Explore the sky through classic glass

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, February 11, 2008

I love old telescopes. Unfortunately, there aren’t many left you can observe through. Luckily, you can find a great one at Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California.

This year, Chabot’s 8-inch refractor, made by the famous telescope manufacturing firm of Alvan Clark and Sons, marks its 125th birthday. In 1883, Anthony Chabot, a wealthy hydrologist, purchased the telescope and donated it to the people of Oakland.

The telescope originally resided in an observatory in downtown Oakland, but with the influx of electric lights, the Oakland Observatory moved to a different location in 1915. In 2000, the new Space & Science Center opened in yet another location. It’s still in Oakland but perched in the hills in a beautiful park setting, 12 miles from downtown at an elevation of 1,500 feet.

The 8-inch Clark is open to the public on weekends. Throughout its history, this instrument has satisfied lots of viewers. In 1910, between 8,000 and 10,000 people looked at Halley’s Comet through the telescope.

Chabot Space & Science Center also operates a 20-inch refractor, with a lens by American telescope-maker John Brashear (1840–1920). That scope went into operation in 1916. Chabot added a 36-inch reflector in 2003.

But it’s the 8-inch Alvan Clark refractor — curiously named Leah — that you should check out some weekend night. If you do look through it at some distant celestial speck, imagine what such an instrument would cost in today’s dollars. Then compare it to a similarly-sized amateur telescope — that probably delivers better images — you can buy for thousands of dollars less. Astronomy has come a long way, but it’s still great to reminisce through such a classic telescope.

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