Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Centennial: Death of Telescope-Maker & Astronomer John Brashear

Name-plate on the John Brashear family crypt in the basement of the University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory.
(Image Sources: John Brashear Autobiography,, By John Brashear - A Man Who Loved the Stars: The Autobiography of John A. Brashear, Public Domain,

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower


Today, many people throughout the world recognize that sentence as the epitaph on a crypt (in which the ashes of John Brashear, and the ashes of his wife Phoebe, are interred) in the basement of the University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory (which was directly below the 30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector Telescope), for a man who was beloved in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This was John A. Brashear who passed-away from a form of food poisoning this day, one hundred years ago (1920 April 8) at the age of 79.

The epitaph is slightly paraphrased from a poem by Sarah Williams, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil Tycho Brahe,” which John Brashear and his wife, Phoebe, both loved.

John Brashear was foremost one of the greatest producers of fine telescopes and precision scientific instruments of his era. A perfectionist, he produced telescopic and spectroscopic optics and other scientific apparatus of a precision unheard-of up until that time. At a time when scientific research was at the technical limits of its reach, Brashear optics and equipment greatly extended that reach.

His business started as the John A. Brashear Company in 1881. His telescopes, spectroscopes, and other scientific instruments were sold to astronomical observatories and other scientific installations and organizations throughout the world. Previously, he had been a millwright in a rolling steel mill on the South Side of Pittsburgh, building telescopes as a hobby in his spare time.

John Brashear was an astronomer who, at one time, was Acting Director of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory. However, he refused a permanent appointment to the position.

He was an educator, who had limited post-secondary education himself—his six doctorates were all honorary degrees. However, he was Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (predecessor of the University of Pittsburgh), again refusing a permanent appointment to the position.

And, he was an adviser to several major industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Charles Schwab.

For Andrew Carnegie, he was part of the three-member Plan and Scope Committee which developed the Carnegie Technical Schools, now known as Carnegie Mellon University. He was also one of the original Directors of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute, including the Museums of Natural History and Art, the Music Hall, and the city's Carnegie Library system.

For Henry Clay Frick, he organized the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission (now the Henry Clay Frick Educational Fund of the Buhl Foundation) that would provide grants to public school teachers, which would enable them to study, travel, and do research work. Originally endowed with $250,000, Henry Clay Frick later added $62,500 to the endowment. This would be equivalent to $8,509,144.74 in today's dollars!

The Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission also underwrote the cost of free public tours of the Allegheny Observatory several days of the week, during the warm-weather months. As part of the design of the new, three-dome Allegheny Observatory, which opened in 1912 (the original one-dome Allegheny Observatory had opened in 1861), the original 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor Telescope was dedicated to public use, in essence the second public observatory (the Cincinnati Observatory, which opened in 1845, was the first public observatory).

Although working hard to provide funding and facilities for the advancement of professional astronomy, John Brashear was insistent that the Allegheny Observatory display the wonders of the Universe to the common man. So, in addition to providing a public observatory as part of the Allegheny Observatory complex, he made sure the complex was easily accessible to the general public. He had the new Allegheny Observatory built in a new city park, at the extreme north end of the city, to avoid industrial smoke and light pollution, within one block of a major streetcar line.

He also insisted that a lecture hall be added as part of the complex, so the general public could learn more about astronomy.

John Brashear almost single-handedly raised the funds to build the new Allegheny Observatory. But there were obstacles, such as the Panic (recession) of 1893. In 1894, Andrew Carnegie advised him to wait “until coke sells at a dollar a ton and we will build the Observatory.”

By 1905, John Brashear was still short $65,000 for an observatory building which would include three telescopes: 30-inch Thaw Photographic Refractor, 30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector, and the original 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor. In what may have been one of the first “challenge grants,” Henry Clay Frick promised to fund half of that amount, if John Brashear could raise the other half by October.

Due to his wife’s failing health, John Brashear was committed to his annual Summer vacation at Muskoka Lakes in Canada. From there, by long-distance correspondence, he raised $20,000. After returning to Pittsburgh, he raised the rest of the amount, and a wee bit more, by H.C. Frick’s deadline. In addition, the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company, thanks to Company President Charles Schwab, donated all of the steel for the superstructure; Andrew Carnegie had sold his steel interests in 1901.

John Brashear received many honors later in his life, including six honorary degrees, fellowships in respected scientific and educational organizations, as well as invitations from all over the world to lecture and write for learned societies. He was beloved by the Pittsburgh community, as well as by astronomers throughout the world. In 1915, in recognition of John Brashear's 75th birthday, postcards, telegrams, and gifts were sent to him as the city and the nation celebrated his birthday. Everyone simply knew him as “Uncle John.”

                                      Brashear John.jpg 
(Image Sources: John Brashear Autobiography,, By John Brashear - A Man Who Loved the Stars: The Autobiography of John A. Brashear, Public Domain,

Internet Links to Additional Information ---

John A. Brashear:
Link 1 >>>
Link 2 >>>
Link 3 >>> 
Link 4 >>>

Andrew Carnegie: Link >>>

Henry Clay Frick: Link >>>

Allegheny Observatory: Link >>>

Related Blog Posts ---

"Historic Brashear Telescope Factory Time Capsule Found & Opened." Wed., 2015 March 25.

Link >>>


"Brashear House & Factory: Nomination to National Register of Historic Places." Thur., 2012 October 11.

Link >>>


Centennial: New Allegheny Observatory Dedication." Tue., 2012 Aug. 28.

Link >>>


Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory: New History Film." Thur. 2012 April 19.

Link >>>


Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.
              Wednesday, 2020 April 8.

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Glenn A. Walsh, Informal Science Educator & Communicator: >
Electronic Mail: < >
Project Director, Friends of the Zeiss: < >
SpaceWatchtower Editor / Author: < >
Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
* Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh:
  < >
* Adler Planetarium, Chicago:
  < >
* Astronomer, Educator, Optician John A. Brashear:
  < >
* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries:
  < >


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