David Kriege is one of the true pioneers in the world of amateur astronomy. Dave is the owner of Obsession Telescopes. Many people believe that Obsession is – and has been for 2 decades – the premier Dobsonian telescope manufacturer in the world. As the Obsession web site says, Obsession truly merges old world craftsmanship with current technology. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Dave some questions. It was a real honor.
How did you get started building telescopes?
Eighth grade science project. My dad and I built a little 4" reflector using optics from Edmund Scientific. My first look was at Venus. I got hooked on the stars and I built a 6" and a 10" reflector. You know, typical Newtonians – both f8's with equatorial mounts. I built myself a little observatory. I did that in high school and that's pretty much how I got started.
How long did it take before you started building scopes for sale?
Oh, there was about 20 years when I did nothing. You know all through college and dental school and getting my family started – the house and all that. I was completely out of the hobby. And then in 1987, I believe it was, I decided I wanted to get back into the hobby. I didn't really know what had transpired in the last 20 years, so I went to a star party. I went to Astrofest in Illinois. I think it was 1987. And they had these things called Dobsonians – these huge telescopes guys had built using 17.5" Coulter mirrors and I was just amazed. They were so cool. They had these big optics and light pollution filters and all these innovations – a Telrad. I thought this was so cool so I bought all the old back issues of Telescope Making magazine and I read up that Winter. That's when I built my first telescope – Obsession 1. I brought it to Astrofest in 1988.
Do you still have Obsession 1?
No. I don't know where it is. The last time I saw it was at the Winter Star Party about 10 years ago.
You have a reputation for building some of the finest Dobsonian reflectors available anywhere. What is your company's philosophy?
Like I said in the ads we're obsessed with the best. Basically, I try to produce telescopes that would be something I would like to own. In fact, I generally own all these things and I build them to what I would consider my standards or something that would make me happy.
What kinds of things make an Obsession telescope unique?
(laughing) They're not unique anymore – everybody copies me. They used to be unique but right now gosh there's probably 20 Obsession clones out there. But, in summary, the things that defined my design and separated us from anything else that had come before were large diameter altitude bearings, low friction laminates – no one had ever quantified or tested laminates for friction. So, the bearing geometry, the anti-friction laminates and the open tailgate. In other words, behind the primary mirror it's completely open so that air can circulate around the mirror and keep it at the ambient temperature. Those are the three biggest innovations. Everything else was much smaller. Reverse counterweight kit on the Ultra Compacts now. The virtual mirror box – a few other things but in the beginning it was mostly bearing geometry, laminates, and the open cell tailgate. That's really what defined an Obsession back then.
There's a waiting period between the initial order and delivery when a person buys an Obsession telescope. But, it seems to me that period is shorter than what you would have with many telescope vendors. How do you provide your scopes so quickly?
Well, I have a rolling inventory of 200 scopes. I've invested well over a million dollars in product inventory. I constantly purchase hundreds of optics at a time. Generally, we build everything in 220-quantity campaigns. And that means I decide I'm going to build 50 12's, 50 18's, 50 20's, whatever. I lay that all out and I plan a 2 year campaign. That way I generally have things very close to completion or in stock. Americans don't like to wait, you know. Once they make the decision they want to have it yesterday.
Who supplies your optics now?
Galaxy (Galaxy Optics) and Optical Mechanics (Optical Mechanics, Inc.). I've used those guys for about 20 years.
How did you choose them?
John Hudek at Galaxy and myself started together. He supplied me with my first 20" mirror. And then when I came to Astrofest with Obsession 1 everybody was so excited about it word got back to him about my design. So, he purchased my design. We contracted it and he was going to provide royalties for me and he would produce a telescope. But he got so busy selling optics he didn't have time for the telescope end of it. So, I thought what the heck – I'll do it. So, I started building the scopes and I was using his optics. We did that for about 10 years and then there was no way he could keep up with my demand. I came across Optical Mechanics and they have a much larger capacity. They have quite a few machines and about 10 employees and a much, much bigger operation. They have provided the bulk of my optics for I would say the last 8 or 10 years.
What size telescope is currently your biggest seller?
That would probably be the 18" Ultra Compact at this time.
Many amateurs enjoy star hopping but it seems that more and more people are taking advantage of digital setting circles like the Argo Navis and goto drive systems like ServoCat. What percentage of your customers choose the goto approach?
I'd say nearly all of them get the digital setting circles whether they get the drive or not. As far as getting a drive, I would say at least half. Probably around half.
What are the pros and cons of an Ultra Compact telescope vs. a Classic design telescope?
It's a whole different philosophy. The Classic scopes are built with the warmth and beauty of natural wood. They're very robust. They are much heavier. They are much more forgiving as far as hanging cameras on them. They take quite a bit of abuse. You can kick them around and they still work great 10 years or 20 years later. They're much better if you're going to do imaging simply because they have more mass and they're more stable. That said, the Ultra Compact is designed to appeal to people that have to leave the city and go to a dark site and they have a small car. They can't haul a Classic telescope so they need something that will fit in the back of their Honda. That's why I designed the Ultra Compact. Especially now with the energy situation everybody is starting to drive smaller cars all the time.
How are the sales of the Ultra Compacts compared to the Classic design?
They're about equal.
Yea. We have a lot of people who have their own observatories and they generally opt for the Classic.
One thing I've noticed, is that there seems to be an increasing emphasis on imaging in amateur astronomy. Do you think there's been a drop off in visual-only observers?
I don't know. That's a tough one. When I go to star parties there's still a lot of visual astronomy going on. There are usually a couple rows of people with trailers and $20,000 or $40,000 of high-end equipment. You know, 4 or 5 laptops and 6 cameras. You know – thousands of LED flashing lights on everything. And cables running everywhere. It looks like Mission Control. Everybody's got a laptop and a lot of people want to do imaging. The software is getting so good now you can do some pretty incredible stuff and go pretty deep. I think both hobbies will always be there. You know imaging is a lot easier now with CCD than it was with film. Film was incredibly difficult. You had to have the patience of a saint to do film. If you have any desire to be an imager it's much much easier now.
Do you see more people doing imaging with large reflectors?
I don't know that I'd say more but there's a certain percent. You've probably got 5 percent of the guys out there that do it. Some do live video work. Some do CCD work. But generally most of the people that buy what I have are observers like me. They enjoy what I call the wonder and beauty of visual astronomy. You just enjoy looking at things. You enjoy finding them in the finder and star hopping to them and looking at them and comparing them to the literature and the photographs in the books. To me that's the real joy. You're actually looking at the object. The metaphor I always use is would you rather look at a beautiful woman or would you rather look at a picture of her? Take your pick. Would you rather go to a live concert or do you want to watch it on TV? Go to the baseball game and really see the World Series in person or the Olympics or do you just want to sit at home and read about it? That's what it is.
I went to NEAF this year. I saw one vendor with a 36" Dob and another vendor with a 40" Dob and I'm curious – do you still make telescopes that are larger than 25"?
No, I discontinued the 30's and the 36's a couple years ago. I just don't have the time or the energy for those. They're just brutally big and I'm really not interested in that market. It's such a teeny tiny market and I'm too old for that.
You are an author as well as an entrepreneur. Do you find that people are still interested in building their own Dobsonian telescopes?
Yea. Book sales are still strong. The book's been out since 1997. I'm still selling parts to people. People ask me for advice. Every week I get a couple emails from people who are building a scope. So, yea I think there's still a substantial amount of ATMs (amateur telescope makers) out there. It is encouraging.
As far as Obsession goes, what innovations can we look forward to in the next year or two?
I don't know. The Ultra Compact wasn't even invented two years ago. I just dreamed that up out of thin air. With the 22" Ultra Compact last fall, I'm just enjoying playing around with those and refining the product. At this time I don't have any new designs.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me!