Jeffrey R. Charles
© Copyright 1997, 1998, 2006 Jeffrey R. Charles. All Rights Reserved.
This document is the first installment of "An Amateur Astronomer's Journal", an autobiography of Jeffrey R. Charles that emphasizes his activities in one if his favorite hobbies, amateur astronomy. In pursuit of this hobby, Mr. Charles invented many innovative gadgets for astrophotography and eclipse imaging. In 1983, he founded Versacorp, a business that was initially based in large part on optical telescope accessories he had designed and built for his own amateur use. Versacorp has since entered other markets such as engineering, image processing, and panoramic and full sphere imaging technology.
Some of the Astrophotographer's Journal document series is still in first draft form or even under construction. The journals will eventually include more descriptions of various astro gadgets, plus recollections or records of various astronomy meetings, star parties, observing sessions, and astrophotography sessions. Some initially written parts of this journal cover less than optimal events and circumstances, partly because the author wanted to get that part of the writing out of the way first. Most of the newer material (some yet to be added) focuses on the more positive experiences. This journal is covers considerable autobiographical material, but there are cases where the names or relationships of some people are changed or not mentioned at all in the interest of privacy. Each of the total solar eclipses that were observed by the author between the times covered in each segment of this journal are covered in a separate "Eclipse Chaser’s Journal".
Chronologically, most of this document follows: Eclipse Chaser's Journal: My First Eclipse: Feb. 26, 1979.
It precedes: Eclipse Chaser's Journal, Part 2: The Big One: July 11, 1991.
An Affair with Astro Gadgets
Gadgets, gadgets everywhere! Gadgets and the true gadgeteer can make for a jumbled house or apartment, and a jumbled living space can extend the amount of time one is a bachelor. Gadgets and the gadgeteer are not inseparable, for there is much more to life than gadgets, but some may say that that the gadgeteer has an affair with gadgets because of the amount of time spent in pursuit of a challenging hobby. To some, it can become more than a hobby, and result in a livelihood in some field of gadgetry. To some, favorite gadgets may be model trains, to others it may be cars, to yet others, it may be rockets, and to still others, it may be cameras or telescopes.
Astrophotography offers a unique combination of challenges and gadgets to meet those challenges. Some may throw money at the challenge and get all the latest gadgets; others may build their gadgets; and still others may push the envelope with the equipment they already have. Given the right gadgets, even a trained monkey can take good astrophotos, and the desire to do better than the rest of the animal kingdom may lead many to push the envelope and develop new techniques. Overgadgetization can either take away the challenge of astrophotography or impose a new challenge: that of setting up all the gadgets! This may lead some to develop new gadgets that simplify both set up and operation. New gadget development was a major part of my efforts in the field of astrophotography.
My First Telescope
What is one's first telescope? Is it the first assemblage of optics one ever had? Is it the first commercial telescope? Is it the first telescope that produced decent images? Most people have not had all of these variations to consider. My brother David remembers my first assemblage of optics better than I do. We lived in Kansas City, Missouri and were mere pups in academic terms at the time. A few weeks before we began attending Holmes Park kindergarten in 1962, my brother and I were at the Ruskin Heights home of Rosa Karas and her daughter Betty. Rosa Karas, whom we called "Grandma Karas", was our "baby sitter".
Even though her Ruskin Heights home had been destroyed in the 1957 tornado, Grandma Karas had been able to salvage some of her possessions. Her garage and furniture was full of these items. She routinely allowed us to rummage through her stuff when we were at her house, and one or both of us usually tried to build some sort of temporary contraption out of it. When we weren't doing that (or arguing as kids usually do) we would fix toys that may have broken. This seemed more fulfilling than destroying everything in sight, as some of our contemporaries did.
Frequent toy repairs included the poorly designed flywheel motors (often called "friction motors") in our toy cars. For repair, these motors had to be carefully removed from the toy by gently bending the sheet metal tabs that held them in place. If a tab was bent too sharply, it would break off, so there was more to a successful repair than just pawing away at things. One could say that we were indoctrinated into the world of technology at a very young age. We were not always satisfied with the performance of a given toy, and would sometimes make modifications and improvements on our own. We were the young "Tim Taylors" of our day, but some of our modifications actually worked!
One day, I started experimenting with a large cardboard tube which had been used for storing a small throw rug. I taped a large magnifying glass to one end, held a small magnifying glass close to the other end, and started looking around the inside of the house. It actually magnified the view! My brother took a liking to it and used it for a while, even taking it outside to experiment with.
Growing Up With "New Math"
Our grade school years were rather unremarkable. We attended Johnson Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. The bus ride from our Bennington street house to school was relatively short. Starting from the house, the bus would round a corner on Bennington, turn right onto Blue Ridge, drive south past the Zarda dairy and a gas station, then turn left onto another street and make a few turns before arriving at the school. During local gas wars, the gas station we passed on the west side of Blue Ridge would sometimes post a sign for 11 cents a gallon, which was considerably less than the average price of well over 20 cents per gallon.
The school was a sprawling single story building that had classrooms for different ranges of grades in different wings. The same classroom was used for the same students all year, with each class being made up of 20 to 30 students. We would stay in the classroom for all mandatory classes except Physical Education or “Gym” class, which was held in a multipurpose gymnasium room having a stage on the right end and a cafeteria with a steel counter and wide rollup closure at the other. The students having the elective orchestra class would also leave the classroom for that.
The same teacher would be in a given classroom all year, and only time other teachers were in the room was when the art or music teacher would arrive with their rolling cart and hold class for 15 minutes to half an hour. I did not particularly like singing at the time, so I would just lip synch with the rest of the students during music class.
For lunch, we would go to the cafeteria in the gym and get a tray of food with an 8 ounce carton of milk for about 35 cents. The cashier was at a little wood table in the center of a wide recessed entryway to the gym. We would pay for our lunches as we passed between the cashier table and the trunk type milk cooler a little to its right, then proceed to a wide pass through counter at the right end of the gym. Sometimes, the cashier would have a silver half dollar coin that we could get for change if we had as much as a dollar bill with us to buy lunch. After buying lunch, we would take it back to the classroom to eat it at our little flat topped desks, then return the trays to the cafeteria. Some days, we would bring lunch in our metal Beverly Hillbillies lunchboxes. When we brought our own lunch, the small carton of milk could be had by itself for only 2 cents. We rarely had potato chips in our packed lunches, so I would occasionally trade my milk with another student for some Fritos chips.
At the grade school, we had good teachers, not so good teachers, and eccentric teachers. One notable teacher I'd had toward the end of first grade did relatively little in the way of teaching and often gave our class seemingly huge writing assignments. Sometimes, she would just sit down and read a book while we slaved away on the assignments. Many of these writing assignments consisted of copying large amounts of Robert Louis Stevenson's works by hand. Some of the assignments were the equivalent of a full typewritten page, single spaced; a lot of writing for a first grader. I found the assignments very difficult and could seldom finish them in one day and evening. I had some sort of mental block between reading the material and writing it. From my perspective, I was copying shapes; not words or ideas. This required me to look back and forth between the original and my writing after every few characters. I soon developed a strong dislike for writing.
Around that time, I had my first grade school crush on a girl. Jan was a class mate who lived on Blue Ridge, and was the mail man's daughter. This was obviously completely different than the kind of crush an older person would have, but it was notable nonetheless. A couple of years later, one of my brother's teachers, a 23 year old lady, caught my eye in that I thought she looked pretty (for lack of a better word), but there was no significance to it beyond that.
Our class was part of the generation in which the school system experimented with things like "new math" all while showing little tolerance for other ways of thinking. For example, I taught myself how to multiply in the second grade; a year before the school started teaching the subject to our class. My second grade teacher was helpful in that she graded the unassigned multiplication problems I had solved on a few occasions. This gave me more sample problems to work with, but unfortunately, she proved to be the only teacher that would encourage my self motivated math efforts. The way I taught myself was through pattern recognition by observing solved problems. I performed multiplication from left to right, and I could do it all in my head! Of course, I had to resort to paper if the equation involved really large numbers, but equations like 12 x 12 x 12 (the number of cubic inches in a cubic foot) or 36 x 36 x 36 (cubic inches in a cubic yard) were no problem for me to do in my head at the time. An equation like 36 x 36 x 36 took me a little over 5 minutes to do in my head, and was about the limit of what I could do without paper.
Unfortunately, the school wanted multiplication done from right to left. I did not know this at first, and I was usually able to do my entire math homework assignment in 5 minutes. Later on, the teacher started assigning problems with larger numbers and insisted we show our work for the method she taught. I was not entirely up to speed on that, and there was no tutoring available to catch me up on it. My method would work on the equations, but the school forbad me to use my methods in any assignments at all, even during the interim while I was picking up on their method. This caused my grades to fall, and ultimately caused me to forget a lot about my technique. I soon became a mediocre math student because I apparently had some mental block concerning aspects of the school's method. The school system acted as though there was only one valid way to do anything, and how was a mere third or fourth grader to question authority? After all, the school had the power to flunk a student!
Another aspect of out grade school system was that it seemed to place a lot of emphasis on the results of a student's I.Q. test. For each grade, our school had what we students called a "smart class" and a "dummy class". Way back when I was little, I'd had the misfortune of scoring very high in an I.Q. test (about 160, I think). This I.Q. data may have given the school system unrealistic expectations, because I was bounced back and forth between the smart class and the dummy class. If I would get relatively good grades one year, I'd get put in the smart class the next year. While in the smart class, I could not keep up with many in the work load, and the next year, I'd be back in the dummy class; and on and on it went.
Even though school work was hard for me, the high IQ scores also must have tended to give my parents unrealistic expectations in regard to my grades. Sometimes, I would work my tail off for the equivalent of a B or a C, but there was no positive acknowledgement for anything other than the rare occasion when I would get an A. Sometimes, I was penalized if my grades were below a C. This was not the most motivating situation in the world, but I kept trying. Even as an adult, I have scored high on an I.Q. test, but I don't think it proves anything. It does not mean that I am smarter than anyone else. It just means I that was good at a certain kind of test. Nothing more.
About when we were in about the fourth grade, our parents got us a 60 mm f/11.6 Jason telescope on an alt-azimuth mounting. We enjoyed using it on occasion, but properly positioning it on its mounting was difficult. In retrospect, it would have been easier to use and better maintained my interest if it had included a good low power eyepiece. The longest eyepiece had a focal length of 15 mm, making the lowest power almost 50x; a relatively high magnification for the spindly mounting. At six arc seconds, the resolution of the aberrant objective was about three times worse than one having theoretical performance. It was just barely sharp enough to show that Saturn had rings. In spite of this poor visual performance, the six arc second resolution translated to better than 40 lines per millimeter at the focal plane, making the telescope more than adequate for use as a telephoto lens. This is even superior to some popular long and telephoto camera lenses. In 1979, my brother used the Jason telescope to photograph a total solar eclipse in Montana, where it outperformed 300 mm and 400 mm lenses I used with teleconverters.
My First Camera
When I was about 11, my dad started allowing me to use the Ansco Pioneer camera that he used when he was younger. The next year, I purchased a few other box and bellows cameras at garage sales for between four and six bits. One camera I really liked was a Vest Pocket Hawk Eye which used 127 roll film.
In the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I broadened my technical horizons beyond fixing toys and decided to try and repair a broken pocket watch. I had no tools except an Xacto knife, but I was able to modify different blades into screwdrivers and eventually repair the watch. The most important thing I figured out and remembered was that everything had to be assembled a first time; therefore, nothing in a typical watch or clock has to be forced during disassembly. This keeps one from breaking parts by attempting to disassemble something in the wrong order. The next school year, some people let me take a stab at fixing their clocks and watches, and I was successful some of the time.
My parents seemed to be impressed by my repair ability, and they surprised me one day by giving me a selection of actual watch maker's tools, oil, and cleaning solutions! This could have cost them at least $50 at the time, so I was overwhelmed. I got Dumont tweezers, a movement vise, hand pullers, screw drivers, an oil applicator, and pith wood. Even today, I still use these tools. My parents purchased the tools from Jules Borel and Co., and the owner had given them a set of very high quality Burgeon screw drivers for free on the condition that I read a book that he gave my dad with the tools. The book was called "The Cross and the Switchblade". I did not get around to reading it until three years later when I was 15, but I am glad I finally read it. Reading this book proved to be one of my first steps in coming to know the Lord referred to in it, and receiving and knowing Him has proven to be the most important event of my life. When we later went back to Kansas City to visit my grand parents, I was able to meet the owner of Jules Borel. Unfortunately, he passed away only a few years after that.
When I was still in the sixth grade, I had a female classmate as a good friend for the first time. She was relatively new to the school and her name was Shelly. There was no attraction beyond our just liking to spend time with each other, and we would spend recess together every now and then. In the following months, I gradually began to form some sort of mild though unfamiliar kind of attraction toward gals of my own age and occasionally in a mild but slightly different way toward selected women up to about the age of my sixth grade teacher. My sixth grade teacher had long black hair, usually dressed nice, and was somewhat attractive, at least according a picture I have.
Later that year, they showed the obligatory "birds and the bees" movie in school. This was my first awareness of the full scope of anatomical differences between men and women. Learning about this was no big deal for me, but it did explain some of the apparent physical paradoxes that had been related in unsavory jokes I'd heard from classmates over the years. It came as no big surprise, and my prior lack of knowledge had been more a matter of my not having bothered to think much about it than anything else. The movie narration said that after a guy and gal lived together for a while, they would have children, but it did not go into any more detail than that. The movie also presented some really inane stereotypes such as something like: "Girls impress boys with their looks. Boys impress girls with their knowledge of things like cars." If this was true, I would not be impressing many girls; unless knowledge about Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars was good enough!
In the late summer of 1970, we moved from Kansas City, Missouri to Estes Park, Colorado. We arrived just in time to start seventh grade. The new rural surroundings were a nice change from the big city, and the view of the mountains was tremendous. Surprisingly, the winter weather seemed milder than it had in Kansas City.
We initially lived in a rented house on the lower northeastern flank of Prospect Mountain, where we had a good view of Lumpy Ridge toward the north and Mount Olympus toward the northeast. A few months later, we moved to a large older house on Devils Gulch Road that Mom and Dad bought. The house was built in 1911, and was originally the primary building on the Golden Horse Ranch. The house had some extra space that Dad hoped to use for a theatre pipe organ. The 5 acre yard was right at the base of Lumpy Ridge, near a rock formation called Pluto the dog, and a little east of one called the Hen and Egg. Other nearby rock formations were not named, but we called them “The Face”, “The Nose”, “The Lizard”, and “The Bird”. This picturesque setting offered a lot of nearby opportunities for rock climbing.
The combined middle school and high school was a good looking building that housed students from grades 7 through 12. The school faced toward the north and had a student center, cafeteria, and administrative offices near the center. The east wing consisted of a gymnasium with a stage and locker rooms, a vocal music room, a band room, and a wood shop. A football field with a surrounding running track was down a small embankment just east of the school building. The west of the school building consisted of a long two story wing having a library, classrooms, and a couple of restrooms, all situated on either side of locker lined central halls. An area called the Senior Bench was at the east end of the upstairs hall, just at the top of the east stairs.
A large grassy area just south of the west wing was visible out the library window. Longs Peak, the area’s tallest mountain at 14,256 feet, was visible just above a grade that was behind the grassy area. A separate grade school building up the hill to the southwest was used for grades 1 through 6. The classes in our school were relatively small, with only about 60 students per grade, and usually between 20 and 30 students per classroom. Unlike when we were in grade school, a certain type of class was held in a specific room, so students went to a different room for each type of class.
At the more rural Estes Park school, there did not seem to be as many students interested in the unsavory practices of theft and breaking people’s bones as there had been in the city. However, about half of our junior high class was at times given to fickle and cruel behavior toward those who may be at a social disadvantage at any given time. I occasionally found myself in one of the socially disadvantaged positions, but the frequency of this diminsihed as most of the bullies "grew up" over the next few years.
A little over a year after we had moved to Colorado, my brother and I went to a school sponsored ski day at Hidden Valley, the local ski area. In the evening, we got stuck having to go to a dance at the ski area because there was inadequate transportation available prior to the dance. The rock band was so loud that I occasionally retreated to the downstairs lobby and read something just so I could be in a place where my ears did not hurt.
When we returned home, there were some guests at the house who had allowed their children to run free in the house. It turned out that the children had broken my Vest Pocket Hawk Eye camera by opening it and then trying to force it closed without collapsing the bellows. When I discovered this, I got really steamed and totally flew off the handle, which was unusual for me. The Vest Pocket Hawk Eye had been my only truly portable camera, being small enough to take on hikes or other activities. I kept the broken camera for a long time in the hope that I could eventually fix it, but the damage was too severe.
I later started using a brownie box camera which used 620 film. It took remarkably sharp pictures, considering its simplicity. One day, as we were on vacation and visiting the 1,000 foot deep Royal Gorge, a family member accidentally dropped this camera (though not down the gorge), and I had too go back to using one of my less desirable cameras.
One subject in this section could be called "'Unseating My Seat", and is a medical development that occurred in junior high school. It is not the most pleasant subject matter, but it is covered here (in the junior high time frame it occurred) because, unknown to me at the time, it would apparently influence activities even in my adult life, including eclipse chasing.
In Junior high, each male Physical Education (PE) class started out with calisthenics. The teacher occasionally either allowed or orchestrated what seemed to be bizarre practices that I did not think were particularly constructive. For example, well into Junior high and continuing into early high school, the PE teacher added a new twist to an exercise called the “six count”. The six count is an exercise where you lay on your back with your legs straight and then lift your feet so the heels are about six inches above the floor for as long as the teacher or leading student would count off seconds.
The six count in and of itself was not a problem. However, the new twist was that the teacher soon allowed upper classmen (some of whom had bully-like tendencies and weighed nearly twice as much as some of us) to start walking back and forth over the calisthenics area, sequentially and sometimes gleefully stepping on each student’s stomach as they went. This was moderately painful at times, and there were a few occasions when a student’s muscles would apparently collapse and the upper classmen’s foot would sink deeper into their gut, sometimes resulting in intense pain that caused some students to double over and groan, with some having to sit out the rest of the class. In spite of some students experiencing significant pain from being stepped on, the practice of heavier upper classmen stepping on junior high students was not stopped, and was occasionally repeated for over a year.
One day, my own muscles felt like they partially gave out during the six count, when the upper classman stepping on me did not step quite in the center of my stomach area, and also did not seem to have his weight well distributed on his foot. The pain from this was significant for a while, but I was able to recover to an extent to function (e.g. walk without being doubled over) by the end of the class. However, within a few days or weeks, I was unable to have a bowel movement for several consecutive days, and when I did, the diameter of the stool was very large, making the experience quite painful. Shortly thereafter, I could not go to the restroom for 8 days, and the results were again painful. Other even more painful incidents followed, sometimes with the results even large enough to stop up plumbing in the house.
This condition sporadically but gradually got worse, and I ultimately developed a prolapse condition that had the effect of limiting my mobility and required multiple surgeries, one of which was in 1996 and involved 9 days in the hospital. There were other contributions to the prolapse condition, but the six count incident coincided with the first time some things started to get worse more suddenly. I’ve since wondered if the condition would have gone far enough to require surgery if the six count incident had never happened.
During junior high, I was not exactly what girls were looking for. In the fickle society of junior high, girls wanted guys with physiques like gorillas and little else mattered. Though the term "nerd" was not used much if at all in the school during my junior high days, I was definitely the type, complete with a shirt pocket protector, mechanical pencils; the works! In the eighth grade, I had asked a seventh grade gal I liked out a few times - and got turned down - usually not in a very diplomatic way. I could have definitely identified with the Steven Q. Urkel character on the later "Family Matters" TV show of the 1990's.
In the absence of much in the way of social interests in Junior high, I opted to get more into photography. I decided to get another "good" camera as soon as I could afford it, and after a lot of consideration, I decided to go for one that took 35 mm film. My dad had allowed me to take pictures under supervision with his Miranda F SLR camera, but I knew that a camera that nice was out of my price range. Toward the end of the eighth grade, I went to the school library repeatedly looked through a three year old copy of the Popular Photography 1969 buyer's guide.
During part of the summer of 1972 (between eighth and ninth grade), I worked mornings as a buss boy at the Range restaurant for $1 an hour and saved up enough to purchase a used Perti Color 35 range focus camera, a pocket sized 35 mm zone focus camera having manually selectable shutter speeds and aperture settings. I did not really want a fixed focus or automatic camera. Early in the school year, I got a Vivitar 151 flash unit.
Struggling With Grades
I typically did not get very good grades in school, and reading and writing assignments often took me a long time to complete. When I tried to do all of my assignments, I found that I was constantly behind and I had poor retention of the information. Eventually, I realized that I actually learned much more material if I only concentrated on about 2/3 of my school work and let the other third slide. My grades initially were not too good as a result of this, but I certainly learned more than I had when I'd tried to do everything, and the increased memory of what I had learned later began to simplify some of my school work and allowed my grades to rebound a bit. Actually retaining what I learned made school a lot more interesting.
It was later learned that a great deal of my difficulty in school could have come from a reading and writing disorder, possibly dyslexia. There just wasn't a word for it then. One of the symptoms was that some words consistently appeared to have some of their letters in the wrong order. I did not completely overcome this problem until the 1990’s, when an episode of the TV show "Promised Land" (about a family that lived in a trialer) dealt with dyslexia, and presented the method of covering a word with a piece of paper, then uncovering the word letter by letter. Using this method a few times on problem words made me see them correctly, and then I could later read the same word correctly without using the method. In spite of this, quite a bit of effort is still required generate written material by hand. This is amply demonstrated even today: I get mentally exhausted after just addressing a few envelopes or composing a short note by hand or on a conventional typewriter, yet I can sit here and "write" all day with a computer having a good word processing program! One of the greatest advantages of a word processor is the ability to cut and paste or easily correct errors. In addition, manually copying written information by hand is very difficult when I have to read as I write, yet I can often write down some of what I hear with little problem at all.
In the first quarter of the ninth grade, I had an experience that was pivotal in causing me to lose a lot of my motivation to make good grades for quite a while, and my somewhat average GPA began to take a slide. It happened in my ninth grade geometry class. This was a difficult class for me, but I was able to get through most of the first quarter with far better grades than I had received in Algebra 1 the year before. This was partly due to my younger brother tutoring me on occasion. Our school offered virtually nothing in the way of tutoring on the subject, and I had some significant mental blocks when it came to algebra. (To this day, I can arrive at an equation that will solve a problem, but doing the most basic of algebra to solve the equation itself is still a struggle.) I was spending between one and three hours a night on geometry homework alone to try and hammer it into my head, and was just averaging an A minus; probably the first time since early grade school I had averaged an A in math.
One day, three members of the geometry class started acting unruly on a week we had a young and insecure acting substitute teacher. She quickly became flustered and threatened to reduce the grade of every member of the class if these three did not instantly quiet down. They kept on misbehaving, and she quickly declared that everyone in the class was going to lose credit for a substantial portion of that week's work. This dropped my average for the quarter from an A minus to a B or slightly worse.
When the regular teacher returned, many of us who had done nothing wrong sought to get our previous grade level reinstated, but the teacher refused to do so. This reminded me of some old movies I'd seen where a military officer would summarily demote people based purely on his mood. It certainly did not seem right to summarily penalize an innocent class member that much, let alone a whole class. I soon thought "the heck with it" and gave up trying so hard, if at all, in school. (I actually thought a lot worse and more graphically than "heck", but I won't repeat it here.) It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to get my grade back to an A. When this became apparent, I dropped out of geometry and joined the school yearbook staff, which met at the same hour.
My parents were somewhat supportive of my decision because they realized I had gotten the shaft from my geometry teacher. They had not cared much for her anyway, due to the lack of tutoring for her students. They also seemed to be more understanding about my entire grade status, and they began to realize that low grades may have been as much the school system's fault as it was mine. After all, here was a student who taught himself how to multiply in his head well before the school started teaching him the subject at all. Wasn't it unusual that the same student would consistently get bad grades in math? Years before, the grade school system at my prior location had effectively made me "unlearn" my techniques. These days, they have schools that accommodate students having unusual or different but effective problem solving skills.
In spite of occurrences like the geometry class debacle, less than desirable practices in PE class, and a relative lack of control over bullies, I thought that the Estes Park high school was better than many of its contemporaries. The principal and many of the teachers there really seemed to take an interest in the development and well being of the students, the library was relatively good, and some of the staff would let students pursue their own literary interests in some assignments. The drafting class at the school was the only training in the subject I ever had, and it more than provided all the skills needed when I later worked in the field. There were also many class projects at our school (such as building electric motors from scratch) that few others had the opportunity to do in a high school. In the end, the school taught the three R’s and provided all of the tools I needed to further educate myself in the skills needed to run my own business, perform in my subsequent engineering career, and become a published author.
Optics! Optics! Optics!
On the first business day of January in 1973, I sold the Petri camera to my brother and purchased a used Miranda FvT camera from Al's Loans, a pawn shop in Denver. The people in Al's pawn shop were cordial rather than being obnoxious like those in the area's other pawn shops. Al, the owner, seemed to appreciate the fact that a ninth grader would not have a huge amount of cash and negotiated a fair price on the Miranda. I liked the Miranda camera because it was affordable and had a removable penta prism which was very useful for shooting over a crowd or taking candid shots. The following summer, I purchased a Soligor 90-230 mm f/4.5 Soligor zoom lens at Robert Waxman camera. After a while, I realized that I could use the zoom lens as a telescope by mounting either an eyepiece from the Jason telescope or some optics from an 8 mm movie projector lens in a plastic film can and then simply sliding the can into the back of the lens.
Having joined the yearbook staff, I now had both wore a pocket protector and carried a camera, both of which are very effective as girl repellents in and of themselves. In addition, it is hard to escape the stereotype people have from previous years or isolated events in a small town school. This meant that girls did not hang around me much, pocket protector or not, so I was at the time relegated to just having a distant crush on someone if anything at all.
I then had a tendency to initially forget subtleties in a person's face, and I occasionally wanted to be able to remember what a gal I liked looked like in some detail. Being on the yearbook staff, I had a camera, so I occasionally took posed or candid pictures of a gal, usually from a long distance with a telephoto lens so as not to be intrusive. I generally only took such photos between classes or at football games, since I was not one of those weird types that tried to get pictures of people in improper areas or situations. I lost interest in taking or even looking at candid pictures just after graduating from school, so I discontinued the practice. After I graduated from high school and eventually moved away to work in a nearby town, the nerd image and the related limitations on interacting with gals ceased to be a problem. However, due in part to medical problems including those possibly stemming from the six count incident mentioned above, I took myself out of the market for quite a while.
Throughout most of high school years, my only "crush" was a gal two years older than I was. Such a match was very unusual in high school (particularly if one wore a pocket protector) so nothing ever came of it, though I did get up the nerve to ask her out on a few occasions. I was turned down by her too, but in a remarkably diplomatic way. On occasion, she would talk with me, but strictly in a platonic sense. She was one of the first gals in whom I saw both good looks and good character. She even endured my photographing her close up on occasion. The way most gals seem to hate having their picture taken, that was amazing.
There was a limit to what could be done with my camera equipment, so I tried to find lenses I could afford or work on optical improvements that would improve the performance of my existing equipment. The techniques I developed improved my photography of all subjects including candid shots of teachers for the yearbook. Some of the time, I was able to take a hand held photo without flash at 1/15 second in which the resolution was grain limited! I could get acceptable hand held shots with a 200 mm lens at 1/4 second, and take one second shots with a 50 mm lens. In some years, I single handedly took over half the pictures that were published in the school yearbook.
In the spring and summer of 1973, I worked for $1.36 an hour at Richardson's Super Food Market, a local grocery store. By working a few evenings during the spring and full time during the summer, I was able to save enough to purchase more camera equipment. I ordered a Miida 100 mm f/2.8 lens by mail (paying by postal money order) from Viking International in New Jersey, but I never got either it or my money in spite of follow up. They had sent a letter that acknowledged receipt of my money, said the lens was out of stock, and offered to refund it if I wanted, but they never gave me the refund when asked. At $1.36 an hour, that hurt! To this day, I don't have either the lens or my money. After being ripped off, I was still able to purchase used Yashica Mat camera at the local camera store. This allowed me to get into medium format, and the improvement in quality over 35 mm was stunning.
Later, I sold my Miranda FvT camera and was able to order a brand new Miranda Sensorex II camera from Wall Street Camera Exchange. Unlike other mail order places like Cambridge or Viking, Wall Street Camera Exchange was reliable; promptly sending a post card advising of a slight delay in shipping, and sending the camera itself in about 30 days. I liked the meter in the Miranda better than those in most cameras because its galvanometer was fixed, allowing its meter needle to give absolute readings of the light level. Because of this, I could use the meter in dimmer conditions than its specified range just by watching the rate at which the needle moved. I used the Miranda and the Yashica Mat for years, and began getting into part time professional portrait photography by late 1974. I eventually got into portraits, product and resort photography, and conventions.
While in school, I became interested in model railroading. At least two other students were also interested, and I spent quite a bit of time talking about the subject with one classmate in particular. I did not have much in the way of funds to finance building a model railroad, so this class mate and I would usually just look at Model Railroader magazine and drool over the H.O. locomotives and other gadgets that were advertised in it. I was eventually able to set up a moderate layout for several months, but we later moved to a different house and I had to dismantle it. There were no real trains in Estes Park, but years later, I became interested in watching real trains. While I had been in grade school, we lived by railroad tracks, but my memory of that time was faded. I eventually set up a small model H.O. model rail road on industrial shelving.
Well before my senior year in high school, I purchased a used Victor 16 mm motion picture camera. This camera had a turret with three C-mount lenses. I was not able to afford much film for this camera, but I later combine one of its lenses with some optics from an 8 mm movie projector lens to make an erect image telescope out of my zoom lens. This was relatively easy to do after experimenting with optics and reading part of a book called something like "Optics, Evaluation and Design" in the school library. I started with a Miranda to C-mount adapter, and simply screwed a modified film can onto the back of it. A 25 mm Wollensak lens from the movie camera was the erecting lens (a very good one) and optics from the 8 mm movie projector lens served as the eyepiece. The equivalent focal length of the complete eyepiece assembly was 10 mm.
In May of 1975, I purchased a used 4" x 5" view camera and began taking more portraits. This allowed the camera to pay for itself by the time I graduated from high school. I enjoyed taking portraits, and I would occasionally take a portrait of an attractive young lady (typically someone older than high school age) at no charge in order to build up my portfolio. On one occasion, the family of gal I photographed in this way purchased over $200 in prints, which I offered to them at about cost. Sometimes, a gal and I would get well acquainted during a shoot and keep in touch for a while, typically in a platonic sense.
In my senior year, I bought a used Beseler 45M enlarger and a set of color printing filters. This made it possible to use my 4x5 camera for portraits and make my own custom prints from the negatives. That school year, a very unusual arrangement was apparently made between the publisher of the school yearbook and an out of town photography business. The yearbook publisher had only been used for one year, and had been selected in large part because they could (unlike prior publishers) print at least the senior section of the year book in color at an affordable price. The previous yearbook had included color photos in the senior section, and everyone assumed that the 1976 yearbook would be the same. Unfortunately, there was a fly in the ointment this year, and it had the potential to undermine the business of all of our town's professional photographers, including myself.
Having previously been on the yearbook staff, I was in communication with them because I still supplied them with pictures of groups such as the football team and cheerleaders. (My 4x5 camera produced really clear images, and I was glad to help out.) Shortly before an out of town photography business came to take all of the usual class photos, I was informed that this business allegedly had some kind of arrangement with the yearbook publisher. The arrangement allegedly specified that if over half of the senior class members did not purchase senior photos from this photography business, the yearbook would not have any color photos! This seemed unbelievable! While still in high school, I had seen what appeared to be the world of shady business practices, and I did not like it. If this was true, the students of our entire school were at risk of missing out on a color year book, just so some out of town photographer (and seemingly a very mediocre one at that) could line his pockets! I had to keep this information under my hat for a few days, because the staff was at the time uncertain if they were allowed to disclose it to the whole school.
The yearbook staff eventually announced the contract matter and other local photographers checked it out through various channels. It all appeared to be true. Our senior class was effectively being blackmailed into having to get their photos from a certain photography business if they wanted a color yearbook. This understandably made many people very unhappy and caused some students to boycott the out of town photographer. I tried to negotiate a color yearbook for our class by providing even more sports and faculty photos for the yearbook, but I was not successful. The yearbook staff, including the related faculty, were apparently powerless to do anything about it. In the end, our yearbook was printed only in black and white; an enduring testament to what appeared to be the greed and avarice of an out of town photographer and a publisher who seemed to have no regard for the local impact of their actions on others. Decades later, my classmates and myself still see only black and white photos of each other, all because of this alleged quiet little business arrangement between a publisher and an out of town photographer.
Late in my senior year of high school, I purchased a used 400 mm f/6.3 Sonnagar lens (advertised as a so-called "girl watcher" lens) from my friend Jonas, who was an exchange student from Sweden. Used with my eyepiece, this lens provided a magnification of 40x, barely enough to see the rings on Saturn. I used this lens for years, sometimes for lunar photos with two stacked 2x teleconverters. I later empirically learned that the image quality was better if I used one set of teleconverter optics instead of two. By moving the lens elements forward and adding an extension tube behind the teleconverter, the effective magnification could be increased while still allowing infinity focus.
Many of my class mates were going to college, but I was still on the fence. I was good at solving many types of real world problems, yet school work remained very difficult for me. Having cultivated a small amount of photography business, I opted to try my hand at it full time after graduating rather than going to college right away. However, a couple of months before I graduated in 1976, one of the prominent local portrait photographers offered me a full time $3.50 an hour job working in his darkroom the next summer. I went for it because I figured I could use my earnings to build my business the next fall, or use the funds for college if that started to look like a better course of action.
Accepting the job with the other photographer turned out to be a mistake because on the start of my first day, the photographer changed his tune and said that he would only pay two dollars an hour for the first two weeks, then increase the wages later. My coworker was in the same boat. Two weeks later, the photographer still put off the wages he had promised. A month after I started, I pressed him to live by his word and come up with the wages he had promised. At that, he let me go. My co worker was content to stay, but he may not have been promised a higher wage at the outset. This photographer's practices seemed most unethical, and in retrospect, I assume it was downright illegal (partly because minimum wage for an adult was probably more than that at the time), but I did not know what rights a worker had back then. Meanwhile, my business had lost its momentum, and it took some time to get it going again with the meager funds I had. The photographer may have offered me the job for just that reason, to get me out of the local market. People liked my work, so I had undoubtedly been cutting into his business. If I had it to do again, I probably would have just gone to college.
In the middle of the that summer, I started getting my own photography business going again. I soon found that most of the local demand was for color work. My niche in the market was the ability to make custom color prints in less time than the week or so it took for custom labs to fulfill orders by mail. However, printing with separate color filters was not very efficient and the color temperature of the light source in a standard enlarger was not quite right for color printing. In addition, getting the right color balance purely by trial and error took a lot of time. Therefore, I took out a $1,000 loan and bought a used Beseler 45M enlarger with a dichroic color head and a PM-2 color analyzer. The color enlarger head made it possible to produce better prints in less time, and since I still had my black and white enlarger, I could often save time by printing with both enlargers. The analyzer did not prove to be as useful as I had hoped, but this was partly because my own eye for color had developed to the point where I could often arrive at the right color balance after only a few test strips.
Late in the summer of 1976, I began to get into wide angle photography. Soon, I wanted to capture a wider area than that covered by a conventional wide angle lens. Inspired by the scenery in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, I began thinking of ways to photograph the entire horizon in a single picture. After considerable thought, I conceived, developed, and fabricated the world's very first Cassegrain axial strut wide angle reflector in the summer of 1977. In later years, I developed other variations of this design and obtained patents. I eventually presented and published papers on my wide angle optics. These can be seen at both the www.versacorp.com and www.eclipsechaser.com web sites.
1977 was a year of contrasts. At one point I was involved in developing novel multiple exposure darkroom techniques to produce unique images for my business, and at another, I was working four part time jobs at once when photography work was slow. In late summer, I took a job as a stock boy and cashier at Beaver Point Market, a small seasonal grocery store.
Initially, the stocking task alone took well over six hours because there was no correspondence between the organization of the back store room and the front retail area. In addition, the freezers and coolers had not been defrosted for months, and products would get stuck in it. After about two days of this, I decided to do something about the inefficiency, and stayed after work every day for two weeks to correct the problems on my own time. Borrowing from observations made during my high school job at Richardson's Super Food market, I reorganized fragmented sections of the retail area and organized the stock room to correspond with areas in the retail area. The coolers and freezers were another matter. Even with the stock moved to another unit and and the power turned off to an empty unit for several hours, there was so much ice that little of it melted, and I eventually removed over 70 kilograms of ice from the units. After completing all these tasks, I was able to fully maintain the stock of the store in an hour and a half. Within a week, the owner made me manager of the store.
Toward the end of the season, I began part time jobs in a camera store and a print shop, all while still working in the grocery store and at my photography business. The grocery store soon closed for the season and the owners were emphatic in communicating that they wanted me back the next season if I was available. Business also tapered off for the camera store and print shop, so I started working for an insulation contractor. It was a hard job due to my light frame, and I did not like it very well, but I figured I would stay with it for at least the winter. Some days began with three of us manually unloading nearly 1,000 30 pound bags of insulation from a semi truck. While we were out on the job, my sinuses, eyes, and throat did not seem to like the insulation dust, but I kept at it. I got some relief for my throat by taking cough drops. We had to use a rather antiquated insulation blowing machine which was mounted in a truck and driven by an adapted Ford Pinto engine.
The owner of the insulation business did not like the blower unit very well, so he looked into smaller and more portable insulation blower units which had been prototyped by startup businesses. Unfortunately, these machines were inadequate at the time, primarily because they did not break up the insulation material enough. Meanwhile, the blower machine we used would jam almost on a weekly basis (usually from rivets and nails that were in the bagged insulation) and a safety key would break on the drive shaft. On more than one occasion, I had the undesirable task of reaching into the rotor mechanism to pull out the obstructing rivet or nail head. One time, the person I worked with would demand that I reach into the rotor unit without stopping the drive engine. Not wanting to risk injuring my hand on the job, I refused his demands.
Unknown to me at the time, the person I worked with wanted a relative of his to have my job, and he made various accusations behind my back to try and discredit me to the owner of the business. Around late November, he succeeded in getting the naive business owner to let me go, then his relative took my place. Only a few months later, this person and his relative both quit working for the insulation business and started their own competing business in the same town. This did not surprise me, and I did not feel sorry for the business owner who let me go. He should have seen it coming, but instead he tried to please the coworker at my expense.
A Syzygy to Rekindle my Interest in Astronomy
My photography business started to get off the ground again in late 1977, but it required long and irregular hours and I did not see a lot of long term future in competing with three other full time photographers in my small town, so I began looking for a full time job in a larger city. My parents were very much encouraging this as well, since I was still living at home with them.
At about this time, I was performing odd camera repairs on the side. Near the end of the year, I followed up a camera repair referral which had been given me me by a pawn shop in Loveland, Colorado. When the gal with the camera first called, I eventually sensed (for the first time in my life) that there was at least the potential for something between us that went beyond a camera repair. It seemed strange, having such an impression from a mere phone conversation. This gal had a busy schedule so she just dropped her Kodak Retina off at the local camera store as she was going through town on a skiing trip. I hoped to be able to meet her in person when I finished the repair. The repair was difficult, but I finished it in January. As fate would have it, she went to a community college that was right across the street from a photogrammetrics business in Greeley at which I had a scheduled job interview. When I delivered the camera and saw her in person, she totally knocked my socks off. To my delight, she even allowed me to take her picture! A few days later, the Greeley company called me up and told me that I had the photogrammetrics job. The starting pay was $3.50 an hour, and I accepted.
The college gal and I got together for lunch a few times each week. It was a very special time for me, but the feeling was not entirely mutual, and we stopped seeing each other at the end of her school year. I was then 20 years old, and she was the first gal I ever "dated". I still occasionally wore a shirt pocket protector for my pencils at the time. Who knows what may have happened without it.
In the fall of 1978, an amateur astronomer named Dave started working in my place of employment as a printing press operator. Bill Sherer, the staff photographer, also knew I had some interest in astronomy. We would sometimes chat after work and they let me look at some of their astronomy and photography magazines, and one of them included an ad by Big Sky Montana for a total solar eclipse expedition. The eclipse was to occur in Montana on Monday, February 26, 1979. Prior to reading this, I had not even known that a total solar eclipse would occur in the U.S. any time in the foreseeable future. The path of totality was going to be less than 800 km away from where I lived, so I decided to go to see the eclipse; I HAD to go and see this eclipse!
The upcoming eclipse also caused me to have renewed interest in amateur astronomy. My brother and I had shared our 60 mm Jason refractor telescope while we were growing up, but by the time we moved away from home, my interest in astronomy had diminished to the point that I let my brother keep the telescope. My 400 mm camera lens and my custom eyepiece were sort of like a telescope anyway.
The day after Christmas, and exactly two months before the eclipse, there was a morning occultation of the planet Venus by the moon. Now a "real" telescope would come in handy. Not having one, I started experimenting with some of my optics so I could take long focal length photos of the occultation. I ended up modifying a 2x Komura teleconverter so it would work at 7.5 x, allowing me to use my 400 mm camera lens at an effective focal length of 3,000 mm on a medium format camera. I went back to Estes Park to observe and photograph the event. The pictures came out pretty well, and two of them were published in the local newspaper. After successfully photographing the occultation at such a long focal length, I knew that the lens would be adequate for shorter focal length pictures of the eclipse.
Eventually, my dad and my brother also decided to go to the eclipse. Our first choice for an eclipse site was Helena, Montana, but we were going to choose a site closer to Billings if weather conditions permitted. We ended up observing the eclipse from just south of Grassrange, Montana. Needless to say, the eclipse impressed me so much that I was hooked! I became so addicted to eclipses that I even began chasing the shadow of a local spherical water tower. My eclipse and water tower shadow chasing exploits are described in a collection of journals called the "Eclipse Chaser's Journal" which is at the www.eclipsechaser.com web site.
I also became more interested in general amateur astronomy. Dave, the pressman, gave me his three inch f/9.2 Tasco Newtonian reflector, which was a telescope he was no longer using. It outperformed my 400 mm lens and the Jason telescope used by my brother by more than a factor of two. Now I was really hooked! Hardly a clear evening went by that I did not at least bring the telescope out for a short peek at the sky. It was wonderful.
A few months after the 1979 eclipse, I lost my photogrammetrics job in Greeley, Colorado after becoming ill. This bout of illness had started with remarkable swiftness while I was working in the company's poorly ventilated darkroom on a Monday morning. My sore, and by then literally bleeding throat and related fatigue quickly became so bad that I was desperate to find means get through the rest of the work day. It appeared I'd only able to get through the day by taking a commercial stimulant of some kind. I had never tried much in the way of a stimulant before (couldn't stand the taste of coffee, and caffeinated soda just made me jittery) but I was desperate to stay on the job because my supervisor had not allowed me to take time off work for illness in the past, and this time was no exception. It seemed I had no choice other than to try something new because my doctor was not taking my repeated bleeding throat and fatigue problems seriously. He was one of those types who would just say "oh, it's not really that bad" when I mentioned my condition was affecting my work.
In the end, I tried so little stimulant that it seemed to have no perceivable effect. My condition continued to worsen slightly throughout the rest of the day, progressing only a little slower than past bouts. My pulse rate was no different than in the few times I'd checked it in past bouts either. By the next day, my condition was so bad that I couldn't function except on "autopilot". This had occurred on occasion before, but I was spent from repeatedly working while I was ill over the recent months. No available and applicable commercial medication (which I had very little of and tended to use only rarely and very sparingly) had any effect. I had previously been required to come to work regardless of my condition (and had worked for days on end even when in a similar condition) but I figured I would never get over this increasingly constant cycle of illness unless I was finally able to rest. Accordingly, I stayed home in bed the next day, and ended up being out for two or three days in a row.
This was the first time I had stayed home sick for a full day since starting at my job nearly a year and a half before, and after a few days the rest was slowly providing some limited improvement. I thought I might be able to get back into things by possibly as soon as that Friday. My second or third day at home, my supervisor repeatedly called me and said that he would fire me if I did not come in the next day. Having a 102 degree fever, I came in to work late the following morning and he let me go anyway, telling me that my performance had slipped. I knew it had not slipped as much as he'd claimed because I was still carrying a greater work load of work than my typical fellow workers. In my condition, I had to really push myself to do this, but I had done it nonetheless. I wondered what he expected when I was always required to come to work when I was sick. How can anyone recover under such conditions?
After subsequently discussing the matter of my dismissal with the principles of the company, I found that I had NOT really been let go due to performance issues. This did not surprise me. My supervisor's superiors (and even one owner of the company) told me that they'd had to cut back on their work force, and that racial quotas were part of why I had been cut rather than the lone minority worker in my department. They even invited me to come back if the company (and preferably also my health) started doing better again! Knowing this, I stayed in touch with people there for a while after I left, but ultimately decided to get into another profession that better fit my skills over the long term. Why my former supervisor would have told me I had been let go due to performance is still a mystery to me. Even though I had only worked there a year and a half, I got severance checks for nearly a month. This was mostly for sick pay which I had never been allowed to use!
I suspected that much of my illness had been caused or exacerbated by inhaling chemical fumes in the poorly ventilated darkroom at work, since my throat had hurt almost constantly over the previous year, being so raw at times that I would cough up blood. The exhaust fan was less than a foot in diameter, while the chemistry trays were each about a square yard. I had not been allowed to take significant time off work for illness, and at times I was even required to work overtime with a 101 degree fever for days on end. This undoubtedly extended the time I experienced my more severe symptoms. (I did not know about things like Workman's Compensation back then, but it certainly would have been applicable to my situation!)
The same day I lost my photogrammetrics job, I found a new job working in the darkroom of "Butch Cassidy's Old-Fashioned Portrait Studio" back in my former home town of Estes Park, Colorado. The owner, Louis Lubeski, was a friend and fellow amateur astronomer. I had first met Lou back in 1976 when I purchased his Beseler 45M enlarger. He had asked me to come and work for him some time before, but I had declined because he could only offer a summer job. There was a reasonable gap in time before I actually started working in Lou's darkroom, which allowed enough rest for my fever and throat to get a little better. At the time, I had not put two and two together concerning the effects of darkroom chemistry on my throat, so the throat and chronic fatigue problem continued for the summer I worked there, though it typically was not quite as severe as it had been in Greeley. Lou's darkroom was ventilated a little better than the one in Greeley. Once I left Lou's studio at the end of the season and had no further contact with darkroom chemistry fumes, my throat condition began to improve.
When I took the job in Estes Park, my land lord in Greeley allowed me to store most of my stuff in the room I had been renting from him. He charged a very reasonable fee for this because he figured he would not find another renter until the start of the school year. This allowed me to take the summer job in Estes Park without committing to move out of Greeley. My land lord in Greeley was a very easy going person. He formerly worked for IBM and now considered himself a professional game show player. He would often go out of town for extended periods of time so he could be a contestant on various game shows, and he had allowed me full use of the kitchen and living room, particularly while he was away.
While working in Estes Park, I lived at my folk's house for what I thought would just be the summer. Fortunately, I had been able to switch doctors under my insurance when I moved from Greeley, and I was able to get an appointment near the close of my summer job. By that time, I was in very bad shape. In addition to the throat and fever problems, I had contracted mononucleosis and had an inflamed spleen. (And I hadn't even kissed anyone!) As sick as I was, I did not feel worse than I had when I'd worked in Greeley, so I wondered if I'd had the condition since then. The so-called doctor I'd had during most of the time I lived in Greeley had not been willing to seriously investigate my condition, and I'd even specifically asked him for a mono test! My new doctor thought it was entirely possible I'd had the condition for some time, owing to the acute condition of my spleen.
Once this condition was diagnosed, my new doctor confined me to bed for several weeks, primarily to prevent rupture of my spleen. Since I obviously couldn't work in bed, I had to move back in with my folks on a more extended basis. I had a slow recovery, so I was not able to work full time for quite a while. This being the case, I obviously could not afford to go on any eclipse expeditions or withstand the physical rigors of such an endeavor. It looked like my next eclipse would be a long way off.
During the time I was bedridden, I wanted to go out and look through my telescope at planets and other night sky objects, but my condition would not allow it; however, I did manage an occasional glimpse or photo through the window with my telescope. I eventually utilized a long, narrow box that would extend between the open window and a Celestron 90 telescope that was positioned on or beside my bed. Low power views were possible with the telescope actually on my bed partly because of the smooth slow motion controls on the Quantum four motor base I had purchased for the C90. Magnifications above about 30x obviously required the telescope to be mounted on a tripod because even my pulse would cause excessive motion when a telescope was on the bed!
In order to keep my room from being open to the full force of the Colorado winter, I had to use blankets to seal the window opening around the box extending between the telescope and window. I would have used this box arrangement more than I did, but I soon found that even occasional use of this small, boxed hole had a somewhat radical effect on the amount of our heating bill! This got me to thinking about alternatives. While bedridden, I had lots of time to think, so I began designing optical gadgets which would radically simplify astronomical observing and photography. I even thought of a telescope having an inside eyepiece that was accessible to a person lying in bed! It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and I believe it!
Clock Drives, Kludgeitrons, and Home Made Telescopes
While I was bedridden, most of my meager savings were eaten up by insurance premiums and storage costs for my darkroom and other equipment which would not fit in my folk's house. Eventually, I was able to get out of bed and start getting out again, though I continued to feel weak for some time. I had taught myself camera repair several years before, so I began to earn some money by performing camera repair for the local camera store. I also purchased broken cameras from pawn shops in Denver and Fort Collins, repaired them, and resold them. To raise more funds, I sold one of my enlargers.
Before becoming bedridden in late 1979, I had acquired a used Celestron 90 Maksutov Cassegrain telescope and adapted it to a Quantum four motor base. I also had a 10 cm aperture f/8 Soligor "stovepipe" camera lens, on which I used a 55 mm f/1.4 Mamiya lens as an eyepiece. In addition, I duct-taped a lens element I had laying around into the rear cap of the Mamiya lens. This assembly simply bayonets onto the back of the 55 mm lens to shorten its effective focal length to 45 mm and increase the angle of the apparent field. The arrangement facilitated two slightly different magnifications without having to go out and buy another lens or eyepiece.
Initially, I had no star charts other than the all-sky charts shown in Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines, so I had no reference other than word of mouth from friends as to where many deep-sky objects were. This was not a problem because I enjoyed sweeping the dark sky in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park with my 800 mm f/8 Soligor lens. Its low power views were extraordinarily sharp, bright, and contrasty, making it a pleasure to use for astronomy, satellite tracking, and wildlife. In addition, by moving my eye behind the eyepiece, I could perceive the three dimensional nature of some terrestrial subjects.
When I used the telescopes for astronomy and found a deep-sky object, I'd make notes and remember its position relative to nearby stars. I did not bother to learn the names of stars or constellations - I just remembered the star patterns. This has served me well. To this day, I can instantly acquire many deep-sky objects without the use of star charts or setting circles. The simplicity of just being able to go directly from one object to another has helped make astronomy truly enjoyable.
In the summer and fall of 1980, I worked part time at Granny’s Pantry, a cheese and specialty food store my folks owned near the Park Theatre in Estes Park. A relatively attractive gal worked in the fur store just next door, but initially seemed sort of aloof. However, when business slowed in the late summer, she seemed more personable and we began to come by each other’s store just to talk from time to time. In the early fall, there were longer gaps of time between when customers would come into either store, and one or the other of us would increasingly drop by for a longer visit, where we got better acquainted in a platonic sense. She eventually seemed to become more light hearted and was very enjoyable to be around, but we did not manage to stay in touch after she left town near the end of the tourist season.
In September of 1980, I built a 101 mm f/15 refractor telescope around a used Jaegar's lens and a few other parts I bought from the Star Tracker in Boulder. For planetary viewing, this telescope was remarkably better than either of my other telescopes. I recall many views of Jupiter which revealed a myriad of detail within the equatorial belts. The appearance of the bands and festoons was reminiscent of the grain in knotty wood. When Saturn later went through its ring plane crossing, I could see the thin line of the edge on ring almost every day the local skies were clear. This event looked even better in my refractor than it did in the Quantum six telescope belonging to my friend Larry Gramp. The f/15 refractor had narrower field of view than my other telescopes, so I eventually acquired star charts. This allowed me to seek out more challenging objects even though the refractor did not have a clock drive or setting circles.
Getting Into Astrophotography
I had taken my first astrophotos by simply using a high speed camera lens on a tripod. Eventually, I learned the fine art of flexing my tripod just enough to "track" exposures of up to 45 seconds. In one such picture on Tri-X film with my 55 mm f/1.2 Nikkor lens, I was actually able to image the central part of M31! While this picture was not of the best technical quality, I was thrilled to get it! After all, it had been done with no clock drive!
It was relatively easy to photograph lunar phases with a telescope having no clock drive, but it was difficult if not impossible to obtain good images of planets, conjunctions, occultations, total lunar eclipses, and deep-sky objects without one. I lacked a tripod for my Quantum four motor base (and could not afford one) so I purchased a Celestron wedge and used it on top of a typing table. I could set up relatively quickly if I left the wedge at the correct latitude setting, then leveled the typing table with shims and moved the wedge in azimuth until I was polar aligned.
I began shooting quite a few piggyback pictures with lenses ranging from a 7.5 mm fisheye to a 400 mm f/6.3 telephoto. I even "piggybacked" my long 800 mm f/8 lens on my Celestron 90 on one occasion, but once was enough for this because it was sort of like the tail wagging the dog. I tried a few medium format and 4" x 5" photos with a 7" f/2.5 Aero Ektar, but unless I stopped it down to f/4.5 or so, its results did not seem to be much better than my 35 mm images with shorter lenses. Surprisingly, the full aperture performance of my 80 mm f/2.8 Rolleiflex lens was not very good either, while the 35 mm f/2 lens for my 35 mm Nikon camera was very good wide open.
I typically photographed deep-sky objects, but I also took pictures of meteors, conjunctions, occultations, and lunar eclipses. One occultation of Jupiter by the young crescent moon was particularly memorable. I did not have an off-axis guider, so I took a few tracked but unguided deep sky exposures through my Celestron 90 telescope. These were trailed, but the nebulosity in an object like M42 was at least recognizable. I even took a few shots in which I used the optics from a slide projector lens as a telecompressor. Eventually, I was able to order a tripod. I did not like the Celestron tripod very well, so I ordered a Dynamax tripod instead. It took Criterion about six months to deliver the tripod, so I had to keep using my typing table as a "tripod" for some time.
My First Encounter with an Off-axis Guider
My friend Larry had never taken guided exposures through his Quantum six telescope, but he had acquired a Celestron off-axis guider and had a way of kludging it onto the telescope. One day, he allowed me to try a shot through it, partly to see if I could suggest any improvements. I decided to try a shot of the Perseus double cluster. It took a long time to find a guide star, but I was finally able to locate one and begin my exposure. He did not have a drive corrector, so all of the corrections had to be made with the telescope's manual slow motion controls. This proved to be excessively tedious, but I managed to pull off a marginal 15 minute exposure on Ektachrome 200 film. I advised him not to attempt guided photography until he got a drive corrector.
My second use of an off-axis guider also involved another person's telescope. My friend Louis Lubeski had purchased a Questar telescope and a full compliment of astrophotography accessories in late 1979. He wanted to take astrophotos through it, but found the complex set up of the guiding system made deep-sky astrophotography too inconvenient to be worth his while. After months of frustration, he asked me if I wanted to try taking a picture through his Questar. I thought it would be fun to try, so he loaned me his entire set up. Everything was nicely machined, but the complexity of setting up the guiding and tracking system was so delicate that it proved impractical to set it up in the field - particularly in light of night time winter temperatures which could easily reach well below zero! Accordingly, I decided to only use the telescope in my back yard. This allowed me to take the telescope outside, polar align it, then bring it back inside while leaving its tripod aligned. I could then attach its astrophotography accessories in the warmth of the house and take the entire assembly outside as a unit.
At the time, Ektachrome 200 and 400 were the fastest color slide films commonly available, and with the Questar (when guider attached) having a transmission value slower than f/20, exposures in excess of 90 minutes were required to obtain even a modest result on a "showpiece" object like M42. Unfortunately, the Questar seemed to have two shortcomings. First, the telescope mounting would become so loose in declination that it was impossible to keep it pointed at the subject even when it was carefully balanced. After investigating this with Tom, Jim, and Ray at the Star Tracker in Boulder, I discovered that a loose declination stub shaft was causing this problem. I informed Lou of this and he authorized me to fix it myself, which I did.
The other problem was related to the Questar drive corrector, which was a rather large unit housed in a separate wood grained Formica box. The corrector used a single button to select between fast and slow right ascension tracking. The "slow" speed actually stops the motor and is engaged by pushing part way down on the button. The "fast" speed is engaged by pushing all the way down on the button. On occasion, the fast position would cause the Questar motor to stop and just buzz as I helplessly watched the guide star race off the cross hair and out of the eyepiece field. It could take up to several seconds on normal speed for the motor to recover, so the telescope sometimes had to be moved manually to reacquire the guide star. The Questar guider included a manual shutter to interrupt a guided exposure, but I usually could not close it fast enough to prevent some visible error in the picture (usually "tadpole tails" on brighter stars) when the fast button caused the motor to freak out.
Shortcomings of Available Astrophoto Equipment
The difficulty of setting up the Questar guider in cold weather made me start thinking of better guiding arrangements. The first evening I used the Questar, I came up with the concept of using the Questar control box as the guider body. This could be accomplished by inserting a small guiding prism into the top of the Questar control box. Such a guider would allow the camera to be closer to the back of the Questar, which in turn would simplify counterbalancing and facilitate a slightly faster transmission value. In addition, radial adjustment of the the guiding prism could be accomplished by sliding either the prism or entire prism and eyepiece assembly up or down in a rigid eyepiece holder. At the time, I had no tools to prototype the system, but I kept it in mind for use in a later project. Years later, I prototyped guiders and image switching attachments based on this concept, obtained two related patents, and sold some as products.
I soon found that I wanted to be able to both observe and photograph various subjects (including eclipses) through a single telescope without having to physically remove either the eyepiece or the camera. I still was not particularly healthy, and juggling gadgets was a pain, especially when it was cold outside. The short term solution had been to set up two telescopes: one for visual use and one for astrophotography. This was easier than juggling accessories if a session lasted for several hours, but setting up two telescopes was still difficult.
If I was to rapidly switch between using a camera and eyepiece, it appeared that I would have to purchase something like a Questar or Quantum Maksutov Cassegrain telescope, since these were the only instruments available with flip mirror control boxes. When I evaluated these telescopes, I was disappointed to discover that refocusing was required when switching the image between the eyepiece and the camera. An extension tube in the eyepiece holder would solve the refocusing problem, but an extender made it impossible to reach focus with the built-in finder scope on the Questar. These telescopes also had shortcomings such as high cost, small to moderate aperture, and a narrow field of view. There had to be a better way.
Another major shortcoming of existing equipment was the fact that the flip mirror was enclosed in a more or less cylindrical housing which has a diameter almost as large as the telescope tube. These "bucket" style housings could not be rotated independent of the telescope tube, which meant that the eyepiece position could not be rotated on telescopes that were not mounted in a rotating ring assembly. This was a big problem when viewing objects between the zenith and the celestial pole with a fork mounted telescope.
In spite of these shortcomings, I had a strong interest in the Quantum four telescope. I already had a Quantum four motor base, and I had invented a unique piggyback camera mount for it which would facilitate longitudinal and rotational adjustment of the camera position. Unfortunately, the price of the Quantum optical tube seemed to go up at a faster rate than my savings, so I never ordered one. I asked O.T.I. if they would swap a Quantum four optical tube for rights to my piggyback mount design, but they did not go for this either. Unfortunately, O.T.I. went out of business soon thereafter. Some of the company was later resurrected as Davro Optical Systems, and a variation of the Quantum four (the DOS 100AST) was available for a while, but it was clear that the former O.T.I. people were out of the amateur astronomy market, probably for good.
Inventing New Eclipse and Astro Gadgets
In early 1982, I attended a Capernwray bible school facility at Ravencrest Chalet, which was near my folk's home in Estes Park. My health took a turn for the worse while I was at the school, but I learned some valuable lessons about dealing with my symptoms while I was there. The school had an unwritten policy: Any student missing a morning class due to illness was encouraged not to leave the dormitory for the rest of the day, except to go to meals. This meant that one would miss all of the day's sessions, but tapes were available for making these up while staying in the dormitory. The imposed confinement allowed me to get a lot of bed rest when I was ill, and this resulted in reducing the typical duration of a sore throat throat to four days - substantially less than the three week duration I had experienced in Greeley a few years before, when I had been required (and more or less conditioned) to work while I was sick.
The school's dormitory was small, so four to six guys typically had to share a room. This ruled out long term inside accommodations for a telescope such as my home made four inch refractor, so one week I brought it up to the school and I tried leaving it out on the porch. Unfortunately, a local cat seemed to think it was his territory, and I found its tube rank with what I assume was cat spray the next time I tried to use it. The new aroma of my telescope further ruled out inside storage, so I took it back down to my folk's house the next weekend, washed it off, and stored it in their garage.
Back at the school, there was room for my trusty Celestron 90 optical tube, but storing my adapted Quantum four motor drive and its Dynamax tripod was a bit much, so I left these items in the trunk of my car. I seldom looked through the telescope by myself at the school. Most of the time, I liked to set it up so any students who wanted to look through it could do so. The local night sky was dark, and it would have been nice to have had a large aperture telescope, but I could barely afford my tuition at the time. Acquiring a large telescope was out of the question.
On occasion, some of the students who had cameras wanted to take pictures of the moon through my telescope. The time required to juggle visual and photographic accessories made this a problem during visual observing sessions, so I wanted to have a flip mirror for my telescope all the more. During a short break from my studies in May, I started thinking of flip mirror concepts which could be implemented for my existing small telescopes. I also wanted to be able to use the same flip mirror with popular Cassegrain instruments which had rear focusing knobs. I eventually came up with the concept of a flip mirror box having female T-threads on the front, male T-threads on the back, and a two inch eyepiece holder on the top. This system was truly universal. I had "kicked the bucket" to come up with a superior flip mirror system!
Hearing this in 1997, one may think "so what, I have seen a lot of stuff like that"; however, one must realize that such a gadget did not exist in 1982. Nothing was even close. All existing systems with direct optical paths were then in "bucket" housings.
The summer after I finished at the school, I started protyping a 360 degree panoramic camera which I had been designing off and on since 1977, but the lack anything other than simple tools made it impractical to finish the project. After this, I turned to the matter of refining my flip mirror design. I located the sketch I had made the previous spring and got out old gadget sketches I'd made when bedridden a few years before, then I started thinking of an even better design for a flip mirror attachment which I could use on ANY telescope. In order for the flip mirror box to clear the focus knob on most telescopes when it was rotated, I determined that the bottom of the box should be curved or at least have its corners lopped off. After a lot of work (over 300 hours including my learning curve and drawing dimensioned plans) I had a design, a GOOD design!
The new gadget would be a flip mirror with parfocal image planes and it would have T-threads to facilitate attaching it to practically any telescope. But it did would do even more than this! It would accept large two inch eyepieces, have a built in Barlow lens which could be used both visually and photographically; a built-in tiltable and radially adjustable guiding prism, a manually operated shutter plate to interrupt guided exposures, and an integral eyepiece projection adapter. It could be left on a telescope all the time and most of its features could accessed by simply flipping a knob! It would be an all-in one telescope accessory!
After additional work on its design, it had provision for even more features! It would have a built-in selectable "flip beam splitter" and it could be made with provision for adding a large aperture finder objective! In addition, its built-in guiding prism could be replaced with a photo and visual 0.7x telecompressor. In order to allow guiding with a version having the built-in telecompressor, I invented a radially adjustable spear prism guider which could be inserted into the top of the flip mirror housing. Another first!
In order to make one of these gadgets, I knew that castings would be the best solution. Plastic was a possibility, but I chose aluminum because I wanted it to be strong enough to support a heavy video camera. I made a cardboard model to look at for inspiration, then I made balsa wood patterns for the castings and scrounged around town for other parts. Fortunately, some people in my former high school's shop class were able to pour the castings. After receiving the castings, I finished them by hand, but had to hire a machine shop to turn the T-threads. Finally, I had an all-in-one telescope accessory, and it worked!
Wow! I Could Have Had a C8!
Now I had a multiple function gadget that offered even more convenience than a Questar control box, and I could use it on any telescope I wanted! I initially thought of calling the gadget a "DiaGuider" (Diagonal and Guider), but I eventually called it a "VersAgonal" (Versatile Diagonal) for lack of a better word. Now that I had the VersAgonal, I was glad I had not purchased an expensive small aperture telescope. Had I purchased one, I would have thought to myself: "Wow, I could have had a C8!" I did get a used C8 less than a year later, and the VersAgonal made its use for observation and photography very convenient!
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Even though it had been made with simple tools, the VersAgonal was a dream to use, making astrophotography almost as easy as a mere afterthought! It was a quality two inch diagonal which was far smaller and lighter than the Celestron diagonal of the same size, and I could attach my camera and eyepiece at the same time and instantly switch the image from the telescope between either one. This made acquiring even deep sky subjects an easy task, since I did not even have to try to see them in the camera viewfinder. I could even focus by indexing my highest power eyepiece in the top of the VersAgonal instead of trying to do it in the camera finder, thereby making the use of even a cold camera both expeditious and practical. With the turn of a knob, I could also switch magnifications at either the eyepiece or camera. Finding a guide star was a snap with the dual adjustment modes of the built-in guiding prism, which allowed it to both tilt and slide up and down. The built-in manual shutter even allowed me to take a break during a long exposure and walk around or look through other telescopes. The VersAgonal made it really fun to use my telescope!
The VersAgonal was truly revolutionary and useful. It had also taken a lot of time to develop, so I decided to try and recover some of this investment by investigating whether telescope makers like Celestron would be interested in it or some of my other product designs, so I went out to California and tried to get Celestron interested in the VersAgonal, its sliding and tiltable guiding prism concept, and other innovative systems. At this point, my only prototype had been made with simple tools, so it was substantially different than the commercial version would be in appearance and some functional aspects. The paint I had used on the unit had never cured properly for some reason, which did not help matters any. In spite of this, Celestron was initially receptive, but nothing ever came of it.
At about this time, I started going to the meetings of the Denver Astronomical Society, which they held at Cambridge Observatory in the Denver area. I met a lot of neat people there and I still enjoy running into some of them at the Riverside Telescope makers Conference every year. One time, I was allowed to use my VersAgonal on the observatory's 20 inch Clark refractor! I also attended DAS star parties on a few occasions, the best of which was held at Dr. Edgar Everhart's house. This was a family affair, where those who were married were able to bring their wives. Most of the guys usually stayed outside and observed while the women would stay in the house and chat. While I was at Dr. Everhart's, he showed me an innovative comet tracker he had made for his Newtonian telescope. After that, he showed some of us a 15th magnitude comet.
Several months later, I moved to Arizona, where I accepted a full time job. In Arizona, started visiting the local astronomy club, where I also met a lot of neat people. The warmer night temperature in Arizona made it much more inviting to go to the monthly star parties. After watching me use my VersAgonal to take even deep-sky astrophotos in an almost casual manner, some people in the area eventually indicated interest in it.
The consensus of interest seemed to indicate that the version with a built-in telecompressor and separate spear prism guiding insert was the most desirable, so I decided to offer it as the standard VersAgonal and relegate the version with a built-in sliding and tilting guiding prism to being a special order item. I personally was not a fan of telecompressors for visual use because they seemed to lower contrast, but my earlier work had shown that good results could be obtained with simple optics by limiting the reduction to about 0.65x and using a relatively small lens. The smaller lens limited the illuminated field to less than 34 mm, but the resolution it produced in combination with an eight inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope was very good.
In my earlier work on the VersAgonal, I had designed an improved version which was suitable for mass production. This version was made in an entirely different way than my prototype, since I anticipated that machine tools would be used to make a commercial version. The biggest difference was that the castings for the commercial version constituted its entire housing, while the prototype was made up of a frame which was covered by sheet metal. I refined the commercial design a little more, hired a machinist to make patterns and a match plate for the new castings, ran an ad in Sky and Telescope, and filed a patent for it (after sorting through the confusing information I'd received from the patent office and a local college seminar, some of which conflicted). After this, I designed a few adapters and other simple gadgets which I could sell. I called my business "Versacorp" because I was selling versatile gadgets and I anticipated the company would get into markets other than astronomy.
The 1984 Riverside Telescope Maker's Conference
In May of 1984, I brought my prototype VersAgonal to the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference and delivered a presentation about it. A picture was later published in the proceedings. Even though I had built it as an amateur project over a year before, I did not enter it in the amateur telescope making competition because I had started a related commercial venture. The conference was a fun place, and I went back year after year. I was able to meet neat people like Cliff Holmes, Rick Shaffer, and Robert Little.
Meanwhile, the pattern machining was not going well. Though the machinist had seemingly good references, he was apparently incompetent because he overran his bid and was out of tolerance on over 97 percent of the dimensions! This caused a long delay and I did not have the funds available to hire another machinist to the job done again, so I had to consider other options. There were legal options, but these were not attractive because I had never been in court before. Another option was to machine the patterns myself, but the drawback here was that I'd never used machine tools!
Fearing that I could encounter other incompetent machinists, I decided to get a loan and combine it with some of the money I had to purchase a lathe, milling machine, and required tooling. I figured I couldn't do any worse than the machinist I'd hired. In addition, the tools would soon pay for themselves if I did all or most of the machining myself. After shopping around, I could not find any reasonably priced used machines that were in decent condition, so I ordered new imported machines from Frejoth in El Monte California. When the machines arrived, it took more than a day to remove the coating of cosmoline which had been added to inhibit rust.
In the mean time, I had found a competent and conscientious machinist named Terry Delcore, whom I hired to make the VersAgonal's spear prism guider inserts, which I marketed as the VersaGuider. Terry knew I had purchased some machines and he allowed me to ask him a number of questions about machining. I also talked for a couple of hours with my brother, who had taken a college course on machining. After some brief book study about threading and tool sharpening, I started to cut metal. Two hours later, I successfully cut filter threads in the barrel of one of my older eyepieces. It was very easy to maintain tight tolerances, particularly on the lathe!
Not long after this, I started making adapters, remachining the VersAgonal patterns, and making its internal parts. I was working at a full time job during the day, so it took me about a year to finish the patterns, have castings made, machine the castings and other parts, get parts anodized and painted, purchase optics, and assemble the first ten units of the VersAgonal. Accordingly, the first VersAgonal was not actually ready to ship shipped until late in 1985, about six months after my first order. Subsequent units were available with less delay. Due to tooling cost and the fact that I had to purchase and process parts for the VersAgonal in some degree of quantity, the cost to get the first unit out the door was about $14,000 plus all my labor. I would have to sell quite a few units to just break even.
Acquiring, Using, and Promoting the Questar 3-1/2
More New Astrophotography Gadgets
Continued in Astrophotographer's Journal, Section 2
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Eclipse Chaser's Journal
Steps to a Successful Eclipse Expedition, by Jeffrey R. Charles
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Document Originated: 27 February, 1997
Document Last Modified: 14 February, 2006
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