Equipment Displays in Science and Optics

Telescope companies offer a wide range of unusual novelty items for the home and office.

By John W. Siple

Gold Crest sold this fine art deco style opera glass which was made in Japan.

Creative ideas have always been present in astronomy. An affinity for somewhat fancy or novelty items defines the business practice of certain companies, where ingenuity is the key to successful sales. Merchandise designed to be eye-catching can take many anonymous forms, and on occasion is remarkably simple to operate and understand. Lunar globes, sky finders and decorative binoculars are just several examples from a vast commercial database of interesting memorabilia.

Cleverly made articles from science and optics are in high demand by astronomers, and provide a wonderful equipment narrative for the entire family and visiting friends. Discontinued or outdated items are often small, making them perfect for home or office displays. (Astronomy scholars like to place them beside related maps and books.)

Whimsical looking devices that were once sold in the marketplace have many surprising practical applications. Gold Crest’s opera glasses share an artistic appearance and fine imaging ability, making them a valued addition to any optical gallery. Coordinating collections is made easier with similar 1950s and ’60s merchandise. Used pieces, such as the one pictured above, tend to have a low price range ($15-$30) and are available in several different fashionable styles.

United’s 40mm spotting telescope is shown standing next to a 5-inch diameter Replogle moon globe.

The table-top spotter from United Binoculars of Chicago, Illinois, is ideal for cabinet displays. Mechanical features include a built-in prism arrangement and fixed eyepiece that magnifies 20x (field 2°). The measured focal length is just 8-inches, but the small instrument is fully capable of showing all of the major craters and dark seas plotted on the Replogle moon globe below. This classical piece of hardware was found for $20 in an Albany, Oregon business that carried leftover items from managing estate sales.

Random discoveries such as the one just described are always exciting for the mobile collector. This is only a sampling of what can be found inside antique malls and related businesses; useful equipment made approximately forty or fifty years ago is currently being seen with greater frequency and normally doesn’t cost a fortune to buy.

In the early 20th century, when prices were far cheaper, you could purchase a small Delmar spyglass for several dollars. These patented telescopic devices, trimmed in lacquered brass and covered with fine morocco leather, are regularly encountered when shopping at antique outlets. Field glasses with an outer casement of mother-of-pearl or silver inlay are also common, but prices may climb beyond $75 depending on the model type and traceable provenance.

J.A. Millar Co. Inc. patented this ornamental “Observoscope” star calculator in 1945.

Spotting scopes with bigger objective lenses are very displayable. Dual-purpose astronomical and terrestrial models arouse a fair amount of interest — typical examples that continue to remain popular, especially among stargazers, are Bausch & Lomb’s elegant 15-60x Balscope with its power control and Swift’s compact Telemaster Mark II zoom/telephoto.

Many of the collectibles discussed in this article were not only distributed internationally but came out of small shops. The vintage “Observoscope” from the Millar Co. of Newark, N.J., may look like a toy but actually serves as a direct indicator of celestial sky positions, and because of its size is perfect for setting inside china cabinets and beside favorite stargazing manuals. The author’s newer example still has its chalked-in secondhand price of $15, a fraction of its full value.

An elaborate mix of vintage star calculating equipment takes precedence in the author’s collection. Accustar’s 90-page pamphlet fits nicely on bookcase shelves, while the sky finder contributes to an older clock collection.

Leroy K. Fleming’s amazing Accustar, which quickly predicts sidereal time on a plastic weatherproof board, was regularly advertised in Sky & Telescope throughout the 1960s. For only $9.95, the amateur stargazer was offered a “complete unit” that included a carefully compiled instructional guide and revolutionary sky finder, which does the actual job of deciphering overhead star positions. According to one of their ads, “The setting circles on a good telescope are based on sidereal time which is a measure of celestial location. Now you can use them and really KNOW—EXPLORE—ENJOY.”

Like the mechanical Observoscope described before, Accustar works by the movement of internal dials, similar to the face of a clock. Other than sheer practicality, the colorful sky finder integrates nicely with older timepiece and planisphere collections. (A carriage clock arrangement is shown at left.) Accustar was also used by amateur and professional scientists during Operation Moonwatch, an international effort to spot and track artificial space satellites. The program began in 1956 as a response to the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Over the next two decades Moonwatchers provided invaluable data on satellite movements and catastrophic reentries.

A book released in 2008 by Princeton University Press vividly documents the people and equipment involved in this very successful Space Age program. W. Patrick McCray’s 308-page classic volume, Keep Watching the Skies!, holds the reader’s attention by accurately following the story from its earliest political beginnings in Washington, D.C., to the organization’s final days of data gathering and disbandment in 1975.

Involved citizens had a number of commercial telescope products at their disposal. A $49.50 spotter from Edmund Scientific Corporation was especially popular across the U.S. and abroad. To avoid neck strains, these were often designed so that an observer could stare downward at a fixed mirror, which held the object overhead in view.  

An advertisement from Unitron’s 1958 catalog describes their fine Moonwatch telescope.

Unitron’s exquisite satellite telescope, at a retail price of $75, was perhaps the most expensive model available to Moonwatchers. Of standard construction, it featured a large star diagonal and wide angle eyepiece for targeting fast moving objects (see its full list of specifications at right). By the late 1960s almost all of the existing stock had disappeared and was never replaced by Unitron. 

At auction, this particular collectible can bring $1,500 or more. Not only does it act as a reminder of past space science, but because of the serious investment involved it often becomes a premier showpiece around home. For many willing collectors, Unitron’s rare model from the past is beyond economic reach and must be admired in catalog advertisements and on the internet.

This simple armillary sphere (with a National Geographic Society moon map in the background) has a total height of 10½-inches and measures 6-inches across. It was found in a downtown Albany antique store for $30 (the wood base was not included).

An armillary sphere is a more primitive yet effective way of charting the paths of celestial objects. Known since ancient times, they were used by such legendary astronomers as Hipparchus and Ptolemy. The Earth-centered model shown in the author’s collection is reasonably handsome: circles are properly scaled, zodiac figures are accurately portrayed, tapered stand and feathered arrow are artistic. Armillary spheres from medieval Europe are of course hopelessly ornate. Books devoted to the history of astronomy usually try to show a picture one along with several other hand wrought instruments.

In the 20th-century U.S. market, Optica b/c was a favorite supplier of orreries and globes. In their 1972 Publications and Audio Visual Aids Catalog No. PAVA-72, they offer enthusiasts a huge selection of decorative and “fantastically accurate” goods: Mars globe, Celestial globe (standard and deluxe), Lunaglobe (free tektites from the moon as a special introductory offer), and three-dimensional Lunasphere. A seasonal orrery with four full color earth globes had a price of $29.95, while $136.95 bought their multi-colored earth-sun-moon orrery, which was tailored for educational instruction.

Optica b/c was part of a group of companies that distributed solid and transparent celestial and terrestrial globes. Smaller competitors such as Farquhar, MMI Corporation, and Celeste also carried “authoritative replicas” of the moon and other subjects.

Equipment deemed suitable for display is endless. Enthusiasts especially want items that are cheap and easily stored. Pocket glasses, lunar globes, and small spotting scopes continue to remain scientifically attractive—specialty merchandise like that from Operation Moonwatch also has a wide following among certain collectors. Wild cards might include sidereal timepieces, armillary spheres and miniscopes (desktop replicas of commercial telescopes). Regardless of your choice, these items are meant to be enjoyed and talked about. Why not start your own collection today?