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The Good Tasco

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The good Tasco? Ain’t that what the bright boys call an “oxymoron?” Wouldn’t you need to be a moron o’ some kind to call one o’ them stinkin’ Tasco, TRASHCO Department Store telescopes “good?” Yeah. Except…there was a time when Tasco was importing excellent telescopes. Oh, maybe not quite up there with Unitron and Cave, but occasionally close, very close indeed. Notice I said “imported,” not “made.” Back in The Day, I imagined a giant Tasco factory in some far-away Asian city. Something resemblin’ the set for a Fu Manchu movie. Opium den ‘round back. I was wrong. Truth is, Tasco has never made a blessed thing.

“Tasco” was the company George Rosenfield founded in 1954 as the Tanross Supply Company of Miramar, Florida. His simple goal was importing fishing tackle and similar small items for post-war leisure-crazy Americans. As the 1950s rocked-around-the-clock, George both shortened his outfit’s name, and changed his product focus. To optics; first in the form of binoculars and other “sport” optics. By the dawn of the 1960s and the Space Age, George was also selling astronomical telescopes from a variety of Japanese manufacturers to starry-eyed kids (and adults). The reason there were, yes, good Tascos was the wise decisions George and his compadres made as to exactly which scopes they would bring-in.

The choices Tasco made for its astronomical telescope suppliers are today a litany of excellence: Royal Optical, Goto, Towa, Carton, and more. You want irony, though? None of these outfits were thought of highly by American amateur astronomers—heck, the average Joe or Jane amateur (most often “Joe” in them benighted times) wouldn’t pay two nickels, a bottle cap, and a dead frog for any Japanese telescope. Strange as it may seem to you younguns, well into the 60s U.S. consumers considered the words “Made in Japan” to be synonymous with “cheap ****.” No matter what we thought, though, the fact was these companies were producin’ excellent telescopes. Actually, many of us were already praising Japanese made scopes to high heaven--we jus’ didn’t know it. Unitron, like Tasco, was also really “only” an importer, and all its scopes/parts also came from Japan (with the infrequent exception of an occasional U.S.-made objective).

If you’re still not convinced the Tasco of the 1960s and 1970s was sumpin special, consider the Tasco 20TE “Observatory.” This luverly 4 ¼-inch f/15 refractor was made by Goto and used an objective fabricated by Carton. Accessories? In addition to its beautiful GEM mount, which was equipped with an electric RA drive and an impressive pedestal for support, there was a brace of accessories including, among other cool stuff, two (!) star diagonals, and a boxful of eyepieces in which lurked an Orthoscopic, the ne plus ultra of oculars when Unk was young(er). Price? That was hardly Department Store either. Try 950 smackers in the late 1960s, which equates to at least 4500 small 2008 dollars. That don’t sound like the Tasco you know from Wally World, now does she? As you might expect, the 20TE is a highly sought-after telescope today; one you won’t buy for 15 bucks on the ‘Bay.

What was my personal experience with Tasco telescopes? Despite the above enthusiasm, it was distinctly mixed. One thing to remember about the company’s products, even the old ones, when you’re standing transfixed by some white tube wonder down to the flea market, is that even way back when Tasco sold junk. Unk’s first telescope, a 3-inch Tasco Newt on a little fork mount, was pretty, but its mirror was punk. The Moon was OK, deep sky objects were passable, but what I really wanted to see, Jupiter and Saturn, looked like somethin’ my Aunt Lulu’s poodle-dog threw up. Luckily, this kind of “quality” was mostly reserved for the cheapest Tascos, not the “Observatory” or the Lunagrosso.

In the mid 1970s, Arkansas’ Little Rock Air Force Base, where I was stationed, was a thriving and growing concern despite the post-Vietnam military depression. It was host not only to Unk’s outfit, SAC’s 308th Strategic Missile Wing (Titan II), but to a large and active Military Airlift Command C130 force. That bein’ the case, LRAFB was blessed with a large and modern Base Exchange. Think “Wal-Mart” before there was a Wal-Mart. One of the features of this big “BX” was a well-stocked photo/optical department. Once I convinced myself I needed an “interim” scope of some kind to use when I wasn't on "alert" as a SAC Missile Combat Crew member and while savin’ up for a big honkin’ Cave Newtonian, I moseyed over and had a look. Warn’t no trouble findin' Tascos there; the store’s large and somewhat motley scope collection contained plenty of Tascos and Jasons in every variety and color imaginable. A quick scan turned up one I figured might do, a Tasco 4.5-inch reflector which at the time was designated the “11TE-5.”

The 11TE-5, which is better remembered by us astro-old-timers as the peculiarly but memorably named “Lunagrosso” (“big Moon,” I reckon), was a 4.5-inch aperture f/8 Newtonian. This is a good size; one that’s exceedingly portable but capable of showing the basic wonders of the sky, both planets and Messiers. While a 4.5 loses out to a 6-inch scope, it does not do so by much. Optically, the Lunagrossos were not bad, not bad at all. Yes, the Pyrex primary was saddled with a spherical figure, which placed an upper limit on its resolution, but this sphere was a good one and the images it produced compared favorably with the excellent ones of its more famous contemporary, the 4.25-inch Edmund Scientific “Palomar Junior,” which also possessed a spherical primary. The Pal Junior did have a larger focal ratio, about f/11, and was thus capable of slightly better wave-front performance. In practice, the optical quality of the two scopes was nearly indistinguishable, and the Lunagrosso pulled ahead a bit in the field-of-view department, at least.

The 11TE’s secondary mirror was a 13/16-inch elliptical one that was well suited to the scope’s slightly tall rack and pinion focuser. Both primary and secondary were in easily collimatable cells, with the secondary featuring a real spider instead of the lousy single-stalk-attached-to-the-focuser dealie of the Edmund Pal. The Tasco’s tube was finished a gleaming, beautiful white (much nicer than the red paintjobs the company later favored) that sported sturdy and attractive black tube end rings. Most amazing thing by today’s Department Store scope standards? The lack of plastic. Thinking back, trying to access them pore Rebel Yell soaked brain cells, the only thing I think may have been plastic on the OTA was the focuser knobs.

Mount-wise, the German equatorial furnished with the Lunagrosso was not overkill, but was sufficient if you didn’t insist on trying the scope at the 300x advertised on the box. It was a nice little mount with smooth movement in right ascension and declination, good slow motions (via the ubiquitous flexible cables), and a passably stable (black) wooden tripod equipped with an accessory tray. While no clock drive was included with the standard scope, the mount did feature a gear that would allow it to be driven in RA by an optional motor. The all-metal GEM head was nicely appointed and probably closer in size to one of today’s Chinese EQ-2 mounts than the EQ-1s seen on most current Department Store GEM reflectors.

The Lunagrosso was not lavishly equipped with accessories. Two eyepieces were provided, an H20mm and an H6mm. Then, as now (even if well made), these 2-element Huygenians had small apparent fields and only fair eye-relief. The 20mm was useable, the 6mm, ridiculous. Do I have to say the Lunagrosso’s eyepieces and focuser were of the .965-inch “Japanese standard” format? Oh, how you gonna get an f/8 4.5-inch up to the claimed 300x with them eyepieces? With a Barlow, of course. The Barlow lens shipped with the Lunagrosso was about as useful as the useless ones found with today’s ****-o-scopes—well, maybe a little better than that, I reckon.

Other stuff? The Lunagrossos, every one I’ve ever seen from the 1960s to the 1990s—white or red tubes—have been equipped with too small 5x24 finders. In the 1970s, these finders were still optically acceptable and made of metal, but as the 80s came in and disco suddenly sucked, the finder de-evolved into a laughable stopped-down single-element objective-plastic-body job. There wasn’t much else in the Lunagrosso box other than a right nice metal aperture cap. The cover’s small cutout with removable cap was intended to reduce the aperture of the scope for use with Tasco’s (dangerous) eyepiece Solar filter, I suppose, but there was, if I recollect, no Solar filter shipped with my mid-seventies scope. There was a marginally useful Moon filter.

All this sounds good by today’s Department Store standards, but I stood there in the BX aisle for quite a while feeling skittish, like an antelope ready to dash at the faintest whiff of lion. Based on my experience with my bad ol’ 3-inch Tasco, the company was indeed a predator, luring its victims with visions of 300x multicolored nebula glory. Hell, I, who’d already done the Messier with my Palomar Junior; ground, polished, and figured a 6-inch mirror or three; and constructed my own workable if not elegant “pipe mount” was way beyond Tascos, wasn’t I?

Yeah, I did have big boy scopes back home in Possum Swamp. B-U-T… There seemed little chance of retrieving either my Pal Junior or my homebrew 6-inch Newt any time soon, and there—right there--was a nice-lookin’ 4.5-inch telescope staring me in the face, whisperin’, “Buy me, Rod, BUY ME.” Let’s be honest: the main thing that gave me pause was the price. Like the 20TE, if not to quite that degree, this Good Tasco was not cheap. The Lunagrosso sold for $89.95 in 1960 when it was first imported, and the price of this Towa-made scope had slowly climbed to somewhat more than $150.00 by the mid 70s, about $575.00 today, not an inconsiderable sum for a young GI. Luckily, the Base Exchange price tag read “$100.00,” still a lot, but doable, barely.

I clutched the Tasco like a little drowning person grabbing for a lifeline. That’s exactly what I was, too; I’d hadn’t had a look through anything but binoculars in over a year (I had seen magnificent Comet West with a pair of, yep, Tasco 10x50s). I needed this telescope. As I manhandled the (even then) garish Tasco box into my shopping cart, my eyes lit on an AC clock drive hanging on a nearby peg. 30 bucks ($50.00 in a civilian shop)? “OK,” though I wasn’t sure whether I wanted or needed such a thing.

Even in those days, one sure thing was the New Scope Curse. My act of buying the Lunagrosso had attracted not just clouds, but the threat of truly severe weather. Back at my digs, a glance out the window revealed not just overcast, but a dark, almost black line along the horizon that portended one of central Arkansas’ often awesome thunderstorms—which not infrequently came equipped with a line of tornados. Flicking on my trusty Sears 12-inch black and white portable TV (in the white plastic disco-style cabinet), I tuned-in Channel 7, KATV. They had already broken into The Gong Show with weather warnings, and it became obvious I wouldn’t be able to observe squat this evenin’. At least I could admire new baby. She looked right COOL with the lights off and my black light on (of course I had one).

That’s not all I could do. There was good reading material on hand. In addition to the flimsy little instruction pamphlet that came with the scope—which was sufficient, nevertheless, for gettin’ the simple Lunagrosso put together--I was surprised to find an honest-to-god astronomy book in the box: A Key to Worlds Beyond (1966) by Arthur P. Smith of the Astronomical League. This 62 page guide was amazingly well-written, and is still treasured by many former Tasco owners today, long after their telescopes have returned to dust (or rust). “Hmm, not near as good as The New Handbook of the Heavens,” I grumbled (the book that came with the Pal Junior). But I soon found myself not just browsing, but learning. Maybe young Rod didn’t know quite as much about the astronomy game as he thought he did. So passed a stormy night with a new scope.

Next evenin’? Cloudy again. In fact, I was not able to get my new scope our under the stars for another week and a half. The only clear spell before that was, wouldn’t you know it, when I was on Alert Tour at Launch Complex 373-4. Not that I hadn’t done a little lookin’-- through the windows at telephone poles and the distant tree line. Images looked purty good, especially with the lower power eyepiece, but well I knew only the sky will reveal “good” or “bad” when it comes to telescopes. I was in an agony of suspense, but the night finally did come when it was clear (albeit with a gibbous Moon in the sky).

I plunked my pretty new telescope down in a spot with a clear view of the fat Moon and, with trembling hand, inserted the H20 ocular, centered Luna in the finder, pressed my hungry eye to the eyepiece, and saw—nuttin. At first I wondered whether the finder alignment I had done (on a distant power pole insulator) had been accurate enough, whether the target had been too close and caused parallax problems. Nope. It helps to take the aperture cap off the scope. Now I saw something--a bright, white blur.

A careful turn of a focus knob, first in one direction and then the other, delivered the goods. The terminator stood out in stark relief with excellent contrast and sharpness. What else did I notice? Focusing required a light touch or the mount got the shakes in a hurry, even with a 20mm eyepiece. My impression at the time was that the mount was decidedly less stable than the Pal Junior’s GEM, but, in retrospect, there was not much difference. The Edmund’s mount, despite looking hefty was hardly the Rock of Gibraltar. One area where my new scope was clearly inferior was in its eyepieces. When I got tired of the 44x view of Luna in the 20mm, I fished out the H6mm, which would deliver about 140x, and gave it a try. Not so hotsky. Maybe not quite as bad as the .965 6mm Edmund Ramsden I’d got for the 3-inch Tasco one Christmas, but close. Nearly zero eye relief, an apparent field to match that, putrid edge of field sharpness, and center-of-field performance that was nothing to write home about.

I didn’t panic. I knew enough about eyepieces, especially cheap, crummy eyepieces to be fairly sure that was the problem. I did resolve to check collimation again, though a quick look had shown it to be, surprisingly, pretty close out of the box. Back in went the 20mm. While it was not perfect either—also deficient in eye relief and AFOV--it was derned sharp, with the field edge more than acceptable.

I loved the Moon then just as I do now, but after admirin’ her silv’ry countenance for a good half-hour, I began to wonder “what else?” Over in the west, creeping toward the horizon with Gemini, was Saturn. Not exactly well placed, but what the hell? Over to the Ringed Wonder we went. In the 20mmH, the view was quite similar to what I was accustomed to in the Pal Junior with a 25mm Kellner--sweet, that is. With the rings nearly “open,” Cassini’s Division stood out beautifully. There was also some banding visible on the disk, which I thought was actually a little easier to see than it was in the Pal. Despite the eyepiece’s obvious shortcomings, I inserted the 6mm—Saturn cried out for more power. Acceptable, barely. Maybe looked a little better than the Moon. “Hmmm…how about that little Barlow?” Out went the 6mm, in went the 20mm and the Barlow. Not too good. Slightly superior to the 6mm? Perhaps. Not by much.

I continued to ogle Saturn, and came to appreciate the Lunagrosso’s mount. It’s RA slow motion control, anyway. Turning it produced almost no shaking in contrast to the constant and severe vibrations caused by nudging the Pal to track a planet at anything but the lowest magnifications. Despite just casually adjusting the altitude of the mount’s polar axis and pointing it approximately north, I was able to follow Saturn for quite a while with before an adjustment via the declination slo-mo control became necessary. I did give the AC powered clock drive a try (by means of a mile-long extension cord). It worked, but seemed like more trouble than it was worth for such casual viewing with such a casual telescope.

I just looked and looked, going back and forth between Luna and Saturn, and became ever more proud of my Lunagrosso. When I finally called it a night and hauled the scope back inside—a much more pleasant experience than wrestling the Pal Junior’s pedestal indoors--I was amazed to discover my mechanical-digital clock radio read 12:30. It seemed as if I’d only been outside for 15 minutes at most. Oh, how pleased was Unk; I had taken a chance on a Department Store scope and it had actually worked out. Despite the cheap eyepieces’ problems—which I’d expected—I’d had some amazing views. The Tasco far exceeded my expectations. For the first time in a long time, I’d almost had my fill of observing--for one night, anyway. Sure, I hungered for the deep sky, and in time would cart my new love up into the dark Ozark Mountains, but for now I was satisfied. Time to crack open a Hamm’s, flick an imaginary speck of dust off the Lunagrosso’s tube, and tune-in Tomorrow with Tom Snyder.

What happened to my Lunagrosso? That’s a mystery. Somewhere, sometime over the next decade in the course of many moves and one divorce it disappeared. I will tell y’all one thing: I didn’t sell it, give it away, or discard it. Yeah, when I went on to a Cave and, shortly thereafter, began my long-running love affair with Schmidt Cassegrains, the Tasco faded into the background a smidge. Not completely, though; it still got used frequently as a grab ‘n go scope. The Tasco showed me countless wonders and took me through some fairly lonely times. I’m sorry I don’t even have a picture of it left, but, really, I don’t need one. In my mind’s eye I can still see the Moon just as she appeared on that long ago night with my wonderful new telescope.

What happened to the Lunagrosso? I wasn’t the only person Tasco made happy with the 11TE. I’d guess thousands of astronomers, amateur and professional, got their start with the Tasco. Even those owners for whom astronomy was a fleeting interest wedged between pet rocks and mood rings remember their scopes fondly, I’ve found. What killed the Lunagrosso was not lack of popularity, but too much of it. The same thing that killed a lot of other scopes: Comet Halley. By the mid 80s, Tasco found itself faced with both more competition and more possibilities. The main possibility being the chance o’ makin’ oodles of dollars from a suddenly scope-mad public.

To do that, they had to keep up pricewise with the Jasons, and Focals, and Bushnells that were crowding store shelves, and way undercut “better” brands, like Bausch and Lomb, which were suddenly being peddled in America’s shoppin’ malls too. To that end, by the mid 1980s Tasco was importing the cheapest telescopes they could put their paddy paws on. Goto and Towa were fading memories as the company searched Taiwan for the lowest of the lowballs. The Lunagrosso transitioned from white tube to red tube, and gained ever more plastic as the 80s wound down into the 90s. It was still better than the mutant 60mm refractors Tasco was bringing-in, sure, but that was only a matter of degree.

What happened to Tasco post Halley? Not much. Unlike some other scope makers, they apparently made a nice pot of money and continued on their merry way. By the mid 1990s, when ol’ Mr. Rosenfield sold out, Tasco was doing 110 mill a year. Hell, as I talked about in the last installment of this here blog, “Telescope Anxiety,” Tasco was ridin’ so high by the end of the decade that they went out and bought themselves Celestron (in 1998). That was the high point, though, and the plunge into bankruptcy in the new century was sudden and steep. But not fatal.

All Tasco ever was was a NAME, nothing more, and that name still had and still has value. Despite the company having passed through a couple of hands after flamin’ out, it’s still alive today—for good or ill. The brightly colored boxes still draw dreaming buyers with promises of wonder, but, alas, the scopes in these boxes have a much harder time delivering even a taste of that wonder than the old ones did. Every time Wally World stocks up on scopes— in my area usually only at Christmas—I can’t help wandering over for a look at the current 4.5-inch Newts, the Luminova and Spacestation. I don’t know what I expect. The Lunagrosso is gone and she ain’t never comin’ back. I know that; still I can’t help feeling a little sad.

If any of the above has piqued your interest in Tasco (or any of the underappreciated but good imported scopes of the 60s – 70s) have I got a great resource for you: Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes Forum. There you can read about and discuss 11TEs and 20TEs and many more to yore little heart’s content. Another great place to read about ‘em is in the pages of the Rosette Gazette, the newsletter of the Rose City Astronomers. Browse through the back issues; several have excellent and erudite articles on these old and (till recently) ignored ol’ scopes.


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