Big, Complicated Machines #1 – Old Refractor Telescopes Part 1

Present day Lick 36 inch telescope

Greetings, everyone.

I was lazing in the recliner the other day, idly wondering what on earth I could write about. “Christ, half of that group are far too educated for their own good, and the other half have an attention span measured in milliseconds. What might interest the lot of them for the 90 seconds it takes to read an article?” Well, naked women, of course. That always works. I have to keep my dignity though, and someone from the school might spot my writing. How about “big, complicated machines” then?  Yes, that will do, I think.


Since we were recently talking about celestial bodies, let’s take a look at some of the marvelous instruments that astronomers use to detect and image them: great big telescopes.

Refractor Telescopes

Refractor telescopes are the oldest kind of telescope, and an image of a Galilean telescope, or spyglass, is what most people imagine upon hearing the word “telescope”. In fact, most people think that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope, but he didn’t. It was invented by three Dutch guys (kinda, sorta), and Galileo just heard about it, and then used it to piss off the Pope. A refractor telescope is basically a tube with a large objective lens at one and a smaller eyepiece at the other. It works by gathering more light than a human eye can gather by itself, focus it, and give the operator a brighter, clearer and magnified view. The objective lens bends or refracts incoming light onto the eyepiece, hence the term ‘refractor’.

Now that that is over with, let us look at the two biggest refracting telescopes: the Lick and the Yerkes telescopes.

The Lick Telescope

The Lick telescope is a 36 inch refractor located at the University of California’s Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton in the Bay Area. It was the largest telescope of its kind until 1897. The telescope saw first light in 1889, in which there is an amusing  anecdote. The builders had to wait three days after completing the telescope for a break in the cloud cover so that they could test it. When the telescope saw first light, they found that the instrument couldn’t be focused. An error in the estimate of the lens’ focal length caused the tube to be built too long. A hacksaw was sent for and the great tube was unceremoniously cut back to the proper length, after which it focused perfectly. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall during that discussion, ho ho ho.

The Lick 36 inch refractor

What a lovely old photo. It’s much better than any of the current ones. Note how high the eyepiece is above the observatory floor. The floor of the observatory can be raised and lowered with a hydraulic system to get the observer close enough to where the eyepiece can be reached, using the bleacher-like scaffolding you see in the background or perhaps something smaller if you’re lucky. When the observer can finally get to the eyepiece, this is what he has to work with:

Eyepiece for the Lick

Isn’t that marvelous? Such intimidating complexity! When I first saw a picture of this end of the telescope when I was a younger Professor, I was instantly in love. What do all of those handwheels do? How hard do they turn? What is that mechanism around the eyepiece? A film holder of some sort? So many mysteries…

Of course, modern astronomers have spoiled this magnificent visage:

Modern eyepiece

You see? Totally ruined. They even painted it white for christsakes.

In its heyday, the Lick made several major discoveries blah blah blah, a list of which is available on its Wiki page. It is an obsolete instrument now, of course, and is used only for tours and public relations events. I’d still love to take a gander through the old girl though, wouldn’t you?

Next time: Yerkes.


  • P161911

    So haw many watts were you lazing from your recliner?

    • The Professor

      In that session? Far too many.

  • Jo_Schmo

    I see no naked women, maybe I should go read the rest of the… oh shiny thing!

  • "It is an obsolete instrument now, of course, and is used only for tours and public relations events."

    We have a much smaller observatory with a much smaller refractor now reduced to the same circumstances these days, right on campus. Pretty, though.

    <img src="; width="350">

    <img src="; width="350">

    • The Professor

      What a lovely little observatory, and it's old enough to be called quaint. A six inch telescope was pretty respectable back then. And it's still on the books for $2000? That's great, someone has a sense of humor in admin.

  • Number_Six

    So what are all those wheels for? Is it because focusing an instrument that size has to be done in such tiny increments? So many questions, so little scientific brainpower…

    • The Professor

      I really have no idea. Probably some of them are to move the instrument by small increments when slewing it into position, some had to do with focus I'm sure. I don't know if they had any sort of tracking mechanism, like a clockwork, to track objects across the sky. One would have to go to the observatory and see if there was any old documentation for it. But we'll never get to play with them. As you can see from the modern pictures, all of those old mechanisms have been replaced and are gone.

  • What? 90 seconds to read an article? Really?

    Crap. I guess those 1,800 words on Limericks was aiming a bit too high, then, huh?

    • The Professor

      I'm afraid so. I try to be a good reader, but I went teal deer on you there. Dissecting language makes my eyes glaze over.

      • Boy, I'm lucky that I only write for my own edification, or that would bother me. Fortunately, it's all about hearing the sound of my own voice.

        Or in this case, viewing the shape of my own letters…no, wait, that doesn't work…

        • The Professor

          I'm not belittling your efforts at all. You obviously researched it well and you passion for the subject shows in your writing. I'm just a lousy consumer on certain subjects.
          I'm sure that I glazed plenty of eyeballs on my steelmaking series. My writing background is primarily technical writing, and I have the tendency to explain the hell out of everything, and it gets a bit dry. I'm trying to make my style more entertaining and less wordy, but it's difficult.

          • I didn't think you were belittling me in the least. I knew at the time I was going overboard, but I personally all found it so interesting that I decided not to cut it down. In the end, who really cares? If somebody's interested enough to read all the way through, they can get all the extra information. If somebody glazes, oh well…a page view is a page view.

            (BTW, I only teal-deered once on the steelmaking series, and that had more to do with the fact that I was reading it on my iPhone than the content.)

          • The Professor

            Bah, those damned toy phones are becoming the bane of my life. I suppose that I'll have to go buy one now.

      • I've been thinking about a post about Oatmeal. So far, I've got —

        "Oatmeal contains one thing: oats. It's the food highest in soluble fiber content, which is the stuff that's really good at lowering cholesterol. It's super cheap to buy and you can cook it in a microwave, on a hot-plate, or even on a campfire. Oats will grow in Iceland."

        Think it needs more, or am I good?

        • The Professor

          Well done young man! I do believe that you've nailed it. Throw in a couple of photos and publish that sucker!

        • Needs a tie-in with sponges to serve as a hook. I read somewhere that sponges can hold an audience’s interest long after posts about alternative power and microchips leave our readership yawning.