Who was your first ATM mentor?
Mine was a very unusual man, completely self-taught about mirror making and astronomy. He was Ernie Brendel, a middle aged farmer in Madison county New York, about an hour from Syracuse. I met him when I was 13, in 1956, also living on a farm nearby in a very rural area. I am not sure if he had ever gone to high school. He became interested in astronomy and decided to make a telescope. He had almost no knowledge of what had gone before him and did not realize that there were commercial kits for mirror making, like from Edmund. Or books and magazines that would have been useful. He read somewhere that you could make a curved mirror by grinding two pieces of glass together. So he wrote to Corning and asked if they could make him two round pieces of glass about 4 inches in diameter and ½ inch thick. That eventually became his first telescope. He later reused those blanks and I have them now. Not actually that round.
He read that Foucault made mirrors by grinding them together with an abrasive, but it did not say what the abrasive was. By lots of trial and error he eventually discovered the solution and also the idea of going to progressively finer grades of it. This self-taught process took years and he plugged away at it as a hobby. Farmers usually have little time for hobbies.
Eventually he made a 6 inch parabolic mirror and mastered the knife edge test. He claims that over the years he made every mistake possible. When I met him he was working on a 10 inch mirror and he said he thought it might be beyond his abilities. By that time he knew about Edmund kits and suggested I get the 6 inch one and that he would help me with it. When it finally came in the mail I could not contain my 13 year old excitement and quickly ran through all the different stages of mirror making in just a very few days, all by myself. I then proudly showed him my final result – a 6 inch mirror where the outer one inch was only partially ground and polished. But I couldn’t wait to get it aluminized and use it. So that’s what we did. He wisely made no comment about the quality of my work.
Ernie was also a rock hound and collected all kinds of mineral samples, which he showed me. We met at his place several times, not a lot, and he was such a big inspiration to me to go into optics as a profession, which I have been doing as a lens designer for the last 54 years now. One big regret I have is that I did not ever go back and check in with him when I was an optics major at the University of Rochester, and tell him how much he had inspired me. At the time I was not aware of it but later I realized that he had been dying for someone like me to come into his life. He was a small time farmer in a remote area with almost no education but a passion for astronomy and telescopes and absolutely nobody to share that with. As a self-absorbed 13 and 14 year old I did not realize that I was just as important to him as he was to me. My takeaway now from this experience is how a mentor can change someone’s life, mainly by example and generosity more than any actual information transferred.
I have tried to be a mentor professionally to young lens designers whenever possible. Thank you Ernie for your great example.