Classic 3-inchers

In the dawning years of the twentieth century, the American amateur astronomer, William Tyler Olcott, penned a delightful little book on wholesome sights that can be beheld with a humble, 3″ glass. In the 18th century, both Leopold Mozart and Thomas Jefferson used one, and in the 21st century,  Sir Patrick Moore got his 3″ refractor – the telescope he acquired as a boy to learn the sky – professionally restored.

Ole Albert Einstein too liked to look upon the heavens with a similar sized glass.

Small classical achromats are just charming. They punch well above their weight. As I have shown elsewhere, in the hands of capable observers these instruments have even appeared to have broken commonly accepted rules of resolution.

Some mighty fine 3-inchers have passed my way; most by design, others by sheer serendipity. I enjoyed a short but glorious spell with a fine 3″ Dollond, The Students ( below). Having newly inherited the instrument from a deceased grand uncle, a lady got in touch with me to see if I could check it out. Well, it was a work of fine art, a rose wood box, mahagony tripod and a soft bronze altaziumth head. Everything had its place; a mobile observatory for the amateur.

Earlier this year, I had a chance to clean up an old Broadhurst Clarkson 3″ f/12 glass. After fitting it with some makeshift tube rings I gave it a test ride one mild Spring evening, discovering that it had first rate optics. Beautiful, smooth, concentric Fraunhofer rings  and stars that focused to hard, round shells.

A rescued Broadhurst Clarkson 3″ f/12 achromat (1940s vintage),

With my own, more humble offerings, I’ve been able to make out fine Jovian details; several belts – both continuous and broken – the Great Red Spot, shadow transits and the perpetual waltz of the Galilean worlds set to the majestic fugue of celestial mechanics. They’re fine deep sky scopes too; if you live under dark skies and carefully choose the targets you wish to visit.

As double star instruments, there is every indication that, within their aperture class, they are simply unbeatable. If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve brought these ‘scopes out at a moment’s notice, and often in freezing weather, to view the glories of the binary star universe, I’d be a wealthy man. You see, they get you there faster and keep you there longer.

For example, a couple of winters back, I compared my long Traveler ( purchased for £100) with my short,  ED ‘scope ( ~£1500) and after a couple of nights out became convinced of the former’s superiority over the latter. Tricky doubles that were mere suggestions in the short ‘scope just popped in the long ‘scope. Furthermore, there was little to choose between them on planets either.

Talk about an eye opener!

But that’s the way it is; plain and simple. And anyone can test it.

The laws of physics are cold and indifferent and need not be in harmony with human ambition.

Two nice ‘scopes; one clear winner.

I’ve been spoiled by my two 80mm achromatic refractors; the 80mm f/11 Traveler, outfitted with a mighty fine Nihon Seiko objective; and my more recently acquired Stellarvue 80/9D. Having had more time to evaluate both instruments thoroughly, I revised my initial assessment that the SV80/9D had slightly better optics. Only by pushing the instruments to extremely high powers (~ 90x per inch of aperture) did I discover that the f/11 Traveler has a slightly superior optic. For tight double star and planetary work, I’d sooner reach for this telescope than the SV 80/9D. But there wasn’t much in it.

Me Traveler

I have spent many enchanting hours watching mighty Jupiter, now exceptionally well placed even before midnight. The views I have soaked up with both telescopes have been truly inspirational; even in so-so seeing conditions. These incredibly durable and adaptable instruments, acquired at so little cost, have the power to transform; for they teach you what a telescope ought to do; allowing one to engage with the sky more or less immediately.

Me Waptor

Just yesterday, I took the plunge and bought yet another classic three incher; a ‘cute’ Meade Model 300  80mm f/15 optical tube assembly. I always wanted one of these instruments but somehow, they all passed me by. It cost almost nothing; £95 delivered to my door. This  telescope is even closer in specification to the Reverend Dawes’ 3.8 inch Dollond and should provide razor sharp views of the Moon, planets and double stars.

My incoming Meade 300 refractor.


Simple and understated, the Meade 300 will be fed a staple diet of double stars.

In the skilled hands of an artist, great details can be recorded through classic 3-inchers.This noble tradition, began in the early 17th century, when men of the ilk of the Italian, Galileo Galilei, and the Englishman, Thomas Harriot, sat quietly, eye to the telescope, recording the information gleaned from careful study. Even with their crude perspicilla, the details they rendered were truly impressive.

By the end of the 18th century talented artists were engaging their skills in recording the countenance of the solar system bodies. For example, take this wonderful, colour rendition of a Gibbous Moon, produced by John Russell in 1795, using a small telescope supplied to him by Sir William Herschel. Though I’m unsure of the precise nature of the instrument, I believe the elder Herschel did make some smaller achromatic refractors before concentrating on building his mammoth reflectors. The faint bluish halo round the lunar edge in the drawing is certainly suggestive of this. In addition, his sister, Carloine, is well known  to have enjoyed the sky with a small spyglass of crown & flint.

“Face of the Moon”, by John Russell (1795).

In our own age, astronomical sketching with small telescopes continues to bring curious minds outside under the Caelian canopy. Alexander Kupco from Ricany in the Czech Republic, has rendered some awe-inspiring drawings of Jupiter using small, but finely crafted refractors(both of Zeiss vintage) in his spare time. With his f/15 Zeiss AS 80, Alexander recorded these wonderful renderings of Jove.

Jupiter through an 80mm refractor. Image credits; Alexander Kupco







The Admiral, based in Manzanita, Northwest Oregon, USA, has catalogued a great many binary stars with his mighty 80mm aperture Mizar with a yoghurt pot as a dew shield.

Inasmuch as one can do all these different activities with classic 3 inch refractors, it occurred to me that one can take classicism into the 21st century, by coupling some of the latest advances in optical design to traditional crown and flint telescopes. Puzzled?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using my trusty SV80/9D to study the glories of Orion and its hinterland. This proud little addition to my collection sports a dual 1.25″/2-inch focuser enabling me to use a suite of eyepieces for low power wide field sweeps (up to about 3.5 degrees) all the way up to high power work(beyond 225x when conditions allow).

I was especially keen to use the Oculus, a 9mm ES 100, yielding 83x and an extraordinary 1.2 degree field. That’s because my Victorian forebears had to make do, in the most part with simple eyepieces with just a few elements. They had no anti-reflection coatings to build up multi-element wide angle systems that we take for granted today. From the outset, I’ll admit to cheating a bit by using this particular eyepiece. It shows you views quite beyond the ken of what could be seen in a 3-inch glass from yesteryear, but I gave into temptation after having experienced one at a dark, mountainous site in California this last June.

The constellation of Orion is an embarrassment of riches even from the perspective of a 3-inch glass. With my 40mm Erfle, which works well at f/9, I enjoyed wonderful sweeps through the constellation, drinking up the views of the blue-white belt stars, fiery Rigel in the southwest and blood red Betelegeuse away off to the northeast. Its colour was dazzling to my eye. You can almost guess it’s a huge geriatric sun,with a diameter that would easily swallow up the inner planets as far out as the asteroid belt. Some day in the near future (though probably not in my lifetime), this supergiant will go Kaboom!, turning night into day.

Still, I keep watching it, looking for omens.

The Great Nebula in Orion (M42) located a few degrees south of the middle star in the belt (Alnilam) is very fetching even in the low power (19x) of the Erfle. My average eyes pick up the characteristic wedge shaped nebulosity easily. More careful study reveals faint tendrils of luminosity reaching outwards like amoeboid pseudopodia over 2.5 degrees from the central, starlit locus occupied by the Theta Orionis cluster at its heart. M43, a smaller detached structure can be seen in this simple eyepiece just north of the main wedge or ‘fishes mouth’ of M42.

Eager to take a closer look, I popped in the Oculus. What was merely attractive with the 40mm eyepiece became utterly compelling with this marvel of twenty first century optical design. Never before have I seen so much detail in a 3″ glass. The fusion of wide field of view and relatively high magnification was a killer combination. The Trapezium stars ‘winked’ in ripened corn yellow and yellow-green.

The field of view was relatively enormous; I could take in the shoals of stars both to the north and south of the main nebulosity. Particularly striking in this eyepiece was Iota Orionis, consisting of a third magnitude bluish white primary, with two other components lurking nearby; a faint 7th magnitude secondary just 11 arc seconds south east of the primary and wide away (49″) a faint magntide 9.7 tertiary!

Over a few nights, interrupted here and there by inclemencies in the weather, I trained the Waptor at a suite of fine double stars. Just 9 arc minutes away from Iota I could make out Struve 747 consisting of a magnitude 5.5 primary and a secondary, one magnitude fainter, just 36 arc seconds way to the southwest. In the same field of view presented by the Oculus, I was able to see the faint Struve 745 system (a pair of 8th magnitude suns aligned roughly north to south) and separated by 29 arc seconds of dark sky.

The 7th magnitude companion to Rigel was easily and steadily held in this eyepiece; a tiny wee spark off to the southwest. From there, I moved the 3″ glass north, past Betelgeuse and Bellatrix until I came to Lamda Orionis (Meissa); a wondrous quartet of stars, all of which, I am delighted to report, could be resolved cleanly at 83x with the Oculus. The magic eyepiece showed off the surrounding stars – as many as two dozen – beautifully inside a field of view of ~1 angular degree. Yes, it’s the magic combination of greater magnification and larger field of view.

After these fairly easy pickings, I decided to push the Waptor to the limit. Off I flew to Eta Orionis, located a few degrees southwest of Mintaka. I have easily split this system (1.7 arc seconds) with my 4″ f/15, but my previous attempts with the 80mm f/11 Traveler were unsuccessful. On the best night, after throwing a power of  x 183 at it with the SV 80/9D, I managed to record a very convincing elongation; sound enough evidence that the system is in fact duplicitous. The same was true when I turned the telescope to Alnitak (Zeta Orionis); I could only make out strong elongation at high powers. Dawes managed a measure of this system in 1832 when the pair were about 3 arc seconds apart.

To be fair though, Orion, while certainly prominent, is actually quite low down in the sky even when it culminates (I’m just outside the Arctic Circle, 56 degrees North Latitude). And in the few nights I’ve explored the constellation, conditions were, at best, fair to good. Needless to say, I’m itching to try these systems again under more favourable conditions with my newly acquired Meade 300. Its higher focal ratio should afford it greater stability and increased image scale; two very important attributes that aid the dedicated observer of double stars.

As you can see, I have spoken of these classic three inch refractors with great affection. But there are people out there who are hell bent on consigning them to the trash heap of history to be replaced by  ‘modern’ short tube refractors with ‘better’ glass prescriptions.

” ’tis the inevitable forward march of technological innovation,” they shout.

That’s not only a false choice in my opinion, but also (if one were to diligently test such telescopes side by side on a good night) the wrong choice.

Such a move, were it to happen, would be nothing more than a vicious act of barbarism!

So, ladies and gentlemen, let us be civilised!


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