The Big Lathe: History and a Mystery

January 06, 2019

Did it or didn’t it?

Ylab isn’t the only group haunting the DDO. We’re responsible for the strange sounds emanating from the basement – the things that go bump in the nights we are there. OK, more than bumping. Sparking, zapping, banging… On the upper floors we have the Royal Astromical Society of Canada Toronto Center (RASC), and the DDO Defenders (DDOD), delivering great astronomy programs for adults, families and kids. We often see them hosting hordes of Scouts and Girl Guides earning their astronomy badges.

Astronomers are often makers. We know that from our telescope makers night a few years ago. Our friend Eric from RASC, upon reading our post on the Big Lathe, put up a theory that the lathe was used to make the 19-inch telescope sitting in one of the domes on top of the DDO administration building. Eric pointed us to this 1930 RASC Journal paper by R.K. Young on the design and construction of that telescope. Young built it himself. That paper has become required reading for telescope makers.

Young was more than a telescope builder. He was Director of the DDO from 1935-1945, and, according to RASC’s bio, an astronomer’s astronomer. He had a big role in the design of the DDO’s flagship 74-inch telescope.

According the RASC bio, Young built his 19-inch telescope between 1926 and 1928. In the RASC Journal, Young says:

“It has been completed with the aid of a very modest workshop and occasional help for such work as could not be done on a lathe.”

But did Young use this lathe for his 19-inch design?

Plaque on the lathe. This is generally considered to be a clue.

The Big Lathe was donated by Young to the DDO in 1934. Was it a new equipment for the DDO, or was it donated after using it to construct his telescope?

In our earlier post, we said the lathe was built in 1926. That’s according to a number on the cast into the iron base. Our lathe expert Miro said that’s probably a couple of years too early. The manufacturing process at the time involved casting the base, letting it sit around for a couple of years to ensure the metal was completely stabilised, and then completing the assembly. Better to look at the serial number, Miro says. The last two digits for a South Bend lathe indicate the production year. They read 28. As in 1928. It would then have to make it’s way from South Bend, Indiana to A.R. Williams, the Toronto machinery dealer, and to whoever purchased it.

Is that time frame too tight for completing Young’s telescope in 1928? Would a lathe have been used early or late in the process? Is the Big Lathe too big for what Young describes as a “very modest workshop”? Was Young being modest about his workshop? This Toronto Star archive photo shows the telescope in a location that is definitely not one of the DDO domes.

Inquiring minds want to know!

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