Device One was the portable flexible planisphere, which I wanted to call the Star Hat, but for which its inspired inventor Bruce King chose nothing more inspired than Night Star.
An example of lost-opportunity naming. In that respect it reminds me of another device: the small red telescope with the spherical base.
The Edmund Scientific Company, introducing it in 1976, ran a competition to name it. To me it was obviously the Star Bottle, and thus named it might have become an object of affection, a pet. But the uninspired winner was Astroscan – a prickly collection of consonants suggestive of crusty Etruscan atrocity. The Star Bottle telescope had a wide field, collecting many stars; it could be easily (if not scientifically) oriented on its bowl-like cradle, and could be used on a table, windowsill, or porch balustrade; like the Star Hat, it deserved better than to fall out of production.
Here’s another device that is astronomical, in that it was intended as a telescope stool, though it’s also a handy little chair for other uses.
I wish I remembered the name of the craftsman who made it. (If he reads this, will he kindly own up?) He was showing it at the 1994 Texas Star Party; I bought one and he shipped it to me. I don’t know whether he had a name for it; I’ll dub it the Slipstool. No, not that, because it doesn’t slip; the Liftstool.
(You may object that it’s not a stool but a chair, since it has a back. Well, stool was the original English word for any seat for one person, including thrones, chair being a later borrowing, from French and ultimately Greek kathedra. Stool still seems natural for small chairs that are perched on, with or without a back)
The seat can be lifted to heights between about 18 and 32 inches, so as to bring your eye to the eyepiece of a telescope slewed to different positions. When the seat is slid up and off, the rest folds flat, so the combination is easy to transport. The two rods at the back of the seat are spaced just right to hold it horizontal. The black rubber on them, which provides the friction, is at last wearing out. I tried unsuccessfully to persuade a carpenter friend to copy the design. I used this stool as the one on which a boy sits to look through Galileo’s telescope, in the cover painting for Astronomical Calendar 2009.
About the only astronomical device I’m responsible for was a Pyramidal Observatory.
Most observatories are either domes, which have slits in them and have to rotate, or sheds with roofs that roll off. My idea was something simpler to construct: four triangles of wood leaning together. Any one of them can be peeled open to reveal a quarter of the sky, while the rest stand in place; or two can be opened, or all four (but not three!). I was working at the Rough Rock school in the Navajo Reservation, and showing the stars to the children, and the school actually began to build the thing. The Plant Management team, led by its Assistant Director Emerson Begay, poured a cement floor and put up the four hip-height cement-block walls, one of them with a doorway. It wasn’t that simple to design the timbers on which to base the pyramid and the hinges and latches to connect them. When I suggested leaving some minor mistake uncorrected, Emerson demurred: “It’ll look bad on us” – a neat idiom that I hadn’t heard before, though my native language was English and his wasn’t. The project started too late, and was probably unfinished after I left, remaining as an unexplained trace on the Arizona semidesert.
Which reminds me of another, the Concrete Bubble. John, the school photographer, talked about Paolo Soleri, an architect-guru who had propounded Arcology, the philosophy of ecological human habitats. Soleri had an establishment near Phoenix called Arcosanti; disciples “used to go there and get stoned.” One of Soleri’s suggestions was a type of house suitable for Navajoland, cheap, half-underground, and, like the wide-scattered encampments, inconspicuous in the landscape. So several of us got together and constructed, in my back yard, a model of such a house, at a scale that made it a play-house for the children. Under John’s direction, we dug an oval pit, not much more than my height long. The flat floor had a step around the sides, to become a bench. We lined the floor with cement and made a drainage hole. We pushed the excavated earth back in to fill the pit, and heaped more over it to make a mound. One end of the mound extended into a rounded ridge which would become the entrance passage; a board blocking its end would save the space for the doorway, and other boards set into the mound’s sides would become arched windows. Then we coated the mound thickly with concrete. When this had hardened, we crawled in, digging the loose earth out; and lo, the Soleri house, half embedded in the ground like a concrete bubble. We had the most fun with modifications such as inset pieces of colored glass, and a length of hosepipe that was laid spirally on the earthen mound and covered by the concrete; marbles dropped in at the outer end would roll along the tube and emerge at the inner end. “What happens if the concrete cracks?” “Bomb it!” The children of the campus did come to our yard to play in the house, but it has perhaps since become a nest for snakes. It did not, as far as I know, inspire a revolution in low-cost Navajo housing.
But that led me away to non-astronomical devices, and I’d better keep others of those for another instalment. One more astronomical one:
No, enough already, that too should be another instalment.