The Real Origin of the LTP

Marc Stowbridge

New Hampshire Astronomical Society

NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador

The Library Telescope Program recently passed its ten year anniversary. After a relatively slow first month or two, it has, as a friend once predicted, “Gone viral.” It’s even old enough, apparently, to have developed some origin myths! Having been there at the LTP’s beginning, I can set the story right. One such theory is that it was inspired by the Robert Frost poem, The Star Splitter:

 "The best thing that we're put here for's to see;

The strongest thing that's given us to see with's a telescope.

Someone in every town seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.

In Littleton it may as well be me."

Quote attributed to Bradford McLaughlin


Actually, it was more a song from the Gerald McBoing Boing Show of 1955. Sang Raoul Dufy:

“If I can’t be a painter, I’ll be a millionaire. I’ll buy a lot of pictures and put them everywhere…”

(For those old enough to remember, or for those young enough to wonder how, in part, we who are old enough got this way, you can see it at: “The Invisible Mustache of Raoul Dufy”

I have been interested in space since Sputnik, and active in astronomy for 20 years or so. A lot of that time concerned outreach and science education. As for actually practicing astronomy, I found I lacked the patience for astrophotography and the attention span to earn most of the Astronomical League Awards. (I did manage to get the ones for Outreach.) When asked what my favorite thing to see with my telescope is, I reply “Watching people go Wow!”

So, if I can’t be an astronomer (or a millionaire)… This describes the genesis of the LTP as more like Raoul Dufy than Brad McLaughlin, though I reportedly share many of his attributes as well.

The true story is that a library gifted our club $200 after we held a sky watch for them. Being an educational non-profit, much talk was made about just what to do with this windfall. In what seemed at the time to be a relatively simple answer, I suggested that since they were so interested in astronomy, why not give them a telescope? I proceeded to think about just what such a telescope should look like.

This most generous library was quite a drive from my home, so I experimented with my own town library, whose board of trustees were surprisingly supportive. Experimenting locally was a good idea. I found that people really liked to fiddle with things they ought not to.

Overtime, as problems arose or were anticipated, the basic Orion StarBlast 4.5 (or equivalent) became more “patron friendly”. After finding a primary mirror flopping about, the collimation knobs were replaced with lock-nuts. The eye pieces were aided by Barlows, soon to be replaced by a zoom. The zoom was secured by set screws, the finder was glued in place and had a battery pack attached.

Each question about how to use the telescope was answered in the next edition of the instructions. As we spoke to  new librarians, we learned how to approach them and support them better. Here’s where Old Bradford came in… What better way to entice a librarian than with poetry? (Yes, I know, a living wage would help…)

It seems that librarians have a pretty sophisticated system for communication amongst themselves. Word got out here in New Hampshire that the program existed and was bringing in interested borrowers. Then articles started appearing in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, and Astronomy Beat, to name a few. I brought a modified StarBlast to the North East Astronomical Forum, begged Orion not to take offence at my tinkering, and gave information to anyone who made eye contact with me or asked me about the scope under my arm.

All this got the attention of, among others, the Astronomical League, who started supporting the program in a big way.

My friend who thought the LTP would “go viral”, spoke to his friend at the Cornerstones of Science. Cornerstones delights in bringing science material to libraries and has proved to be a great resource for obtaining telescopes and other materials for the LTP.

Before long, The Southern Maine Astronomers, the Aldrich Astronomical Society  and the Saint Louis Astronomical Society were off and running with their own programs. Scores of other clubs, libraries, and individuals in the States, Canada, London, Chile, New Zealand, and more, also started programs based more or less upon the NH model.

We are often asked “Why libraries?” Well, schools are closed during the summer and tend to be loath to send equipment home with young students. Libraries, on the other hand, are delighted to let folks borrow things, and most every town has one or is near one.

Members of the NHAS, recognizing my similarity to poor Bradford, “Busy outdoors by lantern light with something I should have done by daylight, and indeed, after the ground is frozen, I should have done before it froze…” kindly offered to help with the organizational aspects of the LTP whilst I continued to tinker. Pete Smith is the Chairman of the LTP now, and the club no longer needs worry about where my receipts are.

I rather like the idea that a musical cartoon of my early childhood helped inspire the LTP. It seems to confirm the place of Art in S.T.E.M., making S.T.E.A.M.

New Hampshire has over 130 telescopes placed in state as of this writing. The generous library eventually got their telescope, as did the library in Littleton. Bradford would be happy.

February 11, 2019