My first telescope

Gilbert telescope brochure from the early 1960s. The price was certainly right. The mounted version cost just $17.98. Photo courtesy Loren Busch

“See close-ups of Jupiter, the Moon, Saturn and other astronomical wonders with this telescope that includes a new sighting tube to make location of the planets, etc., a cinch.” This from an early 1960s brochure for the Gilbert 80-power 3-inch reflecting telescope.

I was about 11 years old when my parents bought me the Gilbert, my first telescope. I remember the crinkle finish on the black tube and the pea-shooter sighting scope that was supposed to a ‘cinch’ to use. Truth was, it was nearly impossible to sight anything through it – like looking through a straw. The mount was shaky and jerky. When I did find the moon, once it drifted out of the field of view, getting it back in and re-centered was like changing the timing belt on a car.

The Gilbert scope came with a ball-and-socket style mount, a nice zippered case, Ramsden eyepiece and instructional booklet. Credit: Loren Busch

I barely recall what I looked at through the old Gilbert – Saturn, Jupiter, the moon I presume. Pretty much what the brochure advertised. Funny that I don’t remember my first impressions of celestial objects, just my frustration at trying to find anything. The ball-and-socket mount was anything but smooth. The mere act of tightening often meant losing your target. Sound familiar? I’ve felt your pain.

My most vivid memory of the Gilbert is an odd one. The telescope was kept in our family’s garage, and I remember to staring it one day, plotting a way to ‘accidentally’ knock the scope over so it would break on the concrete floor. That’s how much I disliked it. In my kid’s mind, I figured that if it broke, I’d make a good argument to my parents to buy a better one. I may have carried out the devious deed, but my memory’s a blur.

Astro Bob with his ancient 6-inch reflector still looking shiny in 2010 - the telescope that is. Credit: Eric Norland

Despite frustrations, the Gilbert did not kill my interest in the stars. It may have even taught me something about patience and dealing with disappointment, essential skills for any sky watcher.

Within the year, I used paper route money, along with a contribution from my parents to purchase a shiny, white 60mm Japanese refractor on a sturdy, wood tripod. It came with not one but three eyepieces, solar filter and white metal screen to safely project an image of the sun. The whole works cost $29. I remember how sharp and real Jupiter and Saturn looked through the small scope. Yeah, I was bitten for good.

The Gilbert is long gone, but I traded the refractor towards my third telescope, a 6-inch Edmund reflector that I still own. That one cost $150, an enormous amount of money for a 13-year-old back in 1966. So hungry was I to get at least part of that telescope in the house, I used paper route money to buy the mount alone, which then sat by itself in the basement for months until I worked up the additional money for the tube assembly. What a joyous day it was when my parents took me to American Science and Surplus in Chicago to pick up the telescope’s ‘business end’.

Amazing thing is, I still have the 6-inch, and its mirror still gives delightful views of planets, clusters and galaxies. That’s the beauty of so many telescopes. They never seem to get old. If you take care in storage, you can always go back and use it again or give it away to a younger version of yourself.

How many of you have an old scope stored away in an attic or garage loft somewhere? With warmer weather coming and Saturn rising higher each night, maybe it’s time to re-acquaint your telescope with the night.

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