Richard Hill

This little article is exactly what that says, a view of the history of this telescope company, epic in the 3rd quarter of the 20th century. This history is as seen from the pages of Sky & Telescope and Review of Popular Astronomy magazines. Many amateur and professional astronomers were able as adolescents, to step up to serious amateur observing thanks to the good quality, economically priced (and financed) telescopes made by Criterion. This has sponsored in recent years, a renewed interest in these instruments and their histories though the company itself has been out of business for over 2 decades as of this writing (2005).

After World War II, when so many men and women left the service of their country (both military and in the civilian war occupations) they settled down and among other pursuits the hobby of amateur astronomy took off. At first this interest was fed by war surplus binoculars and small telescopes with companies like Edmund Salvage Co., A. Jaegers, Harry Ross and others. There were few firms that made finished instruments for astronomy. A couple of companies like Tinsley, C.C. Young and Skyscope, had small finished telescopes but that was pretty much it. So amateurs of the day largely had to use the surplus materials to fabricate their own telescopes.

As the 1950s opened there was a growing demand for finished instruments of higher quality than a spyglass. As mentioned above, Tinsley had always had a line of amateur sized instruments but they were relatively expensive. Late in 1951, United Trading Company came out with two excellent quality Unitron refractors, that were priced substantially below Tinsley. A year later United Trading Co. became United Scientific Co. and carried another refractor model in their line. Edmund responded to this with a similarly priced refractor of their own to compete with the Unitrons. Over the year 1953 Fecker, C.C.Young, K.T.Smith, Wilmot Sales jumped in with their own finished instruments while United Scientific more than doubled the number of models in their line. Young and Smith were the largest companies producing (or advertising) finished reflectors but Smith limited their line to a single 4" model.

Fecker's instrument quickly ran out of the price range of the amateur astronomer, certainly the young tyro. In Dec., 1954 they had an ad for a 5" cassegrain that appears to have many of the features of the Celestron 5 (and other such small Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes) well ahead of their time!

By April, 1954, there was an ad for Criterion Co. , Dept. TSA 2, 331 Church St., Hartford 3, Connecticut. They had an f/25, 1.6" refractor, finished, on a alt-azimuth tripod for $26.95. It appeared, from the drawing in their ad and indeed the ad itself, very similar to a refractor being sold by Wilmot (for $3 more) and to parts being sold by Edmund for $21.50. The source for the parts was likely the same. While small, this refractor was of excellent quality for the aperture.

Two months later the first Dynascope was advertised for $44.95. It was a 4" f/10 Newtonian reflector. On a very simple equitorial mount and wooden tripod. This telescope came with 3 eyepieces and though the mount head was of lightconstruction this was servicable because of the ultra-light tube made of bakelite. The distinctive smell of this material would become very familliar to many amateur astronomers over the years. They advertised this instrument as "The only telescope available for under $100 with a paraboloid mirror, rack & pinion focus, and 3 achromatic eyepieces." And they were quite right.

Other telescopes were also introduced during this year. Edmund, not to be outdone, met this competition with their "Palomar Jr.", a 4 1/4" f/10 reflector on a german equitorial mount. While the mounting was heftier, so was the price tag of $74.50. This pricing pattern between Edmund and Criterion would become typical over the next 30 years. Another telescope also made it's debut in this year and it too would become a household brand name for amateur astronomers was Questar. But this was out of the range of most young amateurs. For the same money one could buy a Unitron of greater aperture.

During 1955 there was a blossoming of companies that carried finished instruments. Companies like Cave, Garth, SkyScope, Laboratory Instruments, Jaegers, Harry Ross all made their entry with ready-to-use instruments and Edmund introduced a 6" f/8 Newtonian of their own. In July, Criterion raised the price of the 4" by five dollars. Most of these price changes and new introductions of equipment would be advertised in the magazines in June or December in later years and more frequently the latter in order to catch the holiday shopping time. In keeping with this, in Dec., 1955, Criterion came out with a new higher end 4" telescope. This one had a full german equitorial with a friction brake on the south end of the polar axis. It was priced a bit more than the Edmund 4" but had what appeared to be a better mount. In the ad for the telescope was a small note that said "Inquire for details of convenient Time-Payment Plan.

A year later, in August 1956, Criterion advertised an improved mount for their basic 4". They had replaced a rather flimsy latitude adjuster with one similar to that on their deluxe 4" and mounted the axel to that. It was a good improvement and at no increase in price. They offered an upgrade to owners of the older mounts for a modest price and an upgrade to the deluxe style mount for $14.95. This was a very good offer. In October they reached a milestone. For the first time they ran two separate ads in Sky and Telescope. One ad was for the 4" Deluxe Dynascope and the other was for a number of parts (rack & pinion, mirror cell, eyepieces). Another fine telescope company, Coast Instrument Inc., that made the Trecker-Scope, offered time payment plans up to 24 months.

Just before Christmas Unitron announced a time payment plan so there were on their back cover and the inside ad. Then 3 companies that instituted time payment plan for their instruments after Criterion. It would be interesting to know if this resulted in significantly increased sales. Since this technique lasted for over 20 years (until the common use of credit cards!) it's reasonable to suppose that this made telescopes more readily accessable to many kids eager to observe but with meagre incomes from paper routes, lawn mowing, car washing etc.

Also in the December issue for 1956, The basic Dynascope 4" was still selling for $49.95, the Deluxe Dynascope for $79.95, but Criterion ran a curious full page ad on p.78 of Sky & Telescope that started in large bold type: "attention all astronomers! Watch and wait for a new phenomenon... soon to appear". This was an announcement that they were about to come out with an "addition to the fine family of Dynascope instruments," a 6" reflector. But it was not until the following May that the telescope was introduced in a two page spread that announced the 6" Dynascope with hidden tripod (in a steel pier) for $475.00. It was a heavy instrument and hefty price tag. At the bottom of the ad they said "Also available in sizes to 16." " There was no change in the price of the 4" telescopes so there was a wide disparity between the high end 4" ($79.95) and the low end 6" above.

This pricing disparity must have been felt at Criterion because in October they came out with a stripped down model of the 6" with no motor, just a tripod and probably only 3 eyepieces though that is not stated. In fact, what it actually was, was not clear from the ad. The photo showed the deluxe model but in a box in the add it was stated that the clock drive, setting circles and "permanent pedistal" were extra. The price tag for this was $265 and it thus temporarily filled the aforementioned gap. Again, there were "easy payment" plans available. The probable confusion was cleared up when they ran a small inset picture of the standard model.

By 1958 Criterion pretty regularly had two or more pages of ads in every issue of Sky & Telescope. In March they advertised yet another improvement for the 4" mountings. This was their "crosstie" on the tripod. It was a thin metal bracket on each leg, about halfway down, that all met in the middle where they screwed together to keep a leg from spreading suddenly causing the instrument to fall over. It was yet another good idea.

In the December issue they had 3 pages of ads! One page was for the 4" models, another for the Deluxe models like the new 6" and the third was parts. Among the parts, Criterion was now selling a line of achromats to 4" diamter. These were in rather deep cells possibly as deep as 3-4" suggesting that this might have been an unusual, large airspace design. I never saw one and don't know anyone that has.

A little late for the holiday season, the Dyn-O-Matic for all 4" Dynascopes was introduced in January 1959, with much fanfare in a two page spread. The basic Dynascope, with the non-counterweighted mounting and 3 eyepieces, had one at a total price of $79.95 (Normally it was now $59.95 without the drive which represented a $10 increase over the month earlier. There were now two deluxe models, one with a lightweight aluminum tripod and another with a light weight equitorial head. The latter came with 3 eyepieces, weighted 33 lbs. And cost $109.95 The Super-Deluxe had a heavier head, with a beefy tripod (including the crossties), slow motion control on the declination axis, setting circles, 5 eyepieces and a larger finderscope. It was priced at $159.95 and was quite a handsome telescope, far better quality than any other 4" reflector on the market.

So what made the Dyn-O-Matic drive different from every other that was available? Criterion had a design that had a cork padded slip clutch in the drive. Two pressure plates pinched a brass ring gear with the cork between. Thus when the drive was working one could point the telescope elsewhere without having to disengage the main drive gear. This was apparently an innovation. The pressure of the two plates on the ring gear was controlled by two or three spring loaded screws. I have used one of these for nearly 40 years and it still works fine with original parts!

But in the lower right corner of this two page ad was an almost overlooked new model. It was a 6-inch f/8 Dynascope, with setting circles, three eypieces and a rotating tube. Without the fanfare accorded the 4" models this RV-6 sold for only $35 more than the Super-Deluxe 4" model! It did not have the slow motion declination control, but it did have a mirror that was 50% more in diameter! This telescope would eventually drive the 4" models to extinction. Other companies selling 6" telescopes could match it's price, but not with a drive.

Criterion quickly realized the potential of this telescope and in June the RV-6 had it's own full page ad. The price was only $194.95 for telescope on a sturdy german equatorial mount, with rotating tube, setting circles, 3 eyepieces, and a 6x30 finder. It was a teriffic deal. The telescope in this ad, when examined carefully (perhaps too carefully!) did not have a 6" or 7" diameter tube. But the photo is also heavily retouched so it can only be taken as representative. Probably few noticed that the declination shaft coming out of the counterweight was a different diameter than the shaft going in! However, this was corrected by September and the photo was definately of the 6" and not retouched. In June there was no mention of time payment plans as with the deluxe models and this too was remedied by September where there was mention of such plan but little in specifics. Also by 1959 they were carrying a nice line of telescope making parts and accessories as shown in several of the ads that appeared in the first half of the year.

Business must have been good because in 1960 they ran as many as 4 pages of advertisements in Sky & Telescope. One page would be for the Deluxe models, another for the RV-6, a third for the 4" models and a forth for parts. Things seemed to be booming. In May they began to regularly run the time payment coupon of $74.95 down and the rest paid in 6, 12 or 24 months. This replaced the occasional little box note that instructed the buyer to call and arrange time payments. This price, time payments and the wonderful quality of workmanship let the RV-6 clean up. In only one year, May 1961, the last full page 4" Dynascope ad appeared in Sky & Telescope. They would go on to be advertised for another six and a half years in Review of Popular Astronomy and in occasional sidebar additions to the ads for accessories in Sky & Telescope but these ended too after September 1969. I suspect the reason for the full page ads RPA was that this magazine was geared primarily to the amateur observer whereas Sky & Telescope aimed for a broader market of armchair amateur astronomer, telescope makers, observers and students. RPA even had a regular column called "Through the Three Inch" specifically addressing the owners of 3" refractors and 4" reflectors.

Things remained remarkably stable for a number of years, no price changes no more instruments added. In August 1967, the RV-6 ads were enhanced with photos and testimonials. Then in October, 1969, the RV-8 was introduced in a 2 page spread on the inside back cover of Sky & Telescope. The introductory price was $399.95 and those that snapped one up at this price were wise. By January 1970, the price had jumped by $60 to $459.95 and he venerable old RV6 went to $249.95. This must have cut sales off at the ankle because in May the RV8 ads disappeared and the RV6 price dropped back down to $199.95! The RV8 ads returned in September at the old price of $399.95 but were gone again a year later. I would dearly love to hear the story back all of this!

In August, 1971, it was the end of an era. The last Deluxe line ad appeared in the pages of Sky & Telescope. In that ad the prices were:

          6" Standard $325
          6" Deluxe $525
          8" Standard $395
          8" Deluxe $625
          10" Deluxe only $895
          12" Deluxe only $1575
          16" Deluxe only $4200
The reason for this became clear two months later when, probably due to increasing pressure on sales from the Celestron Pacific Co, Criterion embarked on a new venture with the Dynamax 8 for $795. The price was competative and the design, in the opinion of this writer, was more classy. However, there were reports that the lighter fork led to some mechanical vibrations and that the optics were not as good as Celestron. By this time Celestron had a full line of Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes: 5", 8" and 14". With more people living in apartments and the new condominiums, having a smaller instrument without sacrificing aperture was becoming a HUGE selling point. Nationally, inflation was taking off at this time but not at Criterion. The RV6 price remained at $199.99 making this a spectacular bargain at the time.

This all changed in the mid-1970s when in Apr., 1974 Criterion moved from the address they had always been at, 331 Church St. to 620 Oakwood Ave. Then in Nov. The price of the Dynamax 8 went to $875 and the RV6 went to $229. A year later Criterion moved into the serious solar market and introduced the Solar Prominence Viewer for the hefty price of $455. For years they had a good white light solar filter that was used like a barlow lens but the flat glass in the end of the tube nearest the secondary mirror, had a mirror coating on it (overcoated) that reflected nearly all the sun light back down the tube and back out towards the sun. It was the best solar filter before the advent of the mylar-type filters.

In Sept. 1976 a new telescope came into being, the Dynamax 6. It used the same fork as the Dynamax 8, making it more stable, and sold for $610. This did not help them. It was not a competitive price with the Celestron 5. Then, eight months later the RV6 price was raised another $20 to $249, the same price tried back in 1970.

A device called the "Golden Pyramid Tripod" was introduced in May 1978. It was designed for the Schmidt-Cassegrains. There were no pictures of it so the reason for the name was never clear. In Nov. this year the RV8 was made available again for $459.95, also the price tried in 1970. The next summer, July, 1979, The RV6 price was raised again to $279. It's interesting to note that this was Meade's price for the same instrument. In less than a year, the following May, the RV6 price was again raised this time to $359.95. This had to be damaging to sales since several other telescope companies had 6" Newtonians for substantially less.

During all this the RV8 remained at $459.95. That changed in July, 1981 when no price was listed for the instrument. That became clear in August when it was then listed for $589.95. A month after that the Dynamax 4 was in and ad in Sky & Telescope and that was the only advertisment for it by Criterion, ever.

January 1982 saw some unannounced changes. On the inside back cover of Sky & Telescope was the "New Criterion 4000", a table-top Schmidt-Cassegrain. It was identical to the 4" Dynamax. In March the last RV6 ad appeared, still at $359.95, with the RV8 still available at $589.95. Late in the year the Criterion ads disappeared. Then in December Bushnell offered the "Criterion 8000" which bore and uncanny resemblence to the Dynamax 8.

These were the last vestiges of the once great company that brought astronomy to so many amateur astronomers. Bushnell was soon bought out by Bausch & Lomb and the Criterion line disappeared altogether. Thus ended the life of a company that inspired hundreds of amateur astronomers and even sent some on their way to professional careers.