Tales from the Golden Age: The Telescopes of Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012)

Sir Patrick Moore(1923-2012), seen here standing beside his 5 inch f/12 Cooke refractor. Image credit: Martin Mobberley.

The late Sir Patrick Moore(1923-2012) needs no introduction to the astronomical community. A towering figure for over half a century, he was adored (and sadly, disliked by a few) by a legion of fans the world over as the eccentric, silver tongued English writer and presenter of the longest running television series in history; BBC Sky at Night; with an encyclopedic knowledge of astronomy. Inexplicable to Americans, gin guzzling, pipe smoking, xenophobic, insensitive, incomprehensible to some, inflexible, irksome, he was also warm, passionate, generous to a fault, loyal to his friends, an institution in his own right, and a law unto himself!

As a fan of Sir Patrick from childhood, I bought, borrowed and read many of his books. He was the person who first sparked my interest in astronomy, and even as my hobby turned into a profession of sorts, he always returned my phone calls and promptly responded to my letters in his unique way; using an old fashioned type writer. But while there was hardly a telescope, amateur or professional, that the great man didn’t peer through during his prolific career, it pays to take a closer look at the kinds of instruments he personally owned.

Expressing an interest in the night sky since he was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper, Moore was lucky enough to live right across the road from the tycoon, Frederick J. Hanbury, at East Grinstead, West Sussex, who had a lavishly equipped observatory erected on his estate, with a 6.1 inch Cooke refractor as its Pièce de résistance. But Hanbury himself was far too busy to run the observatory from day to day, instead hiring a full time assistant, William Saddler Franks(1851-1935), to  demonstrate at the telescope, and tasked with entertaining Hanbury’s frequent guests and business acquaintances with the glories of the Sun, Moon, planets and distant stars. On quieter evenings, Franks would return to more routine work, measuring double stars with a filar micrometer and completing sketches of what he saw at the eyepiece. Franks struck up a strong bond of friendship with the young Patrick Moore and it was here that he probably enjoyed his first views of the night sky through a telescope.

Acting on a recommendation he received from the Dr. W.H. Steavenson (a prominent member of the British Astronomical Association in those days), Patrick, accompanied by his mother, took a train up to London to visit the workshops of the leading telescope maker for amateurs in the country; Broadhurst Clarkson, where he acquired his first proper instrument; a 3 inch achromatic refractor for the princely sum of £7 10 shillings. This was quite a bit of cash to splash out for the time. Martin Mobberley, writing in his excellent biography of Moore: It Came From Outer Space Wearing an RAF Blazer! estimates that it was the equivalent of about two weeks wages for an ordinary working man. But a fine telescope it was nonetheless!

Sir Patrick Moore’s newly restored 3″ f/12 Broadhurst Clarkson refractor.

Already almost a quarter of a century old (circa 1910 vintage), the shining, rolled brass tube, housed a very well figured 3 inch object glass with a focal length of three feet (so f/12). The instrument has a smooth, single wheel focuser (like all small refractors of the era) and came equipped with a few eyepieces for low, medium and high power work. Its Achilles’ Heel though, as Moore soon found out to his chagrin, was the flimsy ‘pillar and claw’ mount that accompanied it. While it looked rather ornate in the corner of a stately indoor space, it was next to useless for astronomical purposes. Moore referred to it discontentedly as the ‘blancmange’ but it was quickly replaced by a much more sturdy tripod of extendable height, at an additional cost of 30 shillings.

A rescued Broadhurst Clarkson 3″ f/12 achromat (1940s vintage), field tested by the author.

Though this author has not had the privilege of looking though Sir Patricks particular 3” f/12 achromatic telescope, he has sampled, as it were, a ‘system of particles‘ centred on an 80mm f/11 achromat, but also from shorter and longer ‘particles‘. But more specifically, this author partially restored an essentially identical instrument to Moore’s telescopic alma mater during the autumn of 2012, where he spent a few days testing its optics. The instrument produced very pleasing, high contrast images of the daytime landscape, with very little secondary spectrum. Night time tests showed that stars presented as tight pinpoints of light with almost identical Fraunhofer diffraction rings both inside and outside focus. Lunar views were crisp and sharp at powers up to approximately 150x, and a suite of suitable double stars were also well resolved at the highest magnifications employed. In short, this author was confident that such a telescope would show any experienced observer what the best modern 3 inch refractor could present.

Moore used the instrument extensively, where it presented him with all the showpieces of the night sky. This much is abundantly clear from his many references to the 3 inch in his voluminous published writings of later times. It was with this telescope that he learned his way around the battered face of the Moon; a study that would propel the young man to international notoriety in the years to come.  Indeed, he used his 3 inch Broadhurst Clarkson to suggest his first paper to the BAA entitled, Small Craterlets in the Mare Crisium, in 1937, at the tender age of 14! And while there is no official record of such a presentation, Moore most definitely studied this lunar region with his small telescope. Mobberley, who had the pleasure of examining Moore’s observational records show that while he demonstrated almost no artistic flare at school, his drawings of various lunar features made with the 3 inch and dated to 1940 show that he had, by that time, developed considerable ability to draw complex structures at the eyepiece. And though he would go on to make rapid progress within the ranks of the BAA in the post-war years, the 3 inch Broadhurst Clarkson was probably the only telescope he personally owned right up until about 1950!

While many astronomers consider the Moon to be a form of light pollution, Sir Patrick maintained a lifelong passion for exploring our nearest neighbour in space. For over half a century, astronomers working with some of the largest telescopes in the world were busy photographing its surface, but the relative insensitivity of photographic emulsions during that era meant that there was always visual work to do in fleshing out the finest selenographic details. This kind of work was ideally suited to moderately sized instruments that could be pressed into service fairly frequently. No doubt, it was this possibility that influenced Sir Patrick’s next telescope acquisition, and it would come from his new mentor, Hugh Percy Wilkins(1896–1960), a Welsh–born mechanical engineer and amateur astronomer.

From 1946 to 1956, Wilkins served as the Director of the Lunar Section of the BAA and it was through its meetings and publications that Moore became attracted to Wilkins’ work. Indeed, in many ways, Wilkins and Moore were very much alike. Both were extroverted, more than a little odd, and passionate about everything pertaining to our natural satellite. Wilkins had moved from his native Wales to put down roots at 35 Fairlawn Avenue, Bexleyheath, Kent, only 25 miles north of Moore’s abode at Glencathara, East Grinstead. There the young astronomer enjoyed many fine views through Wilkins’ 12.5 Newtonian. Over the years, Wilkins had produced truly colossal Moon maps, starting with a 24” completed in 1924, and, with the help of Moore, culminating with a 300” lunar map in 1951 and which was considered by some to represent “the culmination of the art of selenography prior to the space age.”

Sir Patrick looking through his trusty 12.5 inch f/6 Newtonian reflector nicknamed ‘Oscar.’ Early 1950s. Image credit: Martin Mobberley.

















When Wilkin’s decided to acquire a larger instrument (a 15.25 inch Newtonian), Moore, having tried and trusted the 12.5 inch, had no hesitation in buying it off him.  With a focal length of 72 inches (so f/6), its primary mirror was made by the noted British telescope maker, Henry Wildey(1913–2003). This new telescope, which Moore affectionately referred to as ‘Oscar,’ was mounted on a heavy duty altazimuth mount equipped, specially designed Ron Irving(1915–2005) with good slow motion controls. And while Moore intended to upgrade the mount to equatorial mode at some point in the future, the astronomical (pun intended) cost that it would incur stopped that project dead in the water. Indeed, ‘Oscar’ was to remain on its original altazimuth mounting for the remainder of Moore’s long life, housed inside a double–ended roll off shed at his home at East Grinstead. This 12.5 inch was arguably the instrument Moore used most often throughout his career to produce some of his finest work.

Oscar in old age, being inspected by the crew of BBC Sky at Night. Image credit: Martin Mobberley.


To say that Sir Patrick Moore was more of a showman, as some of his more envious contemporaries would have claimed, than an observer, would be very far from the truth. One need look no further than his observing logbooks to see that not only was he a regular observer, but he was also capable of great bouts of stamina, well above and beyond the efforts of many amateurs today. One example this author stumbled upon was an entry he made in March 1967 while he was serving as Director of Armagh Planetarium, Northern Ireland. These notes, which are very neat and tidy, show that, despite having access to a very good 10 inch Grubb refractor at the Observatory annexed to the Planetarium, he was using Oscar and a 8.5 inch With Browning Newtonian (acquired sometime in the early 1960s), both of which he had shipped over to Northern Ireland, to make some excellent Jupiter observations, recoding details of both the Jovian disk as well as several transits of the Galilean satellites watched continually over a complete rotation of the planet (so about 10 hours)!

To be continued………..

De Fideli.

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