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Historic With-Browning Telescope with Unique Provenance

Robert A. Garfinkle, F.R.A.S.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the optical instruments used by the amateur watchers of the skies during the past 125 years or so? I have often done that, imagining myself looking at the Moon through the same instruments used by the great lunar observers of the past trying to see the Moon as they did. May I assume that you are familiar with the classic English lunar observers/writers Neison, Elger, Goodacre, and Wilkins & Moore. Right? You may ask why I am mentioning these gentlemen out of the hundreds of other amateur observers. I have their books, many of their lunar articles, and an original set of Goodacre's 1910 lunar charts, but I did not know until November 2000 that they had something in else common besides their lunar writings and love of the Moon.

Robert Garfinkle's classic With-Browning telescope packed for shipping.
I recently purchased a complete almost mint-condition, 1874, 9.25-inch With-Browning reflector with cast iron altazimuth mount. This instrument was originally owned by the great English lunar observer/writer Edmund Neison (1851-1938), who passed it on to Thomas Gwyn Elger (1838-97), who passed it on to Walter Goodacre (1856-1938), who passed it on to Hugh Percy Wilkins (1896-1960). The telescope was found several years ago in Wilkins' garage with a letter inside the tube signed by Elger stating how he got the instrument from Neison. Knowing that Wilkins and Sir Patrick Moore (1923- ) had collaborated on lunar writings during the 1950s, I wrote to my friend Sir Patrick and he responded that he had used the telescope many times and that it is a good instrument. Price? By agreement with the seller, I cannot disclose the actual selling price, but the telescope was recently appraised at about $38,000. (About double what I paid for my first house (1,200 square feet), in Newark, California, about 32 years ago.)

The Browning race car green wrought-iron tube is 9.25 inches inside diameter and the green-tint soda-lime glass George With mirror is 8 inches in diameter. I have seen this particular instrument mentioned in the astronomical literature as being a 9.25-inch f/7.5 instrument, and I have also been told that it is an 8 inch instrument. Which is correct; 9.25 or 8 inches? I don't know, because it can be called by either size and be correct. In the Victorian era, Newtonian telescopes were labeled and sold by their aperture size and that now we use the diameter of the mirror. Neison refers to the telescope as a 9-1/3-inch instrument, which is its outside diameter.

The cast iron 75-pound mount.
The tube weighs about 100 pounds and the cast iron alt-azimuth mount weighs over 75 pounds. The 1-inch straight-tube finder scope, finder scope mounts, two handles, mount shafts, focuser, and eyepieces are all solid brass along with most of the attaching knobs and screws on the telescope tube. No brass plating in those days. The eyepieces screw into the focuser. Modern slip-in eyepieces do not fit. I still need to determine the power of the finder scope and the telescope with each eyepiece. The focal ratio is not marked on the eyepieces.

George Henry With (1827-1904) was considered one of the best silver-on-glass mirror makers of the late 19th century. He was one of the leaders in the move from metal to glass telescope mirrors. The mirror was recently resilvered at Kitt Peak and tested at 1/25 wave. By profession, George With was a schoolmaster in Herford, England and made astronomical mirrors as a side business.

John Browning, F.R.A.S.(1835-1925) was one of the best telescope and spectroscope manufacturers of that time. He wrote numerous articles on astronomical instrument and a book on spectroscopes. Browning's family instrument company was in business for about 145 years, closing with his retirement in 1905.

If you would like to see a drawing of a sister telescope to mine, there is one in the Norman Lockyer Observatory in England, just follow the link. My telescope looks like the upper image. The drawing is from the 1876 John Browning Company catalog.

I have been planning on how to make a new oak base for the telescope. I have some drawings of similar instruments and a photograph of a 10-inch With-Browning of the same era. A base has to be built before this nineteenth century telescope gets to feed on twenty-first century moon beams. I am also planning on building oak storage boxes for the tube, mount, and accessories.

Brass eyepiece and focuser detail from the With-Browning reflector telecope. Photos by Morris Jones.
I intend to collect as much information as I can about my particular instrument. I have already located several references to this specific instrument in the astronomical literature in several reference works in my home library. Neison mentions it as the instrument used in several of his lunar observations given in the "Selenographical Journal" in the years 1879 to 1882. The telescope is specifically mentioned on page 20 of the Wilkins and Moore book "The Moon." When I am in London this summer after observing the total solar eclipse in Zimbabwe, I intend to spend some time in the Royal Astronomical Society and British Astronomical Society libraries in Burlington House and to see what businesses are now using the John Browning Company factories at 111 Minories (about a block from the Tower of London) and his last place of business at 63 Strand (near the Waterloo Bridge).

I can hardly wait to observe the Moon in much the same manner as my lunar heroes Neison, Elger, Goodacre, and Wilkins through the same fascinating treasure of a telescope that they used.

Mail to: Robert Garfinkle
Copyright © 2001 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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