15 December 2012

Uncle 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. 

What to say about someone whose contributions have been astronomical?

If you are an astronomy buff, or know about the history of the City of Allegheny and Pittsburgh's North Side, John Brashear's name will resonate. He was a polymath of the late 1800s and early 1900s who hobnobbed with all the luminaries who populate this city's history of that era. He was renowned for his self-taught innovative lens and optics work, his stellar reputation as a scientific educator and administrator, his abiding love for his wife and work-partner Phoebe, and his humanitarian endeavors. 

And he was so beloved by Pittsburgh that the entire city called him "Uncle John."

Brashear's life story is inspirational for lessons learned about resourcefulness, believing in oneself, making the most of opportunities, and giving back to society.

John Brashear, 1910. Allegheny Observatory Records, University of Pittsburgh.

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, with full support of his wife Phoebe.

John and Phoebe Brashear, circa 1862. University of Pittsburgh.

A literally crushing set-back occurred when Brashear broke his first finished lens. He persevered to recreate and prefect a five-inch telescope lens, state-of-the-art due to Bashear's pioneering silvering technique. Brashear presented this lens to Samuel Pierpont Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory and Professor of Astro-Physics.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, Smithsonian Institution

Langley (who became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) offered to mentor and collaborate with Brashear, bringing him into the Observatory fold to create lenses and other precision scientific equipment.

Brashear's optical shop, c 1914.  Allegheny Observatory Records, University of Pittsburgh.

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.

Dr. FC Jordan using the 4 ton, 47 foot long Thaw Memorial Telescope, c. 1920-40. It was at that time the 3rd largest refractor telescope in the United States. Named for William Thaw Sr.,  designed and built by Brashear Optical Company in 1912 for $125,000. Allegheny Observatory Records, University of Pittsburgh.

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 he made sure that the newly-constructed Allegheny Observatory was publicly accessible.  

First Allegheny Observatory, c. 1886. Allegheny Observatory Records, University of Pittsburgh.