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CN: Behind the Scenes - Mag 1 Instruments

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Here at CN, we realize that many of our readers are equipment junkies, but sometimes it's nice to get a glimpse into the people and the company behind the equipment.  With this in mind, we've decided to launch a new series of articles spot lighting and interviewing some of the better known manufacturers for the amateur astronomy community.  Think of this as a chance to get to know the people who make your favorite toys.

CN: Behind the Scenes -  Mag  1 Instruments
PortaBall – The Next Stage in the Evolution of the Telescope

Announcement: Recently, Peter Smitka announced on the Portaball yahoo group that he has decided to shut down Mag 1 Instruments. There has never been another production scope quite like a Portaball, and they will be missed. CN leaves this article up as a tribute to the dreams of an American craftsman and a testimonial of his contribution to amateur astronomy.

Peter demonstrates the removable focuser board used on the 10"
at AstroFest

CN: This month in Behind the Scenes, we’re featuring an interview with Peter Smitka, the owner and founder of Mag 1 instruments.  Mag 1 offers the highly regarded PortaBall line of telescopes – telescopes that are truly like no other.  It’s unique design quite possibly makes it one of the easiest to use Newtonian/Dobsonian ever devised, and some feel they belong in a category all their own.

Hi Peter, first off, I’d like to say thanks for sitting down with us today, I appreciate it, and I know our readers do as well.   You make one of the most unique products in the industry, so I guess the logical place for us to start is to talk about – well, where you got started...

Mag 1 started in 1989 after a friend from my astronomy club asked me to built her a scope around a 12.5” mirror she had acquired from another club member.  I said I would if she would allow me to use a unusual, but very cool sphere based design I had seen executed as a 14.5” by a fellow from Ohio about six years prior.  After showing her some photos of that scope which had appeared in Telescope Making Magazine, she agreed to my “terms”  - that is I would build it without labor cost, but she would share in the cost of the parts for three – one for her, another one for me, and one I assumed would land in the s**** heap.  We took her “Ball” to a star party called AstroFest that year – and people seemed to like it enough to give it an award.  

CN: That’s how many ATM’s get hooked into building scopes – but obviously, things changed for you at some point…

Well, about six months after that, I decided to take a second one to the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific that was held in Madison, WI just to see if there would be anyone willing to buy such a telescope at the price I wanted.  Not only did I sell the one I had there, but the third one as well a week later.  So I felt there was at least enough interest to produce more as a second business (I was a life insurance professional at the time).  Gradually sales grew to the point where I was able (and quite willing) to abandon the insurance and to turn “pro”.  I now work three times as hard, for less than half the money of my former occupation --- but I smile a lot more and actually hear a thank you each time a scope is delivered – things that were distinctly absent in the insurance business. 

  Upper Tube assembly for 14" f/4.3 under construction

CN: I’ll bet.  Now Peter, the PortaBall has to be one of the most unique designs on the market, and I’d be willing to bet most of our readers have seen one at one point or another (actually, I’d be willing to bet that many of our readers have looked at them longingly as well) but for those folks who may not be familiar with your design, can you talk about it for a minute?  What makes it fundamentally different from other designs out there?  What advantages does it have?

There are several things I see as unique to the PortaBall as opposed to the other designs.  Because the sphere mount has a single lever length from rotation point (the center of the sphere) to the eyepiece, as opposed to a nested box which has two (one in azimuth, and one in altitude which constantly changes length and mechanical advantage) a sphere mount has a fluid movement without regard to the vector, thereby making one’s guiding or slewing movement in any direction direct. It means whether one is viewing at the horizon or zenith that it has the same force to move up/down, and left/right, or in a curve anywhere in the sky, allowing you to easily track satellites like the ISS. Since the whole tube assemblage also rotates with the wrist that moves it, the eyepiece intuitively winds up in the optimal position. A sphere based telescope design has additional advantages as well – it makes the most compact package when knocked down, and because many bulky portions of a nested box type mount are unnecessary, it generally is lighter than the same aperture and f/ratio than other arrangements.  The sphere mount also makes a great match for a platform type drive, and in fact, because of it’s low center of mass, it substantially reduces the weight, size and cost of one, by eliminating of much of the mass of the rocker plate and length of the base.

Additionally, Every PortaBall telescope has been completely assembled and tested under the stars before it is shipped.
CN: The construction materials are a bit different as well, are they not?

Yes, that’s one of the other things that sets a PortaBall apart from the typical nested box - the materials used in its construction.  The only wood used is in the ring part of the base, all the rest is of composite construction, non-corrosive metals, and anodized aluminum. Paint is not used as a weather sealant in my telescopes, it’s only used to ameliorate stray light. In general, I strive to use the most appropriate materials for the function w/o regard to cost – I don’t want my customers to have to “fix” their scopes to make them fully functional. I aim to build the best telescope that can be made around the sphere concept.

Anti-Dew Primary Mirror Cover

CN: What’s your design philosophy?  You’re obviously one of the premium manufacturers out there – what advantages do you see to a truly custom scope, instead of a one size fits all model?

My design philosophy is simple – build the best, using the best materials. I also start from the premise that most folks can’t use a telescope in their backyard (any more than they can ski, fish, snowmobile, fly, scuba dive, hunt, or whatever) they must take it to a special place to get good use out of them. Therefore, ease of transport in a common auto, compactness, and one man/woman manageability in movement and set-up, all weigh greatly in my design criteria. That approach does necessarily lead to it being a cut above in price, but that’s also reflected in the long term value, just like with an A-P refractor. I realize that’s not for everyone… just like everyone won’t buy a Lexus, many will want or need to buy a Ford.  I’m one who doesn’t like the same old hash warmed over, and because I’m a telescope user first, and an ATM at heart, I want things designed in, not added on like a bumper sticker.

A significant shaking out is going on in the manufacturing segment of this tiny hobby – the “I can build it cheaper guys” are going the way of the Dodo bird. Essentially there are no economies of scale (since there is no mass market) people must realize they are buying a custom made product, and that involves paying a price in time and money, and that if you pay less that’s what you get.  I realize that is not how we are used to things these days, what with nearly everything being “plug and play” or right “off the rack” but the reality of the miniscule size of our hobby, and the need for both precision and low volume make it such.  I realize that is not how we are used to getting things these days since nearly everything is “plug and play” or right “off the rack”.  But the reality of the miniscule size of our hobby, means one can’t use million dollar machines to make thousand dollar parts, to sell hundreds of units… or we must sacrifice precision for volume.

2" Mag 1 Focuser used on 8" and 10" Models

CN: Well, now that we’ve broached the concept of design – let’s talk for a minute about sales and customer support…

From a sales standpoint I’m also a bit different from the herd, in that the price of one model over the other, is set by the materials cost, plus a fair price for my labor.  Since the labor involved in all sizes is similar, it allows me to recommend the best choice for a customer based on function and his experience rather than being be biased by profitability. Added to that is the fact the optional things available for my telescopes are priced very close to my cost. They aren’t approached as profit centers, like the $700 AM-FM radio in an auto.  My approach is that they are to make a PortaBall work for your observing circumstance, and that I should be compensated for making your telescope the way you need it, without loading it with doo-dads.  I even pass my savings on to the customer when possible, as in the case of the laser set-up discount. As I’ve told my customers from day one, the last telescope I made is the best I’ve ever made, because I’m continually striving to improve them.  A buyer can always be certain they will get my best effort, and changes like my all CNC machined cells, and higher capacity batteries, thinner, faster equilibrating mirrors, or the use of advanced bearing materials, etc., all have been incorporated without fanfare or additional cost to the customer. There are a couple of intangible things that distinguish me from most other custom telescope builders, one this is currently my sole occupation - it’s not part time, or a second income – and I’m a one man band.  As such, I know every aspect of my product. It also means when you call or e-mail, you’ll get an answer from the front end of the horse and promptly. Customer service is not a department, it’s my prime business mission --- to help you enjoy astronomy with our products.  When you choose a PortaBall, I consider it a partnership, and will treat you accordingly. It is a lifetime commitment on my part.

Mirror cell inside 18" f/4.5 Prototype

CN: What’s your best selling model? I hear you’ve moved to production status on your 18”, correct?

Since the first PortaBall’s were born, the 12.5” has been my best selling model by far. I think that’s been the case for several reasons: first, because it seems to be the best compromise between light grasp (one magnitude more than an 8”, with the next equal gain being a 20”) size and weight; second because it is very eye height friendly, as I make it so the buyers individual eye height is not exceeded at the zenith, be they 5’ 2” or an NBA star; third, because it can be used with nearly every eyepiece made.  The second most popular size is the 8”, which has evolved into an f/5.5 model only.  I also make a 10 f/5, a 14.5” f/4.3, and an for the deep sky junkies who don’t own a U-Haul truck, a car friendly 18” f/4.5… the first of which are being built now.  

CN: What mirrors do you choose and why?

Optically, I’ve been fortunate to be associated with the best.  Initially my mirrors were done by Galaxy, then later by Pegasus, and now are made exclusively by Zambuto. Business decisions by the first two to make only the largest optics, prompted the move to each successor.  My secondary mirrors come from ProtoStar. I’ve chosen these vendors because they share the same passion for excellence that I do with the other parts, and not because they are the most profitable… that’s a fool’s idea of economy.  

Table Mountain Star Party with 8"

CN: What are your long term goals?  Any new products on the horizon?

I believe this hobby is morphing, as the major participant (baby boomers) are about to retire they appear to be downsizing to accommodate smaller homes and travel plans. To address their needs, I’m introducing a 6” f/5 (specifications here), that complete with tripod mount will be airline “carry-onable”.  It is described in the attached specification summary. That is intended to be my final model.  In addition, I’m working on ways to make my existing sizes more compact and even easier to use.  I also have a couple of peripheral products in development.

CN: Any closing words for our readers Peter?

My goal has never been to build the most telescopes, just to create the best for eyeball observing. That objective encompasses a broad range of factors, from the scope’s user friendliness, to transport and storage, to functionality in the field, and to image quality. Note that cost is not one of the factors. I believe quality and value dictate using the best available materials first, and the price will have to follow. My own approach to observing is that the telescope should get out of the way of experiencing the sky – it is a tool, not the reason you are there. My personal approach to observing is that of a celestial tourist, with the trip being as important as the sights along the way.  So why choose a PortaBall? Simply this, if you want the best you need to pay for the many small differences that add up to a better long term value and experience. Enjoy the ride!

Left to right 10"f/5, 6"f/5 Prototype, 12" f/5, 8" F/5.5" - B.F.S.P.

CN:  Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to sit down with us today Peter! 

For more information on Mag 1 Instruments, see their website at: http://www.mag1instruments.com/  or e-mail PSmitka@Mag1instruments.com

You can read more about Peter's decision to shut down Mag 1 in the post "Tough Reality" on their yahoo groups web site. We here at CN will miss the Portaball line of scopes, and wish Peter the best.

Clear Skies...

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