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Remembering John Lowry Dobson, Evangelist For Interpreting The "Other Half" Of Our National Parks


John Dobson and his renowned Dobsonian telescope "Tumbleweed," practicing sidewalk astronomy on city streets and offering a glimpse of the heavens above to all passersby. Photo by Stefan Seip.

In the cities, John Dobson and his Sidewalk Astronomers mainly set up their telescopes on the street corners to show anyone willing to look through their eyepieces the moon and bright planets. However, urban light pollution made their larger telescopes ineffective for viewing faint distant objects.

So, to test the light-gathering power of their largest self-made telescopes, Dobson and his Sidewalk Astronomers would travel to the national parks to meet with anyone curious enough to stay out after dark.

When in the parks, his larger telescopes, which resembled giant cannons, sometimes created quite an attraction.

Once, at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, a law enforcement ranger, concerned about the crowds that were gathering, asked for the telescopes to be taken down by nightfall.

"The sky is not part of the park," exclaimed the ranger.

"Ah," countered Dobson, "but the park is part of the sky!"

Fortunately, a call to park headquarters resolved the issue and the telescopes stayed out. To this day, Glacier Point is a favorite location for amateur astronomers to gather with telescopes and participate public service star gazing.

I had the pleasure of first meeting John Dobson in 2002. He was at the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. The Sidewalk Astronomers were gathered outside after dark with various home-made telescopes, entertaining all who would pass by and be willing and curious enough to stop and look through the eyepiece.

"Come look at Saturn!" JD would beckon in English and Japanese.

"Who would ever think that the Exterior Decorator would put something like Saturn out there?" he'd exclaim.

It was during this very first encounter with JD that I learned of his legacy and the many journeys he made over the past several decades with the Sidewalk Astronomers and their home-made telescopes to visit the national parks to show the heavens above to the public.

* * * * *

John Dobson, was born on Sept. 14, 1915, in Bejing, China. His family moved to the United States in 1927 due to political unrest in China. He graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco and the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in chemistry in 1943. He joined the Vedanta monestary in 1943. That's where he began his venture into making telescopes, grinding thick porthole glass into parabolic mirrors for Newtonian telescopes.

However, what made Dobson famous was a very simple and inexpensive telescope mount that allowed very large Newtonians to be pointed to any location in the sky without vibration; once located in the eyepiece, any object could be readily tracked by hand. These telescopes became internationally known as "Dobsonians." Dobson himself, however, never took out a patent on his revolutionary design. "These are the very same mounts that were used by the cannons that won all the real revolutions," he would counter.

When he pointed his very first 12-inch Dobsonian at the quarter moon, and saw the fascinating detail on the craters and mountains, he'd exclaim, "Why, it looks like I'm coming in for a landing! Everyone's got to see this!"

He co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in 1968 (the year after he was expelled from the monastery). By the early 1970s, he began taking his large telescopes to the national parks. JD has traveled to national parks throughout the desert Southwest, including Zion and Bryce Canyon, with a favorite stop in winter being Death Valley. In some locations, the National Park Service formerly signed up the Sidewalk Astronomers as official park volunteers. He became a founding member of the Grand Canyon Star Party, now an annual event.

In 2004, the Crater Lake Institute presented John Dobson with its Annual Award for Excellence in Public Service for pioneering sidewalk astronomy in the national parks and forests, "where curious minds and dark skies collide."

In 2005, Smithsonian magazine listed John Dobson as among 35 individuals who have made a major difference during the lifetime of that periodical.

When Dobson died, the following was posted in a newsletter of the Sidewalk Astronomers:

"It is a great loss to the thousands of people that he mentored, inspired, influenced, and befriended. There are been many wonderful statements made in the many remembrances and obituaries, but perhaps the one JD would like the best is:

"I think we all have to accept his big inheritance - we all can continue his work, going to the streets, showing to the people the wonders of our universe to continue John's spirit. Remember, billions of eyes are waiting." (Written by Johannes Stübler, Austria).

While we are saddened, we are lucky to have been influenced and touched by his passion for sharing the Universe and we will be forever grateful.

John Dobson died in Burbank, California, on January 15, 2014, during his 123rd day on his 99th journey around the Sun. Memorial Services will be held in Hollywood on February 23rd and San Francisco on March 8th.


I just received the following from former Crater Lake seasonal park ranger, John Salinas:

You have to work things out for yourself; it doesn't matter if someone else has already figured it out. It's not yours until you figure it out. You must question, wonder, think, learn, and see to make it your own.” >>

JD would often mention the help and assistance he received from Ranger Salinas in the mid 1980's when the Sidewalk Astronomers would visit Crater Lake and stay for a week or more.

This is a link to some photos taken in the mid-1980's of a visit to Crater Lake National Park by the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers and John Dobson. The photos were all taken by former park ranger Lloyd Smith. As you can see, some of these Dobsonians were quite enormous. A much smaller Dobsonian is a special sunscope used to view our nearest star in the daytime. I'd post the actual photos, but I don't know how to do that.

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