Saturday, December 15, 2012

Forgotten History: John Brashear

Though my soul may set in darkness; 
it will rise in perfect light; 
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night. 

Andy Warhol famously stated in 1968 that "In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes." The Internet age of instant celebrity makes Andy look downright prophetic. Many of our modern stars bask in fame built on shaky foundations shored up by talented publicists. But there are other individuals whose contributions have been, well, astronomical. These are folks worthy of far more than fifteen minutes of homage and recognition, and yet they've fallen prey to collective popular amnesia. What will it take to give lasting credit where credit is due?

I recently attended a Heinz History Center Ambassador Lecture Series presentation about Western Pennsylvanian John Brashear. If you are an astronomy buff, or know about the history of the City of Allegheny and Pittsburgh's North Side, his name will resonate. But most would likely respond with blank stares or blinks of vague familiarity if asked to identify him. John Alfred Brashear was a famous and influential Pittsburgher, a polymath of the late 1800s and early 1900s who hobnobbed with all the luminaries who populate this city's history books. He was renowned for his self-taught innovative lens and optics work; stellar reputation as a scientific educator and administrator; abiding love for his wife and work-partner Phoebe; and many humanitarian endeavors.  His life story is inspirational for lessons learned about resourcefulness, believing in oneself and making the most of opportunities, and giving back to society.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

John Brashear was born in Fayette County in 1840. He fell in love with the stars at age 9 when his maternal grandfather gave him the opportunity to view the rings of Saturn through a traveling telescope. From humble origins as a Brownsville tavern-owner's son through early days working in a grocery store and various machine shops, an enduring love of astronomy and applied science drove Brashear to work on fashioning a better telescope lens. For five years he held a full-time mill machinist job by day and tinkered by night in a coal shed behind his South Side Slopes home, until he finally perfected a new silvering technique on a five-inch telescope lens. He presented this lens to Samuel Pierpont Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory and Professor of Astro-Physics.

Samuel Pierpont Langley. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Langley (who was to become the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) knew genius when he saw it, and became Brashear's mentor. He brought Brashear into the Observatory fold to create lenses and other precision scientific equipment. In turn, Brashear's work facilitated Langley's solar research, standardization of accurate timetables, and experimentation with flight theory vis-à-vis the aerodrome. Langley's successor, James Keeler, did pioneering spectrographic observations of Saturn's rings that would not have been possible without Brashear's precision instrumentation.

In 1881 Brashear came to the attention of railroad tycoon William Thaw, who became his primary financial benefactor. With his research, travels, and a new workshop subsidized by Thaw, Brashear went on to revolutionize the field of astronomy with his advances in instrumentation.

Having never forgotten his chance to peer through a telescope as a young boy, Brashear was committed to making scientific findings available to all comers. He never patented or restricted his work, and made sure that the newly-constructed Allegheny Observatory was publicly accessible. At his insistence, the building included a public hall that hosted a lecture series funded by indistrialist tycoon Henry Clay Frick. The public was also invited to use the telescopes -- a great boon in 1910 when Halley's Comet passed through! Such accessibility was a critical concern, for as Brashear stated in his autobiography:
In my early struggles to gain a knowledge of the stars, I made a resolution that if ever an opportunity offered or I could make such an opportunity, I should have a place where all the people who loved the stars could enjoy them;...and the dear old thirteen-inch telescope, by the use of which so many discoveries were made, is also given up to the use of the citizens of Pittsburgh, or, for that matter, citizens of the world.

A strong believer in the moral necessity of doing one's civic duty, Brashear served as Acting Director of the Allegheny Observatory that we know today (he was its primary fundraiser as well) and Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). Modest and wishing to remain focused on the work he loved best, he refused permanent positions in both cases. He was also a member of the founding committee of Carnegie Technical Schools (now Carnegie Mellon University); organized and served as Chairman of the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission at Mr. Frick's personal request; and served as president of multiple professional engineering and science societies. His formal education consisted of one semester at a business school, but his work garnered him countless awards and honorary degrees. Brashear and his wife were great benefactors to the larger community. In 1915, a settlement house and community center were established on the South Side in his honor, where the The Brashear Association remains active to this day.

Brashear's star shone far beyond the skies of Pittsburgh and many of his instruments actually remain in regular use. Even Einstein owed him a debt of gratitude, for the Theory of Relativity was developed using a mirror that Brashear designed in 1886. My favorite Brashear accolades are the craters on the far side of the Moon and on Mars that were named for him!

Brashear Crater on Mars. Source: Wikipedia Commons

John Alfred Brashear died on April 8, 1920 after suffering for six long months from the effects of food poisoning. His ashes were interred in the Allegheny Observatory crypt along with those of his beloved wife Phoebe, and an excerpt from the Sarah Williams poem I quoted at the start of this entry is their epitaph.

So how is it that such a luminary, a man so popular in his day that he was known as "Uncle John" to the citizens of Pittsburgh, a man named “Pennsylvania’s Most Distinguished Citizen” by the governor in 1915, is unknown today to most people outside of his chosen field? The scientific advances and instruments he created are his legacy, but let's face it, telescope lenses aren't sexy popular topics.  People forget what they never knew, and so for the most part John Brashear has been left to idle his time on the heavenly bench where victims of collective popular amnesia sit.

There have been multiple on-going efforts to permanently and prominently inscribe Brashear's name in the history books, so that he's not left languishing in the footnotes. Dr. Don Handley created an hour-long documentary entitled Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory which premiered at the Heinz History Center in April 2012. Its release coincided with commemorations of the 100 year anniversary of the dedication of the Allegheny Observatory on August 28 1912 and Undaunted highlighted the work of Brashear and his contemporaries. It is available for public sale, and American Public Television accepted Undaunted for distribution to PBS stations throughout the nation.

I am hopeful that such a larger scale refocusing of attention on his story can spur further action on preserving the architectural witnesses to this man's fascinating life story. Brashear's home and factory have long been neglected on Perrysville Avenue of Pittsburgh’s North Side. The home, built for the Brashears by Thaw and incorporating the gracious Arts and Crafts styles of the day, is currently in private ownership and used as a transitional living facility for rehab patients. 

The nearly-adjacent factory of the Brashear Company is now owned by the City of Pittsburgh, but sits derelict and abandoned, as can be seen in these photos I took recently. 

Then-City Councilman William Peduto helped produce Undaunted and contributed to publicizing an effort by neighborhood activist/historian and artist Lisa Miles to register the Perry Hilltop buildings with the National Register of Historic Places. Both buildings were successfully nominated by the State of Pennsylvania in October 2012, and the final decision is currently under consideration at this writing. 

I've written before on this blog about how critical it is to preserve architectural witnesses to history.  Sometimes empty buildings are all that is left to memorialize someone and recognize their accomplishments, and those buildings can make all the difference in keeping memory alive. Brashear's friend Henry Clay Frick benefited enormously from his daughter's decision to honor his legacy through the preservation of their family home, Clayton. But there's no one to single-mindedly honor John Brashear through preservation efforts. 

The opportunities are there, for there are other tangible reminders of Brashear's legacy that vie for our attention. Brashear wrote an autobigraphy that was published posthumously and it's full of charming, fascinating anecdotes and reflections about his life and times. The book is in the public domain and can be viewed HERE.  The Allegheny Observatory that was so central to Brashear's life remains in Pittsburgh's public Riverview Park and is owned and operated by the University of Pittsburgh. Its white domes rise like an astronomical Taj Mahal over the trees as one navigates serpentine Perrysville Avenue. Though a private research laboratory, free public stargazing tours are available at the Observatory by reservation from April through October, just as Brashear would have wanted. A 2009 profile about Brashear on WQED's now-defunct news magazine show OnQ can still be viewed HERE.  A wider distribution of Undaunted might raise Brashear's profile in Pittsburgh and beyond. And a national designation of significance for the Perry Hilltop buildings associated with him may lead to their renewed historical preservation, and perhaps even conversion as astronomy and biographical museums -- surely a win-win situation for Brashear's legacy and greater Western Pennsylvania.  

If these things don't up John A. Brashear's public profile, I don't know what else can.


An unwelcome update:  On Monday, 16 March 2015 a wall of the Perry Hilltop factory collapsed, and demolition on the rest of this historic building followed the next day due to safety reasons. This is an incredible loss for our region's history of industrial and scientific innovation.  Now all we've got are memories of better days:  
John A. Brashear Co. Ltd Building.
University of Pittsburgh, Archive Services Center, Allegheny Observatory Records.

ARTICLE about demolition.

Further Reading:
Advancing Astronomy and Community: John Brashear
Allegheny Observatory website 
Biographical Fact Sheet
Brashear House Historical Marker
Centennial: New Allegheny Observatory Dedication

Dr. J.A. Brashear Dead Following Long Sickness
Help Achieve Historic Status for John Brashear's Home and Factory
Historical Status Sought for Brashear's North Side Home, Factory
Historic status sought for Brashear' s home and factory in Perry Hilltop
National Park Service: Astronomy and Astrophysics: Allegheny Observatory
New film stars Allegheny Observatory
Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory: New History Film
The Story of John Alfred Brashear, The Man Who Loved the Stars
"Undaunted" shows pioneers who reached for the stars at Allegheny Observatory
Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory film trailer


  1. Was the nomination with the National Register of Historic Places for the Brashear buildings successful?

  2. Thanks for your question. I had to ask around a bit as searching the Register isn't exactly a user-friendly process! According to Bill Callahan of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's Bureau for Historic Preservation, both the John A. Brashear House and Factory were successfully placed in the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service on 26 December, 2012. So there's some good news for those interested in the Brashear legacy and historical preservation!

  3. John A. Brashear was a member of Guyasuta Lodge #513 F&AM located in Pittsburgh. On December 15, 1925, John A. Brashear Lodge #743 F&AM was constituted. Both lodges continue to this day.