Part 4 - The RTMC Era (1969 - 1974)
by Bob Stephens

Over the past few years, I have been documenting the history of our fair society. Past installments can be found on our web site at http://www.rivastro.org/ras-history.php. Our history can be broken up into eras. Previous articles included information on our predecessor, the Citrus Belt Amateur Astronomers; the formation and early years of the RAS from 1957 to 1964 which I call the Kaiser Era; and the start of the Cliff Holmes Era from 1965-1968. I have a lot of difficulty coming up with a name for the era in this report. Its hallmark was the creation and development of the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference. However, other important events include several comets and the activities surrounding the Apollo Moon landings. I almost settled on calling it the Apollo Era, but finally switched to the RTMC Era.


The officers for most of this period were a tight knit group consisting of Cliff Holmes as President, Bill Smith as Vice President, John Parks as Secretary/Treasurer, and Warren Estes as Chief Observer. This was the “Classic” lineup, kind of like the original members of some classic rock and roll band. Cliff Holmes was legendary for his A-type magnetic personality. Warren Estes, who had been an RAS member from the start, was also well known for his telescope building and public efforts. Bill Smith was one of those steadying influences who also liked to spend many a Friday or Saturday night showing off the Moon or planets to the public.

Grazing Occultations

The last article included a lot of information concerning the club’s grazing occultation activities, which actually lasted from the mid 1960’s to the late 1970’s. During 1969 to 1974, the RAS was still very much involved in observing grazing occultations of stars by the Moon. This is where the limb of the Moon slides along a bright star, occulting it with mountains. At the time, the Apollo program was underway and not much was known about the surface of the Moon, its size or orbit. By measuring a star sliding behind mountains and valleys along the edge of the Moon, the Moon’s profile and orbit could be accurately determined. The RAS conducted seven more grazing occultation expeditions between 1969 and 1974.

Alvord Observatory: In the late 1960's and early 1970's, the RAS operated the Alvord Observatory behind the Alvord School District offices with regular Star Parties for the public.

John Parks and Cliff Holmes unload his telescope at the 1974 RTMC.

Alvord Observatory

Throughout the years, having an observatory has been a dream of RAS members. Most of us don’t know that the RAS had the use of an observatory from the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s. From all accounts it was a very successful partnership with the Alvord Unified School District. The observatory was located on District property, the structure provided by the district and the 8-inch telescope provided and operated by the RAS.

The Apollo Moon launch’s were occurring during this period and the public was very excited about the Apollo program and astronomy in general. Regular public Star Parties were held at Alvord Observatory where people got to look at the Moon, Planets and the Sun. Bill Smith even mounted an early video camera on the telescope to give views of the Moon and planets. The public also came out to attempt to watch the lunar orbiters on their way to the Moon. In an article published in the November 24, 1969 Press Enterprise, it was reported that a large number of people attempted to view Apollo 12, but were thwarted by clouds. It was also reported that Cliff Holmes was one of seven people in the United States to have seen Apollo 11 on its way to the Moon.

The RAS learned a lesson on ownership of observatories when Alvord Observatory was dismantled and turned into a storage building in the mid 1970’s.

RAS member Gerald Fifer won a Merit Award for his 10" F/4.
He later won an award for this telescope at Stellafane.

18 year old Randall Wilcox with the first version of his 10-inch telescope.

Star Parties & Tours

During this period of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the RAS scheduled regular Star Parties at its Gavalan Hills site for the public and college classes. The RAS also took its show on the road with a series of Star Parties around Southern California. They went to Stony Ridge Observatory, behind Mt. Wilson a number of times for overnight trips. Many Star Parties were also held at Onyx Peak, Ford Observatory next to Table Mountain, Camp Roosevelt near San Jacinto, Joshua Tree National Monument, and in Running Springs. Trips were scheduled to view Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17; to watch lunar eclipses; and to do grazing occultations. These guys were no slouches.

All this was in addition to various Outreach Programs. The club regularly attended scout overnight camping trips to show the sky and various comets to scout groups. They did outreaches at the Tyler Mall, and many outreach programs at local schools. In 1970 was the first Star Party the RAS held a at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, in support of a group headed by Ashley McDermott which was to later become the Astronomical Society of the Desert. One of these COD Star Parties was infamous for having the sprinklers come on in the middle of the night. Finally, as discussed later, the most famous Outreach Programs were a series of Star Parties on top of the Palm Springs Tram early in 1974.

In 1969, the RAS was treated to a tour of Rockwell where they got to climb into a mockup of the Apollo capsule.

The first RTMC was held at Riverside Community College in 1969.
Cliff Holmes is in the foreground of the "Telescope Field".


During these years, many prominent speakers came including Earnest Lorenz, director of the Big Bear Solar Observatory, Dr. Harold Zirin of Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories, Dr. Peter Gottlieb of JPL, Robert Goff of Perkin Elmer, Tom Cragg of Mt. Wilson, Dr. William Kaufman, the Director of Griffith Observatory, and Charles Kowal of Cal Tech. Ultimately, the most controversial speaker was Dr. Halton Arp of Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories. He spoke on “Quasars, Galaxies and Redshifts.”

Through 1970, meetings held at Victoria Savings and Loan on Friday evenings. 1971 was the first year the RAS met at RCC in room Q-134, on Friday evenings. This was the start of a 30 year relationship with Riverside Community College. The RAS started meeting on Saturday evenings in 1974.

Some telescopes were displayed indoors
at the 1970 RTMC.
John Dobson's psychedelic telescopes
make their first appearance.

John Dobson's large dobsonian telescopes show up for the 1971 RTMC.
He claimed if you can't sleep in it,
it is not a real telescope.

Riverside Telescope Makers Conference

1969 was the year of Woodstock and the height of the counter culture. It was also one of the most important years for the RAS, when they started the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference. Simply called the “Telescope Makers Conference,” this first event was held April 19 and 20 at RCC and featured six speakers including Tom Cave and Chick Capen, while attracting 135 attendees for the two day event. Telescopes were set up outside next to the planetarium.

In 1972, the RAS hosted the joint Western Amateur Astronomers and Association of Lunar and
Planetary Observers convention at UCR. Cliff Holmes is kneeling in the first row.

Bob Stephens at the 30" F/5
Stoney Ridge Telescope

The conference was so successful that the RAS decided to repeat it in the following year. Five speakers, including Bob Cox of Sky & Telescope gave talks on telescope making. This was the first year that telescope judging occurred and 15 of the 50 telescopes present were entered in competition. First and Second place was awarded. Bob Cox later convinced Cliff Holmes to make all awards of equal value. This was also the first year that telescope manufactures had displays, an important difference between the RTMC and the only other major Star Party that existed at the time; Stellafane.

By 1971, attendance had grown to 201, and seven speakers gave presentations on various aspects of telescope making. Even in its third year, it was still being referred to as “The Riverside Convention” or the “West Coast Conference.” By now, “counter coulter” telescopes started making an appearance in the form of John Dobson’s large, psychedelic telescopes. It must have been fun seeing the befuddled expressions from our suit and tie guys with their white-tubed telescopes when they first say the flower-power telescopes decorated with peace signs. In 1972, the RTMC continued to gain renown and grow as it attracted 240 people and had six speakers. The first non-telescope making talk was given on astrophotography.

1973 was a turning point for the RTMC, when it was moved to Isomata, the USC Music Campus in San Jacinto so that participants could enjoy the dark mountain skies. This move had an affect on attendance and participation, but set the stage for growth in later years. One can just imagine some of the by then, “Old Timers” grousing about having to go to such primitive conditions as an outdoors camp. About 200 people attended bringing 42 telescopes. Only a partial list of speakers now exists, but you can already see the divergence of subjects away from strictly telescope making.

Brian Koff and Bob Stephens with Bob's first telescope at the 1974 RTMC. Look at that hair
- the envy of Bulletin Editors.

Comet Bennett as photographed by Cliff Holmes in the morning skies of April, 1970.

Following on the success of the 1973 conference, the 1974 RTMC was again held at Camp Isomata. For the first time, it was held in May on Memorial Day Weekend. That was the New Moon weekend, but it took a few more years for Memorial Day weekend to become the annual tradition. The RTMC was really moved to May to improve the chances for clear weather. Again, about 200 people attended bringing about 50 telescopes. Amazingly, 43 of them were entered into the Merit Awards. My poor excuse for a first telescope was not amongst those entered. Eleven speakers gave presentations during the two day event.

The Telescope Field at the 1974 RTMC.


During this period, there was no shortage of comets. The best was in April 1970 in the morning sky when Comet Bennett stunned a lot of people shinning at -1 magnitude with a 10 degree tail. The observing event of 1974 was Comet Kohoutek. Even though Kohoutek was reported as a bust by the press, the comet still reached a respectable 4th magnitude in the evening sky. The RAS put forth a gargantuan effort with Star Parties held each night from January 7 to 21 at the top of the Palm Springs Tramway. Several other Kohoutek Star Parties were held over the next few months, including my first Star Party near Lake Hemet.

Comet Kahoutek as photographed by Cliff Holmes from the top of the Palm Springs Tram on January 9, 1974.

If you are seeing this picture in color, you will realize that Randy Wilcox really admired John Dobson. What's with the warp engines?


In 1974 the RAS hosted the Western Amateur Astronomers (WAA) and Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) convention at the University of California, Riverside. This was a very prestigious event warranting a write-up in Sky & Telescope.

In the early 70’s, a young group of amateur astronomers joined the club. Amongst others, Brad Dischner, Randall Wilcox and I belonged to this group. We started having summer camping Star Parties for several years and provided a core of young people to become officers in the now world renown astronomy club.

More History:  Roots of RAS   1957-1964   1965-1968   1975-1982   1983-1991   1992-1998

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