Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

The first stirrings of what would become my interest in steampunk happened the year K.W. Jeter coined the word in a letter to Locus Magazine. During the summer of 1987, I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, observing pulsating variable stars with an early twentieth-century telescope driven by a wind-up clock drive.


I would go on to publish those results and present them at Harvard College Observatory. The idea that I could explore the universe with equipment built in the Victorian era stuck with me through the years and eventually blossomed when I started writing steampunk and weird western stories.

When I started attending steampunk events about five years ago, the maker culture reminded me of my introduction to astronomy. A few years before I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory, I joined an amateur astronomy club and was encouraged to build a Dobsonian telescopes. Designed by amateur astronomer John Dobson, these inexpensive, easy-to-build telescopes allow anyone with an interest to look at planets, stars, and beyond. This history combined with some extra motivation from one of my daughter’s science projects, led us to build a little steampunk Dobsonian telescope.

steampunk dobsonian

The telescope’s tube is, in fact, cardboard, but I gave it a coat of brass paint as a tribute to the Alvan Clarke and Sons telescopes I worked with on Nantucket and which drove so much science through the Victorian era. Having built this telescope, we have since taken it to steampunk and science fiction conventions where we’ve viewed planets and nebulae. Here’s my daughter setting up the telescope on the deck of the Queen Mary at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2015.


I’ve also conducted workshops, using the steampunk telescope as an example of how easy and satisfying it is to build your own small telescope.


It’s exciting when people look through a telescope like this and realize they can peer into moon craters, see the rings of Saturn, or the ghostly Orion Nebula. For them, science has left the textbook and become something they can access. There’s even more magic when people realize they can get those kinds of views with something they built themselves. If you’re interested in building a telescope like this for your own enjoyment, I wrote two posts that should help you get started and include links to more detailed information.

This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World. Visit the Airship Ambassador for more information and to visit more great posts on the topic!


13 comments on “Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

  1. I have an old one around here somewhere. Since moving to town, light pollution is an issue. There is an observatory at Bruneau Sand Dunes that is dark enough. How did it work aboard the QM? Wave action could be a real problem.

    • Yeah, light pollution is a real problem in most urban areas. My boss is involved in the International Dark-Sky Association, which is trying to raise awareness of the problem and make suggestions for better lighting solutions. People might be interested in knowing more. They’re at

      As for the Queen Mary, light pollution in Long Beach Harbor was our biggest problem. Still, we could see bright objects like Venus, Jupiter and the Orion Nebula. The harbor itself is really quiet. The ship rises and falls with the tides, but there isn’t much wave motion there, so we did well as far as stability.

  2. […] David Lee Summers – Making Life Better Through Astronomy […]

  3. Thanks for sharing, David. I’m just a tad jealous of your day job!

  4. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

  5. Chris-tuffer says:

    I love that feeling when you see through a telescope if you haven’t for a while. It’s like the true distance and the size of an object is captured right at that moment, and you sort of stop thinking that the moon isn’t an object in the sky, but a place you can actually go. Gives me chills.

    • Thank you and I agree absolutely. The size of the telescope almost doesn’t matter, either. Seeing the moons of Jupiter or Saturn’s rings through a small telescope can be really exciting. You’ve just made a connection with something you can’t resolve with your naked eye. Of course, going to a larger telescope just gives you more light and the images really start to pop out. Thanks for dropping by!

      • Chris-tuffer says:

        Right?! The first time I saw Saturn through the worst focal telescope imaginable my jaw dropped. I couldn’t really even see it, it just look like a calm star with ears.

        It was an amazing experience, and soon after, I went and joined the Royal Astronomical Society and have been a participant ever since !

        Thanks for having me!

      • My pleasure and keep watching the skies!

  6. Chris-tuffer says:

    Reblogged this on ANTIRIFT and commented:
    Great read!

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