That is just what Johnson did. Not long after he cracked the corrector "code," he renamed Valor "Celestron Pacific" and turned it into a telescope company. It was not quite the Celestron today's amateurs know. Johnson thought the SCTs he was producing in apertures of 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, and 22-inches would be perfect for amateur astronomers, but his scopes were not marketed to amateurs at the beginning. The first Celestrons were beautiful instruments with striking blue-and-white paint schemes and excellent optics (Plate 3). Unfortunately, they were expensive—very
Plate 3. (Blue and White Celestron) One of the Celestron's legendary 1960s Blue and White SCTs, the C10. Credit: Image courtesy of Bob Piekiel.
expensive. A C10 10-inch SCT, which was the Celestron most often purchased by amateur astronomers, cost almost as much as a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle. Celestron did sell quite a few of the blue-and-white Schmidt Cassegrains to small colleges and universities eager for good telescopes that did not cost as much as custom professional instruments.
Celestron could easily have stayed on this path, selling a few scopes to educators and even fewer to wealthy amateurs, but Tom Johnson wanted more. As Robert Piekiel says in his excellent history of the company, Celestron: The Early Years, "In the late 1960s, Celestron was realizing that the Vintage, blue-white scopes they were producing were not selling to a fair share of the market due to their cost, as well as their bulk and weight." Tom Johnson knew amateur astronomy was changing ever more rapidly as the 1970s dawned, and he decided he was going to furnish this new breed of amateurs who traveled to dark sites and dabbled in astrophotography with the telescope they needed.
The breakthrough was the original C8, the "Orange Tube" (Plate 4), so called because of the orange paint job Johnson settled on—maybe in an effort to stand out from the crowds of white-tube scopes advertised in Sky & Telescope. The paint scheme was not the only thing that made the C8 different from earlier Celestron scopes (most of which remained available through the early 1970s). The design of the Orange Tube was almost identical optically and mechanically to the earlier Celestrons, but the company had to cut some corners to lighten and cheapen the massive and complex white-and-blue Celestron Pacifics.
In the Orange Tube C8, the focusing mechanism was simplified, the heavy piers furnished with the original scopes were replaced by light but sturdy tripods, and the telescope drive systems were equipped with simpler and cheaper gears and a minimum of electronics. The optics were still as good as ever, though, and the telescope was so far in advance of the simple Newtonians and refractors amateurs were used to buying that the C8 caused a real revolution in amateur astronomy. Almost immediately, old-time companies, amateur traditions such as Cave and Unitron, began to wither. Johnson was soon selling every C8 his dramatically enlarged
Plate 4. (Orange Tube Celestron) Celestron's first mass produced Schmidt Cassegrain, the ground-breaking Orange Tube C8. Credit: Image courtesy of Bob Piekiel.
company could produce, even though the C8 was not exactly cheap. The Orange Tube commanded a whopping $1,000 (a lot of money in 1970) once the customer stocked up on all the "optional" accessories, such as a tripod.
What happened to Tom Johnson's little company, Celestron? The 1980s and 1990s brought plenty of changes. After the success of the C8, the product line was expanded to include a C5, a C11, a C14, and other catadioptric telescopes. The company continued to grow and prosper under Johnson, but after he sold out to a Swiss holding company in the 1980s, Celestron began to suffer some setbacks. These culminated in the 1990s with the sale of the company to notorious junk-scope importer Tasco. Thankfully for Celestron fans, that state of affairs did not last. By the early years of the new century, Celestron had been purchased by Taiwanese optical/telescope giant Synta, under whose guidance the company appears to be flourishing again. Whatever happens to Celestron in the future, it and its founder, Tom Johnson, have certainly earned a mention in the astronomy history books for finally bringing the amateur astronomer a modern, high-quality, affordable telescope.
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