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 amatuer 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 hoped 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, including 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 risen 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 had introduced a series of lower-cost beginner telescopes to work as a fleet with the Astroscan as the Flagship, but none of them garnered 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 competitive 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.
Although not as rage-inducing as the PC/Mac wars, there definitely was an element of form vs function with the 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 Astroscan made by more modern methods and suppliers. The kickstarter has ended, however, and it is unknown if production will continue.