Telescope Innovation

Innovating in an era of quick, shallow, addictive thinking or how I avoided becoming a servant to evolving technology.

I create exciting telescopes by following a process that I’ve devised. I don’t think like others because, well, then, I wouldn’t be very innovative.

The biographies of my favorite all-time innovators, DaVinci, Lovelace, Curie, Turing show great imagination and deep thought. I doubt that I can out-think them - that would be arrogant and dismissive and not conducive to innovating. I'll have to think differently, imagine differently, to make progress. To think differently I'll have to know their thoughts, so I make it a point to study the writings of innovative telescope designers.

Next I look to re-cast the problem. For instance, designing a new equatorial table, how did Poncet, Gee and D'Autumme see it? The essence of their innovations was to reduce the equatorial tracking motion to a platform that would pivot a limited distance. This led into bearing designs that better handled the center of gravity of big heavy telescopes. But did any of them think to start with tracking motions of other mounts, like an altazimuth or even a 3-axis mount? How about screw jacks, sliders and lifters? Or even robotic styled motions like the hexapod? It also helps to have a box of varied solutions and varied problems. Sometimes the key isn't a new solution but a new problem that an existing solution could solve! For example, software startups that pivot to a new set of customers.

But how to build a repertoire? My style is extensive reading in a variety of fields to build an array of different thinking.

Also I look for cognitive exhaustion. Innovators tend to work on the main inovation. But left discarded on the floor are many new possibilities that could be tackled afresh.

Constraints are key. I know it sounds paradoxical, but the more constraints that are placed, the easier it is to arrive at either an astonishing solution or to find a clear contradiction or side-effect that terminates that problem-solution pairing. Usually deadends are the result; time to recast for a different way to look at the problem. For example, in telescope collimation, could it be accomplished with un-orthodox movements of other elements? The answer is yes - see dynamic collimation, the Andrew Angle, and the seven ways: a thought exercise explicitly following my innovation process.

The innovation process can be improved by following the innovation process, a kind of recursion that makes it feel alive. As time goes on, one glimpses a grandeur scheme. I suppose its turtles all the way down. Or is it? Maybe the bottom turtle is saying, "Umph", maybe upon a little re-orientation of perspective, its saying, "I'm on top, I'm flying, I can see the stars!"

Turtles aside, it's important to have fun: compelling and thrilling fun. That means spending time at the telescope’s eyepiece, thinking how to make the view better and seizing opportunities when a better view comes along.

I want more aperture, more field of view, a more compact and lighter weight scope.

I can achieve all this by making three improvements in telescope design:
  1. Meniscus shaped mirrors (strong, lightweight and inexpensive).
  2. F3.0 and faster mirrors (grind my own).
  3. Precision molds to slump flat pieces of glass into the meniscus shape in a homemade kiln.

Because the glass is very thin and cannot stand much grinding, the slumped mirror must be precisely shaped in the kiln by a precision mold. I made a series of 10" molds to test refractory materials and devised a method of creating precision molds  for the 30" and 42" mirrors, resulting in successfully slumping and annealing these large thin pieces of glass.

I’m conducting a long winded experiment to see how meniscus mirrors scale. How large of a meniscus mirror can I make and use successfully with a standard passive mirror support flotation system? Can I make a 12 inch mirror, or a 24 inch? How about a 48 inch or 72 inch mirror?

My process is straightforward:
Along the way these innovations have led to a new folding telescope design sans truss tubes with the center of gravity more in the middle of the scope thanks to the lightweight mirror, heavy eyepiece and coma corrector.

More crucially, I am treated to sights I never dreamed: very wide fields of view with significant aperture. For example the extremely faint dust bubble surrounding the Pleiades.

One innovation of mine came from research. Upon reading the analysis of mirror edge supports in R.N.Wilson's two volume set, Reflecting Telescope Optics, I saw that the two point support at 90 degree separation is ideal for amateur large thin mirrors. I built such a mirror mount for my 20 inch and quickly other amateurs followed suit.

Another innovation of mine came from aesthetics, namely the desire of simplicity. Inspired by large observatory telescopes, I tried out a single ring upper ring on my 20 inch and found it elegant: the spider on one side and the focuser on the other. Other amateurs followed suit.

Yet another innovative mounting design is my Tri-Dob. This came about because the 20 inch telescope needed to fit through an RV door of maybe 18 inch width. I saw that I could split the altitude rim into forward and backward sections of differing diameters, folding up the forward altitude rim and then consolidate the back portion into a single fin. Later I saw that the 3.5m WIYN at Apache Point had a tail fin too.

Another innovation came from my strong desire to simplify. My innovation of PC based tracking and goto for altazimuth telescopes came from a desire to add back in the tracking that John Dobson eschewed in order to create the compelling Dobsonian. The simplicity was a very simple hardware circuit board with the complexity being held in the software.

Check out some of my ideas that I work on, often discussing with trusted creative friends
Folding telescopes
Omni-latitude equatorial table
Three axis mounts
and see the telescopes that I have built; my motto: always build something new

I quickly adopt innovations to use them and mull over them, including thin large mirrors, the flex rocker, the ultralight concept, truss tubes, the Dobsonian and travel scopes.

I am an avid student of telescope history, paying particular attention to the golden eras of the late 1600's just after telescopes were invented, the late 1800's when the switch to silver on glass mirrors took place and the period when amateur telescope making began, the 1920's, and the period following WWII.

I enjoy Peter Manly's Unusual Telscopes.

I seek out other innovative amateurs and discussion groups. In particular the private group, Oregon Scope Werks, is comprised of innovative creative telescope makers. The BiNewt discussion group is also a center of thinking.

Mel Bartels