John Dobson at Mount Tamalpais in 1975. (Carol Straus)
John Dobson at Mount Tamalpais in 1975. (Carol Straus)

John Dobson, the co-founder of San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers and the inventor of a telescope that people can build themselves, died on January 15 in Burbank. He was 98.

For decades, Dobson introduced the public to the sky, setting up telescopes in cities and parks and inviting passers-by to take a look into space. And he taught them how to build their own telescopes, too.

Dobson put his first telescope together from found objects in the 1950s, when he was a monk. He had been assigned to spend his life “reconciling ancient Hindu scripture with modern physics,” according to the New York Times:

It was as part of this quest that he decided to make a telescope to look at the universe. As material he used plywood, cardboard tubes, glass from ship portholes and even cereal boxes.

Dobson was eventually expelled from his monastery in Sacramento because he was spending too much time away from it, teaching other people how to build telescopes.

He came to San Francisco, and continued sharing his love of space with anyone around him, setting up telescopes in parking lots and on sidewalks. He co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in 1968.

Dobson never patented the telescope he invented, as his biography on the Sidewalk Astronomers website explains:

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. While patenting his design might have been difficult, it wouldn’t have been difficult to copyright the name “Dobsonian”, but that was never something John even considered. His mission was to get as many telescopes out there as possible by making it as easy as possible, not making it harder with restrictions.

“I think other people think of me as a teacher,” Dobson said in an interview with KQED’s Quest TV series. “I just see myself as a curious worm that got born in this place and worried about it.”

This year’s International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, an event organized by the Sidewalk Astronomers on March 8, will be dedicated to Dobson.

Amateur Astronomer and Telescope Inventor John Dobson Dies at 98 24 January,2014Molly Samuel


Molly Samuel

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.

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