Thomas M. Back, 1957 - 2007
I was very sorry to hear the news of Thomas Back's passing in September 2007, and my deepest condolences to his family.
I knew Thomas for almost twelve years, and during that time was fortunate to be able to correspond with him via email, over the phone, in person at astronomy conventions and at star parties where we observed together.
I have been reading through some the hundreds of emails we exchanged over the years, and thought I would pass on some of my recollections of Thomas. When we first began corresponding he was working as local rep for a California loudspeaker company. We both shared interest in observing the planets with high quality refractors to bring out the finest detail.
It was clear that his knowledge of optics and astronomy was very broad and deep, and that he was a very gifted optical designer. He was very generous with his time as he answered my many questions about optics and I learned a lot from him.Over time his interest in optics led him to design his own lenses and start TMB Optical. Each year it grew steadily, eventually to include eyepieces including his TMB Super Monocentric planetary eyepieces and Paragon super wide-angle eyepieces.
The idea for producing the TMB Super Monocentric Eyepieces grew out of cloudy weather at AstroFest in the fall of 2000. As suppertime approached it was obvious that the weather wasn't going to clear, so a group of us decided to head into town for dinner. We ended up at a local pizza place and spent most of the night swilling beer and eating pizza, and talking about telescopes, optics, and eyepieces. Eventually the idea of designing these eyepieces came up and that started the ball rolling. Some of the locals probably wondered what we were talking about.
His commitment to his customers was shown earlier during the day at AstroFest. When I saw Thomas Saturday morning he looked tired, as he had been up late the past few nights getting an 8" refractor ready to be delivered to a customer at the star party. However, when another customer came up to him with a couple of questions about one of his refractors that had been purchased from a different dealer, Thomas cleaned the lens, and answered any question the customer had. Thomas was very conscientious and always worked hard to provide his customers with the best product he could provide.
As his business continued to grow he stopped working for the loudspeaker company to devote more time to it, and he was putting in very long hours. One of the things that struck me about Thomas was his honesty. For example we would often discuss differences between his telescopes and those from other manufacturers, and yet he would tell me not to sell the telescope I had just to buy one from him. When I mentioned in an email one time that I perhaps someday I would be able to buy one of his fine telescopes, he replied:
"Thanks, but don't concern yourself with that. Buy the telescope that is going to give you the most pleasure."
Eventually the time came for me to buy my first telescope from Thomas and I only wish I had done it sooner. The first night I observed with my new TMB 175mm f/8 I knew that it was noticeably different and better than any others I had used before were.
For the first time all of the optical information I learned from Thomas, as well as from articles in the old Telescope Making and Deep Sky magazines came together for me in this one telescope. This included the importance of smooth, high quality optics that reduce scattered light and increase contrast, as well as efficient baffles, a roughened tube interior and an extra long dew cap. I ordered two more telescopes from him as soon as I could afford them. These telescopes provide a subtleness to the view that makes the detail seem more real. There are times I find myself transfixed at the view as time passes unnoticed.
After his neck injury and later his illness Thomas did not have the opportunity to observe as much as he liked to help relax, or to cycle, another passion of his. I would send him observing reports to show him how much I appreciated his hard work that went into producing the fine telescopes and eyepieces, and that I looked forward to observing with them for many years he wrote. He seemed to enjoy reading them:
"Thank you Eric. I could not be happier you feel this way. Anytime you want to give me an observing report, I would love to read it."
"Your observing reports always brighten my day..."
I know I will be eternally grateful for the fine telescopes and eyepieces he designed, and will think of him when I observe. So his legacy will live on.
He was a good friend and I will miss him. They say in heaven you get to meet up with old friends. Maybe you get to indulge in hobbies as well. If so hopefully someday Thomas and I will get the chance to talk and observe together again.