Dobson was born September 14, 1915, in Beijing, China, where his maternal grandfather had founded Peking University in 1898. The family moved to San Francisco in 1927.
Dobson graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a master’s degree in chemistry. Afterward, he worked in the corporate arena for only a year.
In 1944, Dobson joined the city’s Vedanta Society monastery. There, he spent 23 years as a monk of the Ramakrishna Order. He saw one of his tasks as reconciling astronomy with the society’s teachings.
Dobson built his first telescope — a 2-inch refractor — in 1956. He used a lens he purchased in a junk store and an eyepiece from old binoculars. Through it he saw the rings of Saturn.
One of his fellow monks mentioned that it was possible to grind a mirror and construct a reflecting telescope. Dobson quickly made his first mirror out of a 12-inch piece of porthole glass from a marine salvage yard. When he looked at the Last Quarter Moon through his finished scope, he was surprised and deeply moved by what he saw. His first thought was, “Everybody’s got to see this.”