an image inverter, and a few more items were developed.

The Astroscan did well as telescopes sales go. The exact numbers are unclear but in its lifetime it is assumed to have sold around 90,000 units, making for around 2400 units per year, which is good numbers for a company that does not exclusivelty sell telescopes.

The Mid Life Crisises-es-es

The Astroscan had been planned on being sold below $100.00 and much of the developement issues were based on that cost limit. But this was to cause a few growing pains for the Astroscan. For one, the 70’s were an era of major inflationary pressures and keeping costs down just was not possible. At some point in the 80’s a decision was made to move production to the less expensive Japan. Production began in that nation after many, many, many long meetings and trips by the senior brass from Edmund.

Japan’s production, like most things in the Astroscan’s history, was polarizing. Some considered the Astroscans of that era to the worst ones ever made (even calling them ‘Astroscams’) while others declared Japan’s attention to optical details produced some of the best models made. In any case, production costs in Japan rose steadily over the years to the point where, when combined with the overseas shipping costs, it was no longer economical to produce the Astroscan in Japan. Production was returned to Barrington, NJ in the USA.

By this time, the Astroscan had quite a number of years since its development and was starting to look a little long in the tooth. It hadn’t had much attention paid to its design in years (the last major changes happened when the production was moved to Japan). There were other issues:  The Astroscan screamed 70’s design, but not loudly enough to provoke nostalgia. It’s cost had also rised to over $350 Much higher than optically similar models), the product copy hadn’t even been rewritten in what seemed liked decades (dated-sounding references to ‘Space-Age design’ were still present as of the 1999 catalog).

Other issues were a problem. Edmund has introduced a series of lower-cost beginner telescopes to work as a fleet with the Astroscan as the Flagship, but none of them garner much success. The wholesale program became a morass as other retailers undercut Edmund’s pricing, or even broke up the telescope into its component parts and sold them individually to get around any Minimum Advertised Price policy Edmund might introduce. The wholesale program also did not account for retail inventory needs, so telescopes were often shipped out to other retailers when Edmund’s own retail telescope sale needs were not fulfilled.

Even worse, the patent on the design was due to run out in 2000 and a slew of imitators came in. The most visible of which was the Bushnell Voyager


The Voyager was not as sturdy as the Astrscan, having a coated styrofoam body instead of ABS, but it had a cost of $199 vs the Astroscan’s $360. Other imitators soon popped up, such as the Orion Funscope:


Other, ‘interesting’ Astroscan imitators appear courtesy of Edmund’s Chinese agents. The most internally infamous of which was a model (one never developed for the consumer) which was just straight optical tube shoved into a painted metal ball. It was immensely heavy compared to a traditional astroscan and had just a piece of colored tape to cover the seam between to the tube and the ball. The telescope famously used the rack end of a zip-tie for its focuser rack. Oddly enough the optics in the telescope were not bad!

Still, it seemed like something needed to be done:

The New Astroscan that never was.

In 2000, plans and committees were set up at Edmund to help revitalize the aging Astroscan. Message boards were inquired, costs assessed, ideas explored, et cetera. Among those plans it was decided to do an ‘almost-overhaul’ of the Astroscan. The optics would be changed to more modern and less costly counterparts. A mechanical engineer was sourced to develop and improve the focuser. Sourcing parts from Asia was explored to reduce cost while still keeping the production in the USA. Eyepiece changes were considered and it even variations on the body color (a star pattern on black was considered, not uncommon today but radical for the time) were considered, as well as a possible oversized (6″ mirror) version! The overall plan was to get the Astroscan competititve in the new playing field, to answer as many of its criticisms as we possibly could, and overall revitalize what had become a dusty corner of the world’s telescope offerings. How much would the new Astroscan differ from the old one? We’ll never know.

In 2001 it was announced that Science Kit & Boreal Lab would purchase the Edmund Scientific. All work on the New Astroscan Project ceased. Edmund continued to produce the Astroscan for SK&BL while they consolidated the move to their facility, but eventually they set up production of the Astroscan in China. The quality was a bit more concerning and the classic RKE eyepieces were replaced with generic Plossl eyepieces (partly because the Edmund family still claimed the rights to the RKE eyepieces and sold them in their Industrial Catalog for years afterwards).

Under SK&BL or one of the other administrating companies the Astroscan continued to be sold until 2013, when disaster struck.

What’s in a Mold?

Its not clear what happened, but somewhere someone dropped something shouldn’t have, or something wore out, or …well anything. The mold used to produce the Astroscan body broke. That is all we know at this point. It could have been wear & tear, having been used to produce at least 90,000 telescope bodies.

Molds are costly, and while developing a new model could have been done it would have required new machining, new engineer work, and a host of other aspects. ScientificsOnline decided to not produce a new mold. Instead they introduced the Astroscan Millenium, a mini Dobsonian with similar optical characterisics.


Oddly enough, this ‘new’ design solved all the issues that critics had complained about with the Astroscan: it had different eyepieces, you could now collimate it, etc. Of course it lost its classic design and character in the process, and if that design looks a bit familiar it is because other companies have been producing for over a decade:


It essentially a red version of the Orion Starblast Mini-Dob. The irony here is that the StarBlast was designed to match the optical features of the Astroscan. Welcome to your closed circle.

The Aftermath

Although not as rage-inducing as the PC/Mac wars, there definiately was an element of form vs function withe Astroscan. Yes, they did go out of collimation despite the claims, and it was very hard to get them back. That said, I have seen ones bought in 2nd hand stores on the cheap that were perfectly collimated – everything else was messed up, however.

The simple fact is that Edmund Scientific was not really poised to become a full manufacturer of telescopes like Meade, Celestron, or Orion. They had a great contender with the Astroscan, but all of their other models were not as able to support their costs of development. While some of the telescopes  Edmund made in the 60’s were classics, they would not be able to compete in the modern market.  Edmund did not develop an import line of telescopes the way other major telescope brands did. This is not a surprise as the Edmund company found there was more money to be made developing industrial optics than there was in the telescope market.

The Spirit of the Astroscan is not gone forever, either, Astronomer Norm Sperling, who actually worked on the original Astroscan design ran a Kickstarter Program to develop an Astroscan inspired telescope.  In fact, it is essentially the Astroscanmade by more modern methods and suppliers. The kickstarter has ended, however, and it is unknown if production will continue.