Edmund Scientific – The Heyday of Science DIY

In various bio sketches, I’ve mentioned my early discovery of science. It began with an older brother’s microscope when I was in elementary, followed by a Porter Chemistry set (#608, if anyone’s keeping notes) acquired when I was 10, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on summer vacation (my saved allowance over the previous many months).

The big expansion came in grade 7, Junior high School, when, golly-bob-howdy, SCIENCE was a stand-alone subject from Mr. Anderson (don’t let his one wonky eye fool ya, the man saw everything). We captured protozoa from pond scum and watched them twitch and move under a microscope; we learned about osmosis with a hollowed-out half potato and maple syrup; we marveled at the explosive wonder of spontaneous combustion courtesy of flour, a drinking straw and a candle: I built dry-cleaner bag and birthday candle hot-air balloon UFO’s. Reading Popular Science Magazine led to those great advertisements from Edmund Scientific. “Space Conqueror Telescope” for the lofty (to me) price of $29.95. Unobtanium. But the catalogs were free.

Digest-sized, 100+ pulp pages of optics, science toys, chemistry and lab equipment, electrical gizmos of all descriptions, war surplus componentry, the singular Spilhaus Space Clock and more, it was the burgeoning mad scientist’s one-stop shopping venue.

The semi-annual catalog changed in small increments. The first task each six months was to determine what was new, and what had gone up in price.

The telescope pages were the highlight for me. The 3″ Space Conqueror reflector; the 4 1/4″ Palomar; the 6″ Space Challenger with choice of manual or clock drive equatorial mount. The refractors, elegant in their classic design.

By the summer between grade 10 and 11, I’d saved enough from my paper route for my first motorbike (Honda S65, used) and the mighty F/10 3″ Space Conqueror. I’ll give to Edmund, they may have skimped a bit on the wobbly wooden tripod ‘semi-equatorial’ mount (if you lived on the 40th parallel) and the 3X finder scope, but they tossed in a whack of literature. A wheeled star-finder, a paperback copy of The Handbook of the Heavens, various how to use your telescope booklets. And the telescope worked. My first backyard explorations of lunar craters, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter and its 4 most visible moons, Venus’ changing disc to crescent, M31, M15, M57, double stars in the Big Dipper, Orion’s nebula. My sense of wonder never went away, even after moving on to bigger scopes (Edmund supplied the mirror kit and Foucault tester I used to grind, polish and perfect an 8″ F/8 mirror. With the help of their literature, old Mechanix Illustrated Amateur Telescope Makers’ pages and ideas of my own, built a very usable ‘scope).

As all things from our youth, Edmund Scientific changed from that cornucopia of evil genius delights to laser shows for would-be rock concert promoters. The company founded by Norman Edmund in the 1940’s and carried forward by son Robert, still exists under the Scientificsonline website. Ordering from Canada became complicated in the 1980’s by the emergence of an associated company, Efston Science, based in Toronto. Canadians had to order from them (at much higher cost, I believe), rather than the New Jersey home.

I wish I’d kept some of those old catalogs of wonder (last time I checked on Ebay, they go for outrageous sums), but they went in the recycler with the Estes and Centuri model rocketry catalogs, the Autoworld model catalogs, and the gum cards.
Norman W. Edmund passed away in 2012 at 95. Pretty neat combination of entrepreneur, science educator and inquiring mind.

Some links:
http://www.edmundoptics.com/company/timeline/
http://www.edmundoptics.com/company/press-releases/press-article.cfm?id=359
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Scientific_Corporation

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