History’s Gem of the Month: The Telescope Story

May 2007

This first entry in the new section has been requested by several museum visitors. It recounts one of the many reasons why Axel was a major influence in my life. This is the story about Axel’s telescope, which is now safely stored at my house.


My eyesight was extremely poor until I was around 10 years old, due to an excess amount of oxygen in the incubator when I was born. One day, soon after my eyesight improved, Axel said to me: “Karen, meet me tonight in the street in front of the museum at 11:30.” When I asked him why, he just told me to show up. I was so nervous all day that I could barely eat or contain myself. Why would Axel want a ten-year-old kid to stay up past her bedtime to meet him in front of the museum? Both my mother and grandmother, who were as interested as I, encouraged the rendezvous.

At twenty-five minutes after 11:00, I ran the four blocks down the sidewalk from my grandmother’s house, where we were spending the summer.  I especially ran fast past the scary dip in the sidewalk east of the Lutheran Church, fueled by hours of curiosity about what Mr. Niemi was up to.

As I approached the museum, I was astonished to find Axel aiming the biggest telescope I had ever seen up toward the glittering stars. I was not aware that Axel had ordered the telescope kit and hired other kids to walk in circles to grind the lens. When they were almost finished with the grinding, the mirror fractured and, after he muttered a few select words, Axel ordered another one and started the grinding over. You can still see the mark on the floor of the museum where he fastened the grinding station.

As I ran up just before the requested time, Axel said, “You are a little early; I’m not quite ready yet — just hold your pants on for a minute.” Finally, he told me to stand up on the chair, without touching the telescope, and to look through the eyepiece. As I carefully looked through the eyepiece and saw the rings of Saturn, Axel said to me: “Karen, given your eyesight problems, if you can see the rings of Saturn, you can do anything.”

That was one of the first moments in my life that I believed I really could accomplish something. Thanks to Axel, I not only enjoyed success in several different career paths, but I also was able to acquire the museum to carry on his legacy.

In the photograph, if anyone recognizes the person standing with Axel in front of the sign next to the telescope, please email me at karen @ agatelady.com. I know that Axel also shared the telescope with many other people throughout the years. Please send me an email if you have a story to tell about Axel’s telescope, or if you were one of the Grand Marais kids that helped to grind the telescope’s mirrors.

When I searched the Internet for a picture of Saturn, the very first web page that I looked at had the following quote at the top of the page. Coincidence? I will always thank Axel for giving me hope.

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and reality of tomorrow.” – Robert Goddard

Information about Saturn

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest

Orbit: 887 million miles from the Sun (10 times that of the earth)
Diameter: 74,100 miles in diameter at the equator (9 times that of the earth)
Sunlight: Reaches in 1 hour, 19 minutes (compared to 8 minutes for the earth)
Year: Takes 29.46 earth years to rotate around the sun

In Roman mythology, Saturn was the god of agriculture. Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo was the first to observe it with a telescope in 1610; he noted its odd appearance but was confused by it. It was not until 1659 that Christian Huygens correctly inferred the geometry of the rings. Saturn’s rings remained unique in the known solar system until 1977 when very faint rings were discovered around Uranus (and shortly thereafter around Jupiter and Neptune).

Saturn was first visited by NASA’s Pioneer 11 in 1979 and later by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Cassini (a joint NASA / ESA project) arrived on July 1, 2004.

Saturn is the least dense of the planets; its specific gravity (0.7) is less than that of water. Like Jupiter, Saturn is about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with traces of water, methane, ammonia and “rock”, similar to the composition of the primordial Solar Nebula from which the solar system was formed.

Though Saturn’s rings look continuous from the Earth, the rings are actually composed of innumerable small particles each in an independent orbit. The ring particles seem to be composed primarily of ice, but they may also include rocky particles with icy coatings. They range in size from a half inch to several yards in diameter, with some even larger. Despite their impressive appearance, there’s really very little material in the rings — if the rings were compressed into a single body they would be no more than 60 miles across.

The origin of the rings of Saturn is unknown. Though they may have had rings since their formation, the ring systems are not stable and must be regenerated by ongoing processes, perhaps the breakup of larger satellites. The current set of rings may be only a few hundred million years old.

When it is in the nighttime sky, Saturn is easily visible to the unaided eye. Though it is not nearly as bright as Jupiter, it is easy to identify as a planet because it doesn’t “twinkle” like the stars do. The rings and the larger Saturn moons are visible with a small astronomical telescope.

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