John Lowry Dobson

Have you had formal training in astronomy?

No, I have had a formal course in astronomy. My knowledge of astronomy comes through personal study, along with basic training in chemistry and physics. An innate sense of curiosity also helps. However, when it comes to making telescopes from junk, I think I can hold my own.

When did you get the idea to take your telescopes to the national parks?

In 1969, we were invited to go to Riverside, California, to attend an amateur telescope making conference. Sidewalk Astronomers seldom ever go out of their way to attend such conferences. My friend, Brian Rhodes, got the brilliant idea to go to Mexico to see the eclipse of the sun, even though we knew we could never afford to pay for such a trip. We decided that we would travel south to Mexico via Riverside, but only if we could do public service sidewalk astronomy while traveling to the conference. And that become our mode of operation. We only attend amateur astronomy and telescope conferences if we do public service activities along the way. Usually we stop by national parks and monuments to do this.

What was your first visit to a park?

It must have been Death Valley National Monument because the mirror of the 24-incher was not yet aluminized, it was only silvered. And the man who slivered it wrecked the edge, so I was to read the curve for refiguring and I hadn’t got it done until the last day because we came into Death Valley through a blizzard which tied up several thousand motorists in the passes. We needed to take it  to a dark sky location to see what the telescope could do. It was in 1971 and we went out every two weeks which coincided with the opposition of Mars. Because we went out every two weeks, we could see the entire surface of the red plant.

Getting the 24-incher completed was all due to the tenacity and commitment of Brain Rhodes. I think we took it first to Glacier Point [in Yosemite National Park].