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.
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 email@example.com or post a comment on Heenatigala's Dobson-turns-95 website.
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.
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!