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Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston
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Club History

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Excerpts from The History of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston

The ATM's of Boston was founded in 1934 by a group of persons interested in assisting others in the art of optical polishing the craft of telescope making, and to learn together about the science of astronomy and the use of astronomical instruments. The founding members consisted of a banker, some engineers, a music teacher, a plumber, a tinsmith, a secretary, and an electrician to name a few. The group was encouraged by A.D. Jones Optical works, the only optical concern in Boston at the time. Mr. Jones introduced the club to Dr. Harlow Shapley at Harvard College Observatory. With Dr. Shapley's assistance, a series of monthly lecture meetings were instituted on astronomy and held at the observatory. Those meetings still continue today and we have been privileged to hear many of the world's most eminent astronomers speak at the meetings.

Wagn Hargbol and his 12.5" scope
Wagn Hargbol and his 12.5" scope

Twice weekly shop sessions were held in a basement adjacent to the pier of the great 15" refractor. Before long, the quest for aperture began, with each member attempting larger and larger instruments as his prowess and resources allowed. Finally, a group collaborated on the construction of a 20 inch aperturecassegrainian telescope. Work was well under way and the mirror nearly completed when World War II broke out. Most members had to devote their time to war duties, but a few members continued to work at home and visited the optical shop for weekly instruction. A small group of the most able amateur optical workers participated in the war department program to provide binocular erecting prisms to aid the overstressed optical industry. Many thousands of prisms were produced at a quality equaling or exceeding those produced commercially. The stable environment of the subterranean shop no doubt was a great asset to those opticians. Of course, many individual amateurs throughout the country participated in the program but few were able to provide the required angular accuracy required.

The ATM group later banded together under the direction of Dr. James G. Baker to form the Harvard Optical Project and was devoted to the fabrication of difficult reconnaissance lenses. After the war, the Harvard Optical Project moved to Boston University as part of the physical research laboratories. However, the ATMs stayed at Harvard College Observatory as stated in a letter dated October 19, 1953 written by Donald H. Menzel to Frank Smeltzer, ATMs.

The ATM's first president, Wagn Hargbol, became foreman of the optical shop and later founded his own optical company. The research lab was sponsored by the Air Force and later became Itek Corporation. Regular shop activities resumed with the help of these "professional amateurs" and the club grew to 180 members. Among those who made telescopes around that time were John Patterson, then director of the Hayden Planetarium, Charles Avila, former president of Boston Edison, Dr. Tuckerman Moss, an MIT graduate and now research scientist at Tinsley Optical Labs; Gerald Ouellette, professor of astrodynamics at MIT and BU; and Samuel Gardiner, Former Optical Foreman at ITEK.

In 1956, just prior to the launch of the first artificial satellites, the ATM's joined the Operation Moonwatch program sponsored by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and formed "Operation Moonwatch Cambridge", a research group dedicated to developing advanced amateur techniques for visual observations and orbit predictions. Equipment was set up on the roof of the observatory to make observations accurate to 6 arc-minutes in position and one tenth of a second timings. As the combined HCO-SAO complex expanded, the ATM workshop was moved a number of times and finally had to move to the Museum of Science when all available space was needed for official staff programs.

Within a few years, a similar situation occurred at the Museum when space was required for new exhibits. At that time, the club, which had grown to 220 members, moved to the cellar of one of its members and long range plans were made to purchase a piece of land and construct a workshop-observatory complex. The astronomic rise in real estate values, building costs, and inflation-in-general has delayed this goal considerably and has made the prospect of a convenient downtown location unlikely. In addition, the population shift to the suburbs makes no one particular location ideal. In recognition of the various legal and financial problems involved with acquisition of property, buildings, and equipment, the club incorporated in Massachusetts as a non-profit education organization in 1966. A dues increase was implemented to establish a building and savings account for future use.

In 1974, the ATM's expended considerable labor and funds to refurbish a building at the Nike site on Drumlin Farm in Lincoln Mass. so that workshop activities could resume with our own group responsible for providing the heat and utilities. An active observing program was also established and a 16" portable telescope has been constructed. Unfortunately, nearly a year later, it was discovered in a legal settlement that the prior landowner had stipulated that should the U.S. Army vacate the site, it was to revert to its natural state forever. The army was required to demolish the buildings and for the past two years, the corporation has been without a shop and unable to serve its members.

Historian Note: In 1977, after contacting Dr. Sebring and M.I.T. the club was granted permission to occupy and rent the farmhouse which is under restoration and per as our agreement, we will maintain the property. This year marks the 20th year of our association with Haystack Observatory.