James Mulherin and his bother Toney Mulherin founded OMI in a small shop in Iowa City, Iowa in 1991. The company started out fabricating Newtonian mirrors for the amateur astronomy market. From the beginning they started building high-quality Dobsonian telescopes first for themselves and then for customers who were impressed with the combined quality of optics and mechanical design.
From this modest start customers contracted with James to design and manufacture higher precision research-quality telescopes capable of automated operation for use with the bourgeoning CCD camera technology becoming affordable for professional and amateur astronomers in the mid-1990s.
Dr. Robert Mutel, professor of astronomy at the University of Iowa, is a pioneer in remote astronomy for education and research. Starting out with a 7-inch refractor on the physics building he and his students developed an automated observatory system using a CCD camera in the early 1990s. Leveraging the success from this project Dr. Mutel was awarded an NSF grant to design and build a 0.5-meter alt-az robotic telescope called the Iowa Robotic Observatory (IRO). Dr. Mutel contracted with OMI to design and manufacture the Cassegrain optics for the telescope. After testing the completed telescope locally on campus they installed the telescope at the Winer Observatory in Sonoita Arizona and operated it remotely for several years from the university in Iowa.
As part of the NSF grant Dr. Mutel contracted Elwood Downey to develop the automated/robotic observatory control system for the project. The result was the Observatory Control and Astronomical Analysis (OCAAS) software suite, which controlled the telescope, CCD camera, filter wheel, dome, and more.
In early 1996 Rich Williams contacted James to design and build a robotic telescope for an idea he had for doing automated CCD projects from his property in Buckley, Washington. Through his discussions with James they developed a design for a fork-mounted friction-drive 16-inch telescope, which was a revolutionary design. From the experience gained from the original design James and Rich made modifications to the telescope to switch from stepper motors to servo motors, incorporate high-resolution encoders, and replace the original control system with OCAAS. The final result became the prototype for the current OMI telescope design.
Rich left Microsoft in 1997 to invest in the company with James and became the Vice President of Marketing and Product Development under James’ leadership as president. Rich traveled around the world presenting papers and giving talks at astronomy conferences and meetings. The company sold many 0.5-meter to 1.0-meter telescopes to colleges, institutions, and individuals continually improving upon the original telescope design.
During this same period Dave Kriege, the owner of Obsession Telescopes, developed a partnership with James to make large mirrors for Obsession’s Dobsonian telescopes, whose users demand the finest quality optics. At the time Dave had a backlog of about 80 telescopes due to a lack of available mirrors. Within months OMI eliminated the backlog and delivered mirrors to Obsession off the shelf. OMI has delivered over 1,000 mirrors to them to date.
OMI’s reputation for delivering high-quality optics and advanced telescope systems attracted the attention of institutions and companies requiring OMI’s expertise for related optic and optical-mechanical systems. This enabled OMI to win contracts to work on related high-precision projects such as Lidar, collimators, satellite laser ranging systems, custom first-surface optics, and more. OMI partners with other companies and institutions to develop integrated systems.