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the man who brought the stars to pittsburgh

In 1849 when an excited 9-year-old Brownsville lad named John Alfred Brashear first glimpsed the planet Jupiter through a telescope, he resolved to share the delights of the night sky with his fellow man.

By the age of 23, he had ascended to the position of wheelwright in a Pittsburgh iron mill. Rolling blooms into slabs by day and grinding glass into mirrors by night, his penchant for precision machining, combined with his love of astronomy, proved to be a perfect answer to the problems associated with making celestial telescopes. While Brashear admitted of knowing nothing whatsoever about building telescopes at the start, he realized his dream of bringing the stars to Earth by dint of a formidable intellect, unrelenting diligence and personal charm. Resourceful above all, Brashear worked behind his South Side home in an 8 ½ by 10-foot coal shed fitted with a homemade workbench and second-hand lathe driven by a steam engine and boiler that his wife, Phoebe, stoked every night before John returned from the mill. He sought the advice of experts in telescopy by mail, asked local opticians for sources of optical glass and made his first lenses by trial and error, breaking a few in the process. In response to the problem of mirrors cracking while cooling after silvering, Brashear developed a method for room-temperature silvering that proved successful. Subsequently, the Brashear Process became the standard telescope mirror silvering process around the world.

When his first telescope was complete, he cut a hole in the roof of his home, mounted the 9-foot- long instrument in the attic and opened the door for all to view the heavens. His boyhood resolution had been fulfilled, but he was not inclined to stop there. John Brashear went on to found the Brashear Company, which supplied mirrors, glasses and spectroscopes to some of the most prestigious observatories in the world.

Among his many appointments, awards and recognitions; he was inducted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science, elected Chairman of the Allegheny Observatory and appointed Acting Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. As word of his genius spread, he rubbed elbows with such 19th century luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, Charles Schwab and William Thaw for whom the Allegheny Observatory’s 30-inch refractor telescope is named.

When the time came for the original Allegheny Observatory to be replaced by the one that stands now, it was John Brashear who almost single handedly raised the $250K for the magnificent edifice and the instrumentation inside.

Today, in that building’s rotunda, a luminous stained glass image of Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, gazes upon a blue Earth-like orb she holds in one hand while raising the other to the sky as though investing dominion over the heavens in the life-size bronze statue of John Brashear sitting on the floor beneath her.

Although the practical realities of his life precluded a grand formal education, John Brashear knew who he was and made the most of what he had. A plaque above the door of his South Side residence bore the inscription, "Somewhere beneath the stars is work which you alone were meant to do. Never rest until you have found it."

As his life story shows, John Brashear was a man inclined to take his own advice.

This article first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation Chronicles.

© Copyright 2007, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications

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