First Telescope

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"Scientific American" and Olcott's "Field Book"

I t was about this time that Leo began reading Scientific American magazine. His attention was immediately drawn to an article by Russell W. Porter suggesting that anyone could build a telescope. This was a pivotal moment in Leo's life. Until then, he had believed that telescope making was a skill reserved for professional scientists and engineers. "I only regarded myself as a mechanic, someone who was good with his hands," he said. "I can do this!" he realized. "From then on I was on my way to satisfying my latent interest in astronomy."

Leo learned the hard way that telescope making was a tedious and often frustrating pursuit. He purchased the instruction book Amateur Telescope Making, ordered glass blanks and abrasives from a supplier in Vermont, and successfully ground his first 6" mirror. However, when he attempted to give the mirror its reflective coating, he met with failure after seven tries. Using instructions originally developed by John Brashear, he tried to coat the mirror with pure silver and discovered that even the slightest impurities would totally ruin the application. After the eighth attempt, a perfect coating was achieved. (In the process, Leo also learned that some of the coating agents were highly explosive above 80°F, and kept them safely stored in his mother's refrigerator.)

In March of 1929, the completed telescope was mounted on a stand fashioned from, of course, plumbing pipe and fittings in a German equatorial configuration. The telescope was a complete success and was soon documented in a Scientific American magazine article.

The Stock Market crash and start of the Depression in 1929 hindered Leo's astronomical activities. "I know there were times my mother was not able to say where our next meal was coming from, and I'd seen her cry lots of times. It was really rough. Mentally, I just was young enough to be hopeful that things would pass ... I just had faith in the future ... That's all I needed."

Having overcome most of the learning pains of telescope making, Leo turned his attention to the art of observing by purchasing the first edition of Olcott's Field Book of the Stars from Weldon's book store on Wood Street, downtown. Using this text, he spent more and more of his recreational time observing, rather than just making telescopes. Leo also took a home-study course in astronomy offered by Columbia University in New York City.

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