By Terri J. Huck
Billed as the oldest and best star party in the world, the 82nd Stellafane Convention brought hundreds of amateur telescope makers and night-sky enthusiasts to Breezy Hill in Springfield, Vt., last week.
Hosted by the Springfield Telescope Makers, the event offered lectures on topics as diverse as how telescopes work, international space law and optical testing in the computer age. And the activities were conveniently categorized as beginning, intermediate or advanced. As always, there was a telescope competition, described as the heart and soul of the convention, and the ever-popular fund-raising raffle, which included thousands of dollars’ worth of telescope components as prizes. The upcoming solar eclipse on Aug. 21 was a hot topic, and Nagin Cox, a systems engineer on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Operations Team, gave the keynote address.
This year’s convention drew amateur astronomers and telescope builders from as far away as Australia and South Africa, and their enthusiasm was infectious. On the event’s opening day, Allan Stern, a former Stellafane organizer who now lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., marveled at the way everyone pitches in to do whatever needs to be done. When asked what enticed him to make the trip from the West Coast, he said without hesitation, “The camaraderie, the people. Everybody comes with one purpose: to get ready for today and tomorrow.”
He and others said Stellafane appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds who share a love of building things. And many convention goers have been coming to Breezy Hill for decades.
The event is a piece of Springfield’s history as a center for innovation and invention. The Springfield Telescope Makers club was founded by Russell Porter, an Arctic explorer, accomplished artist and engineer who grew up in Springfield in the late 1800s and later returned to work for James Hartness at Jones and Lamson. The men collaborated on many innovative machines, including an optical comparator that is still in use today.
Porter wanted workers of modest means to have access to telescopes, so in 1920, he offered to help a group of machine tool factory workers in Springfield build their own telescopes. They formed the Springfield Telescope Makers and built the Stellafane Clubhouse a few years later. As interest in the club’s activities grew, the members decided to invite other amateurs to visit. The first Stellafane Convention was held in 1926, and it’s been held every year since, except during World War II.
Porter’s egalitarian approach and do-it-yourself spirit still infuse Stellafane. Demonstrations at last week’s convention included a session on how to make a round tile used in mirror grinding because why buy a tool when you can make it yourself?
Club Treasurer Alfred Monkowski, a family physician who lives in Philadelphia, was as comfortable showing a novice how to view Venus through Porter’s 1930 turret telescope as he was discussing chromatic aberrations. He had a poetic explanation for why he has been coming to Stellafane since the 1990s: “I cannot see heaven from Philadelphia.”
The club has counted Vermont governors among its members, including Hartness. And as NASA employees, “two members have [made] optics that have left the solar system,” said Ken Slater, vice president of the Springfield Telescope Makers.
“We have quite a few members who went on to scientific or technical careers from Stellafane,” said club historian Bert Willard, who was attending his 63rd convention. He can be included among them. He built his first telescope as a teenager in Springfield and later became an optical engineer. Willard wrote a biography of Porter after hearing stories from club members who had known him and recognizing the man’s many talents.
Willard is the curator of the club’s museum at the Hartness House Inn in Springfield, and he was on hand during the convention to answer visitors’ questions. The museum features a treasure trove of information and artifacts related to the work of Porter and Hartness and to amateur and professional telescope making. It is located in a series of underground tunnels leading to the turret telescope Hartness built in 1910. The museum opened in 1975, and Willard said members are still adding to it.
In addition to hosting the annual Stellafane Convention, the Springfield Telescope Makers club owns and maintains the Stellafane Observatory on Breezy Hill in Springfield and offers free mirror-grinding workshops (the next one begins on Oct. 21). Mirror making is a prerequisite for membership in the club. Visit Stellafane.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the Vermont Journal.