Jim's Corner Blog

My 50 Year Old A. Jaegers Telescope Returns Home

In my senior year of high school, 1969-1970, I ordered the parts to assemble a 3-1/4” f/15 refractor from the venerable A. Jaegers Co. of Lynbrook, N.Y. My old telescope is coming home to me, and here is its story.

For those veteran backyard observers of my generation, A. Jaegers and Edmund Scientific catalogs were in the possession of every amateur astronomer. World War II military surplus lenses, eyepieces, prisms, even the optical heads of Norden bombsights were available through the A. Jaegers optical catalog. Also available were the early beginnings of wide angle 2” eyepieces, the infamous radioactive 32mm or 38mm Erfle oculars salvaged from military gunsights and optical range finders.

Additionally, A. Jaegers manufactured for the amateur astronomy hobbyist air-spaced Fraunhofer refractor objectives, rack-and-pinion 1-1/4”focusers, and rudimentary (and by today’s standards primitive) equatorial mounts. Newtonian mirror grinding kits were available from 4-1/4” pyrex blanks to, what was considered the ultimate, a 12-1/2” mirror. The A. Jaegers optical catalog was a virtual cornucopia of optics that the amateur backyard astronomer would salivate over for endless hours.

In particular, the air-spaced Fraunhofer refractor objectives were special. Most of the telescope companies of the 1950’s-1960’s era manufactured Newtonian or classical Cassegrain designs, such Cave Optical, Criterion, and Optical Craftsman. The cheaper 50mm-60mm beginner refractor telescopes tended to come from overseas, under the nameplates such as Tasco, Jason, and Mayflower. Unitron was the only supplier of quality refractors. And the Ferrari of telescopes, the Questar was in a league of its own.

And then there was A. Jaegers with its line of refractor objectives, with aluminum tubes which the objective cells were claimed to be specifically machined to fit on (they didn’t), and rack-and-pinion focusers specifically machined for the other end of the tube (and did fit). The price difference of these A. Jaegers user-assembled refractors and the Unitron refractors was significant. Especially for a penny-pinching senior in high school.

After watching my good friend and astronomer buddy (the word nerd hadn’t been coined yet) grind his own 4-1/4” mirror, and test-and-polish-and-test-and-polish over and over again, I decided to buy the A.Jaegers parts to build the 3-1/4” f/15 refractor. I felt it would be significant upgrade to my 60mm Tasco.

The MgFl coated 3-1/4” f/15 was $36. The german equatorial mount with pedestal and the focuser brought the final order to around $130. A fortune for a high schooler and the sum of a summer’s lawn mowing.

The packages arrived from Lynbrook N.Y. A long aluminum tube suitable for a 48” focal length refractor telescope. One large box containing one refractor doublet in aluminum cell and one 1-1/4” focuser. Shipped separately and later in the week, the equatorial mount arrived with its pedestal.

Being in-between girlfriends that weekend (yes, I was a nerd, but I had dates. I wasn’t totally socially inept!), it was time to assemble my new astronomical weapon. The first task was to spray paint the outside of the tube the standard white that all telescopes of that era were painted. The future of orange tubed Celestrons and blue tubed Meade telescopes were not yet upon us. I then sprayed the interior with a flat black and positioned two flat black painted baffles into the tube for anti-reflection.

Next, I fitted the focuser on. A tight fit, and with three screws to hold it in place, that task was done.

Then there was mounting the objective cell onto the other end of the aluminum tube. This is where everything ground to a halt. The objective didn’t fit. Tight wasn’t the problem. It did not fit. Calling my friend over to help, we decided to file the end of the tube down to force the fit. After what seemed like hours, but less than 45 minutes, the objective finally slid on. Three set screws and the telescope was done.

The equatorial mount went together without a hitch. Two adjustable metal straps and felt was glued to the saddle, and the telescope was ready for use.

Except, no finder scope! I had forgotten to mount a finder scope on my new telescopic beast! In the corner of my bedroom sat my forlorn and now abandoned Tasco. I had an inspiration. I had seen in Unitron catalogs pictures of Unitron telescopes with smaller aperture refractors mounted piggyback as guide-scopes. With the weather being cloudy for the next few nights, my new telescope wasn’t going to see first light anyway. So I mailed an order off to A. Jaegers for some mounting rings. The rings eventually arrived (quick service!) and my Tasco had a new home atop my A. Jaegers f/15 refractor. For the rest of that winter, I braved the freezing cold and enjoyed my new telescope.

In my freshman year at the University of Maryland, with an assist from my old high school physics teacher now an astronomy department faculty member, I, joined by my astronomy telescope building buddy, used an expensive research grade laser on an optical bench to collimate my telescope. The collimation was not that far off, but now it was perfect. All was right with the world.

The quality of the Jaegers refractor objectives have been debated over the past decades. The pre-1970’s lenses were of high quality, some being measured to 1/10thwave smoothness, very impressive. After a turnover of opticians at A. Jaegers, the quality suffered, with many examples being as bad a ½ to 1 wave, not so good.

Although I have never had it tested, my objective was a 1969 manufacture, so I believe it is at least ¼ wave and maybe better.

The real test numbers doesn’t matter, I got great high-contrast images of Jupiter, Saturn,and Mars at opposition with this telescope. Of particular memory was the redness of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. M42 with its Trapezium was spectacular to my teenage eyes. The Ring Nebula was ghostly and beautiful.

This telescope stayed with me until my senior year at the University of Maryland. I brought it to campus because I had met my now best friend who shared my love of astronomy. I had my refractor, and he had a 10” Cave Newtonian. We went out into the fields between dorms to compare our telescopes, and I was blown away by the Cave 10”. M13 globular cluster wasn’t a fuzzy ball, but a concentration of individual stars that resolved to its center!

Later that fall semester, one of the guys in my dorm was peering through his binoculars out his window. His roommate then setup his small Jason telescope to get a better look. I mentioned my telescope, and was convinced to bring it to the room to get a better look. To make a long story short, the guys were so impressed with my telescope that someone on the spot pulled out $350 cash to buy my telescope! Doing quick math in my head, I was quickly overwhelmed by the profit motive and that was the last time I saw this telescope. At sometime after, I acquired a 6” Newtonian on an equatorial clock driven mount, a true classic of the times, a Criterion RV-6.

My long-departed A.Jaegers refractor was just a memory until September 7, 2020. My best friend was searching through Craigslist when he found an ad for an old refractor selling for $100. It was very familiar to him, and he called me. The picture, the description and the eyepieces that were supplied confirmed this was my old telescope! So my old telescope is finding its way home!

As for A. Jaegers, the optical company was not so fortunate. During the 1970’s, there was a high turnover of opticians and the production of the Fraunhofer objectives suffered as the telescope market changed. Al Jaegers no longer took an active role in the production of the refractor optics. By the 1980’s, A. Jaegers suffered a disastrous fire that destroyed the whole facility.An attempt to revive the company occurred 20 years later under the moniker A. Jaegers, Jr. Optics. But time had past it by, and the inventory of the failed revival was sold to Surplus Shed.

But for those of a certain age, the A. Jaegers catalogs were the stuff that telescope optics dreams were made of.