We were saddened to hear that John Dobson passed away on Saturday, January 15th, 2014 at the age of 98.
Dobson is most famous for building, developing and promoting a design of reflector telescope that still bears his name: The Dobsonian Reflector Telescope, one of the most popular telescope mounts on the market today. Dobson never laid any claim to the design that bears his name and never made a dime from them.
Dobson’s design was simple: Instead of an awkward and heavy tripod, he would mount the optical tube (usually made of the cardboard tubes used to pour concrete columns) on a simple lazy-susan platform & cradle that allowed the telescope to pivot up and down and rotate left and right. The Dobson had no tracking ability, but is was easy for amateur astronomers to build. The Dobsonian had several weaknesses in its design that made them unworkable for general astronomers until some innovative designs in the late 90’s made them viable sellers for telescope manufacturers. In addition, the Dobsonian allowed telescope builder to make large (24″+ mirrors) telescopes, which in the past was a size relegated to anchored observatory telescopes.
Dobson himself was a tireless promoter of amateur astronomy. While a monk at the Ramakrishna Order he built his own telescopes and worked with other astronomers outside of the monastary. Eventually his activities led him to being expelled. Afterwards he co-founded the San Fransisco Sidewalk astronomers, a group that took their name quite literally as Dobson himself would work his telescope outside with a sun filter on clear days and invite passers-by to view the sunspots.
Dobson held the belief that the “Big Bang” theory was wrong and that the Universe work on an a Steady State principle.
Dobson in effect got the high gloss ‘formal’ out of amateur astronomy. By developing the Dobsonian Telescope he removed the stigma of altazimuth mounts & controls (which were usually a feature of small, cheap telescopes). He also (quietly) mocked ‘millimeter hunters’ (telescope builders who try gain the most aperture by tweaking & redesigning their optical tubes) and mirror purists by signing his name on telescope mirrors with a Sharpie marker under where the shadow of the telescope’s secondary mirror would fall. In essence explaining how not all of a telescope’s mirror gets used and that a little material on the surface is not the end of the world. John Dobson was well loved in the astronomy community and every astronomer who met him seemed to come away with a story.
While it is sad when anyone passes away, Dobson’s passing at the age of 98 gives us hope that he had a long and happy life.