John Dobson: A Brief Biography

John Dobson, visiting the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff AZ, 2005 “John Dobson's life of public service has been an inspiration to a great many people. John and the Sidewalk Astronomers continue to serve the public with large telescopes, providing free "star parties" and slide shows under dark skies and city lights, encouraging the citizens of this planet to think and wonder about the Universe and give them a chance to see its beauty with their own eyes.”

John Dobson is arguably the most influential person in amateur astronomy in the last 30 years. He has almost single-handedly revolutionized amateur astronomy by making deep space accessible to millions. “Possessing a quicksilver wit, a gift for turning a phrase that makes scientific concepts accessible, and an energy that belies his nearly 90 cycles around the sun, Mr. Dobson is one of history’s greatest popularizers of science,” according to the Wall Street Journal (9/1/04).

John Dobson was born in Beijing, China, on September 14, 1915. His maternal grandfather was the founder of Beijing University. His mother was a musician; his father taught Zoology at the University.

In 1927, John's parents moved the family to San Francisco due to political and social unrest in China. After completing a degree in Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley in 1943, John took defense-related jobs that he held until he joined the Vedanta Monastery in San Francisco in 1944, becoming a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. He spent the next 23 years in the Monastery. When he joined the Order, known for its intellectual rigor and public service, he was given the assignment of reconciling the teachings of religion with those of science.

Having graduated from the university as a chemist, he wanted to see for himself what the Universe looked like. John built his first telescope in 1956. It was a 2-inch (in diameter), made from a lens he got in a junk store, and an eyepiece from an old pair of Zeiss binoculars; through it, he could see the rings of Saturn. One of his fellow monks told him that it was possible to grind a telescope mirror, so John then made his first mirror out of a marine-salvage 12" porthole glass. When he looked at the third-quarter moon with his finished telescope, he was surprised and deeply moved by what he saw. His first thought was, “Everybody's got to see this.” So began John's long commitment to public service in astronomy.

John was transferred to the Vedanta Monastery in Sacramento in 1958 and started getting seriously involved in telescope making. The first telescope he made at Sacramento was a 5-inch reflector; the mirror was made from the cutout bottom of a discarded gallon jug. It was John's greatest delight to share the beautiful things he saw through the telescopes with others. One of his friends was so amazed by what he saw through the 5-inch telescope, that he told John, "You've got to make something bigger!”

He continued to build larger and larger telescopes without attracting the attention of those members of the monastery who felt that public service astronomy was not an appropriate pursuit for monks. The noisy job of grinding mirrors had to be done under water to deaden the sound. Since John was a monk and had no money, he had to find a way to mount the mirrors using scrap materials that could be gathered up at no cost. His telescopes were made from discarded hose reels, lumber core cutouts and other scrap wood. This was the humble origin of what has come to be known as the "Dobsonian" mount.

These are Newtonian telescopes. A Dobsonian mount is really a type of alt-azimuth telescope mount based on the design of most cannons; it can be pointed up or down and it can turn on its base. “It's like re-inventing a cup. We've had cups all along, and if you try to patent a cup with a handle, you can't.”

The desire that drove John to make more and larger telescopes, and to put himself in increasing peril of expulsion by monastic authorities, was to give everybody the opportunity to see the Universe first-hand. He put discarded wagon wheels on his telescopes to facilitate moving them around the residential neighborhood surrounding the monastery — delighting children and adults with the views of the night sky.

Naturally, when people started to look through John's telescopes some of the neighbors and their children wanted John to help them make their own telescopes. He realized that this would cause his AWOL hours from the monastery to increase. Nevertheless, he continued and expanded his activities, until he was asked to leave the monastery in the spring of 1967, after 23 years as a monk. He was not expelled just because the monks questioned his telescope making, but because they could not imagine that that was all he was doing when out late night after night.

John decided to dedicate the rest of his life to public service and hitchhiked to San Francisco. Then as now, John had many friends, and they helped to keep him fed, clothed, and sheltered. He retrieved some of his telescopes from Sacramento and set them up at the corner of Broderick and Jackson streets, in San Francisco, every clear night.

Thousands of people looked through the telescopes while John talked to them in detail about what they were seeing. (This practice is still an integral part of Sidewalk Astronomy: the telescope operator must supply astronomical information so the viewers can understand what they see.) Eventually, John was able to support himself by teaching classes in telescope making and astronomy at the Jewish Community Center, the California Academy of Sciences and San Francisco’s Randall Museum, where, among other places, he still teaches to this day.

In 1968, some of the young people who had made telescopes under John's guidance, and who joined him in setting up scopes at Jackson and Broderick, started a public-service organization named the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. As the organization grew, larger telescopes were made and taken out to the streets. By 1970, the Sidewalk Astronomers had a 24-inch telescope, which was freeway portable. The possibility of showing deep sky objects to large numbers of people through very large telescopes led the growing band of Sidewalk Astronomers to National Parks and Monuments, Native American reservations, and to other locations where “dark skies and the public collide.”

Several years ago, as members of the original San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers spread out into new areas of the country and new chapters started to form, it was decided to remove the “San Francisco” from the name and call the organization simply the Sidewalk Astronomers.

Millions of people all over the world have looked through the telescopes of the Sidewalk Astronomers. John has helped to simplify the art of mirror making enabling thousands of children and adults with no previous experience or special training in optics to experience the joy of turning slabs of glass into powerful eyes into the heavens with their own hands. The “Dobsonian” mount has made large, “user friendly” telescopes affordable and accessible to the general public. Thousands of people have made their own sturdy, low-cost telescopes under John's direction or on their own by using his simple design. Telescopes with lightweight mirrors previously considered unusable, long focal ratios previously considered unmanageable, and apertures previously considered unthinkable are now in the hands of lovers of astronomy around the globe.

John Dobson's life of public service has been an inspiration to a great many people. John and the Sidewalk Astronomers continue to serve the public with large telescopes, providing free "star parties" and slide shows under dark skies and city lights, encouraging the citizens of this planet to think and wonder about the Universe and give them a chance to see its beauty with their own eyes.

To members of the Sidewalk Astronomers, John continues to provide guidance and inspiration. His life of enthusiastic, selfless public service and his genuine love and concern for this planet and those that live on it are the foundation and guiding principle of our organization.

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