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How to Make Your Own Water Telescope, According to a Boy’s Guidebook From 1882

"This chapter will tell you how to make an instrument through which you can peep under the watery tent of the big show itself."

The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It by Daniel Carter Beard first hit bookstores in 1882, almost 30 years before Beard helped co-found the Boys Scouts of America. Something of a precursor to both Scouting For Boys and the Boy Scout Handbook, the 408-page tome was loaded with hands-on activities and projects ⏤ not to mention illustrations and schematics ⏤ designed to keep young boys from getting bored while teaching valuable outdoor skills. The activities varied in complexity and the book left not topic untouched, covering everything from war kites and fishing rods, to knot tying, boat building, and how to set traps. While the book is still sold online and in stores today, technically it’s out of copyright and can be downloaded for free.

Which is why we thought it would be fun to excerpt a chapter or two showcasing some of the book’s easier or more fascinating projects that parents could try with their kids. And what better way to kick off the warmer months than by learning how to make a water telescope from the early 1880s? Here it is.



Nearly three-fourths of the whole world is covered by water. Old Isaak Walton in his quaint book says that this vast expanse of territory is “Nature’s storehouse, in which she locks up all her wonders.” The previous chapters on freshwater and marine aquariums have already shown how a portion of the “wonders” may be kept in your own house, in what might be termed little glass side-shows to the great marine menagerie. This chapter will tell you how to make an instrument through which you can peep under the watery tent of the big show itself, and see the curiosities swimming about in
their native haunts.

The water-telescope is not made of aqueous fluid, as its
name might imply, but is a contrivance made of wood or metal, through which, when one end is partly submerged, objects beneath the water can be plainly seen that would otherwise be invisible.

It is astonishing how many fathoms of water become almost as transparent as air when viewed through one of these simple and amusing contrivances. In Norway, the fishermen make practical use of the water telescope when searching for herring shoals or cod, often by its means discovering new and unlooked-for fish.

How to Make a Wooden Water-Telescope.

All that is necessary is a long wooden box, a piece of glass for one end, and some paint and putty for making the seams water-tight. Fix the glass in one end of the box, and leave the other end open to admit the eyes of the observer, as shown in the illustration (Fig. 60).

A Tin Water-Telescope is a funnel-shaped tin horn, about three or four feet long, eight to ten inches in diameter at the bottom, and broad enough at the top to admit both eyes of the observer (Fig. 61). Sinkers should be soldered on near the bottom, as shown in the illustration (Fig. 61). This in a measure counteracts the buoyancy of the air contained in the water-tight funnel, and helps to sub- merge the big end.

The inside of the funnel should be painted black, to prevent the light from being reflected upon the bright surface of the tin.

If any difficulty is found in procuring a circular piece of glass, the bottom may be made square and square glass used, and fitted into a leaden frame made for the purpose.

Any tinner can, at a moderate cost, make an instrument like the one just described.

A water-telescope will add greatly to the entertainment of a boating party or picnic, furnishing a new and novel feature that will become popular wherever it is introduced.

Mr. Fred. Holder tells me that while collecting marine animals with his father, Dr. Holder, the naturalist, they had a boat built with a glass in the hull, arranged and worked upon the same principle as a water-telescope. It was of great service where the water was not too deep. While one person rowed the other watched the bottom, which Mr. Holder describes as having the appearance of a beautiful panorama passing beneath him. Fish of all colors and forms filled the intervening space, and sometimes a “devil fish” would cross the scene, flapping its great wing-like fins as it flew rather than swam through the clear water.

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