TITLE:           Brashear, Dr. John A.




Born: November 24, 1840, Brownsville, Pennsylvania

Died:  April 8, 1920, Pittsburgh

His ashes, along with the ashes of his wife Phoebe, were interred in a crypt directly below the 30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh. Directly above both crypts is an epitaph, he had chosen for his wife—a quotation from a poem by Sarah Williams, which they both loved:

            We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.




Father: Brown Brashear, a saddler, a skilled and respected trade in those days

Mother: Julia Smith, school teacher

Genealogy: Original surname was Brasseuir; Brashears were originally French Huguenots, who had settled along the James River in Virginia; they later moved to Western Pennsylvania. The mother’s family moved to Western Pennsylvania from Massachusetts.

Married: Phoebe Stewart, September 24, 1862, Pittsburgh; she died September 23, 1910

in Muskoka Lakes, Canada.

Children: Two adopted children: Daughter Effie; then son Harry(who died of typhoid fever in his youth).

Education: Three winters in public school in Brownsville, Pa.;

Studied Bookkeeping(but disliked it) for one semester at

Duff’s Mercantile College [later (until 2006) Duff’s Business Institute; now Everest Institute], Pittsburgh


Chronology of Accomplishments and Honors: The following is an abridged list of the many accomplishments of, and honors conveyed upon, Mr. Brashear; a more complete list can be found in his autobiography.

1885 – Unanimously elected Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science(1902 – Life Member)

1889 – President, Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania

1892-1896 – President, Academy of Science and Art of Pittsburgh(Charter Member)

1894-1920 – Chairman, Allegheny Observatory Committee of the University of Pittsburgh

1896-1920 – Life Trustee, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh

1896-1920 – Member, Board of Trustees, University of Pittsburgh

1898-1900 – Acting Director, Allegheny Observatory; refused permanent post.

1900 – Vice President, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Section D

1901-1920 – One of three men, appointed by Andrew Carnegie, for Committee on Plan and Scope for the construction of the Carnegie Technical Schools (now Carnegie Mellon University); remained on Committee on (Carnegie) Institute of Technology until death.

1901 – Member of Assay Commission, appointed by President of United States

1901-1904 – Acting Chancellor of Western University of Pennsylvania (now University of Pittsburgh); refused permanent post three times.

1903 – “Pittsburghia,” one of new asteroids found by Brashear’s optics, named in honor of Mr. Brashear by Max Wolf, Director of Heidelberg Observatory.

1909 – Member of Langley Gold Medal Commission, appointed by Regents of Smithsonian Institution

1909-1920 – At specific request of Henry Clay Frick, organized and served as Chairman of the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission.

1910 – Elliott Cresson Gold Medal from Franklin Institute

1910-1920 – Member of Board of Corporators, Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind

1915 – President, American Society of Mechanical Engineers

1915 – U.S. Delegate to Second Pan-American Scientific Congress, appointed by Secretary of State Lansing.

1915 – Named “Pennsylvania’s Most Distinguished Citizen” by Governor Brumbaugh.

1918 – Member of National Research Council

1993 – Honorary Member(posthumously), Amateur Astronomers’ Association of Pittsburgh[which restored and now uses an 11-inch Brashear refractor telescope(originally commissioned by Andrew Carnegie for Carnegie Tech students to view Halley’s Comet in 1910) for public star parties at the club’s Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory]


Honorary Degrees:

1893 – Western University of Pennsylvania, Sc.D.

1896 – University of Wooster, LL.D.

1902 – Washington and Jefferson College, LL.D.

1911 – Princeton University, Sc.D.

1912 – Stevens Institute of Technology, D.Eng.

1916 – University of Pittsburgh, LL.D.


Abridged List of Research Facilities Receiving Brashear Equipment –


72-inch mirror and other optics for Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Victoria, British Columbia—then, second largest telescope in world!(73-inch mirror blank and two small blanks for secondary mirrors were shipped to Pittsburgh from Antwerp, Belgium in late July, 1914, only three or four days before war was declared in Europe; a 55-inch test blank shipped later was lost during World War I.)

37-inch parabolic mirror, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

37-inch Cassegrain telescope for Professor Campbell’s expedition to Chile

30-inch Thaw Photographic Refractor, Allegheny Observatory, Pittsburgh(for photographic work, more powerful than larger visual instruments)

30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector, Allegheny Observatory, Pittsburgh

24-inch object glass, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

20-inch object glass, Chabot Observatory, Oakland, California

18-inch object glass, Flower Observatory, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

15-inch object glass, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

12-inch object glass, 150 feet focal length, for Mt. Wilson Tower Telescope



Photographic Doublets: Lenses that give a large and flat photographic field of the sky. These were sent to many institutions, world-wide. Dr. Max Wolf, Director of the Heidelberg Observatory in Germany, had particular success in using these to discover asteroids—two of which(Alleghenia and Pittsburghia) he named in honor of Brashear.



Lick Observatory, Halstead Observatory, Allegheny Observatory, Yerkes Observatory, U.S. Naval Observatory, University of Cambridge(England), Lowell Observatory, University of Turin(Italy), McGill University, Paris Observatory.


First Spectroheliograph, to photograph automatically the surface and surroundings of the Sun, for Dr. George E. Hale; epoch-making results in the realm of solar photography.


Optical Surfaces for Professor A.A. Michelson’s first interferometer.


Brief Biography:


            John Brashear was a mechanical genius who had a fascination with the celestial heavens. He produced excellent telescopes(many still in use today) for both researchers and amateurs; he clearly understood how his handiwork advanced the Science of Astronomy. He also produced many other precision instruments for scientific research, to the specifications required by the scientists of the day—regardless of the cost. However, with nothing more than a layman’s knowledge of Spectroscopy and related sciences, he never really appreciated why these scientists placed him in such high regard.


            John Brashear had limited education and limited funds. However, he became the advisor and confidant of several of the leaders of the Industrial Revolution including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, William Thaw, George Westinghouse, Henry Phipps, and Charles Schwab. They recognized a mechanical genius in Brashear, yet a man who was more interested in bringing the stars to the common man than in the commercial exploitation so common in that era.


            When John Brashear was nine years old, his grandfather took him to look through the telescope of a friend, Squire Wampler(the glass for this telescope was found among the debris of a glass works destroyed in the great Pittsburgh fire of 1845). Young John Brashear was immediately impressed by the scenery on the Moon and the rings of Saturn, viewed through this telescope. This was a turning-point in his life; from then on the study of the stars became his primary interest. As both his education and his means were meager, his opportunities for employment were far from astronomy or education. When the Civil War broke-out, and his father enlisted in the Union Army, Brashear went to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh’s South Side, to support the family; his salary was $10 per week.


            Brashear did well and became one of the most skilled millwrights in the city. In a workshop behind his home, he started building a lens for a telescope, with the assistance of his wife, Phoebe—even though he had never read a book on astronomical physics. After two years of work, the five-inch lens was finished. Brashear held it to the light; it slipped and broke into two pieces, a major disappointment to Brashear and his wife.

An English friend, who was visiting at the time of the accident, replaced the glass, for the Brashears had no money for a replacement; however, it took two months for the replacement glass to be shipped from England. After three more years of work, the telescope was completed. Soon, people from all over the South Side neighborhood were looking through Brashear’s new telescope. He had begun his pursuit of bringing the stars to the common man.


            Brashear showed his telescope lens to Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory in nearby Allegheny City(now the North Side of Pittsburgh). Dr. Langley was quite impressed with Brashear’s work and suggested that John try building a reflector telescope.


Brashear obtained directions on silvering the mirror from a British scientific magazine, The English Mechanic and World of Science, loaned to him by a British co-worker in the mill; however, a year later, the nearly-finished mirror shattered due to inaccuracies in the instructions. This second disappointment was devastating. However, at the urging of Phoebe he started again. This time he succeeded, by devising his own method of silvering the mirror. What was to become typical of John Brashear, he then sent detailed descriptions, formulae, and drawings of his work to the British magazine, with no expectation of compensation. Brashear’s silvering method, later known as Brashear’s Process, quickly became the preferred method of silvering mirrors.


With one advertisement in Scientific American, John Brashear received hundreds of requests for “Silvered–glass specula, diagonals and eye-pieces made for amateurs desiring to construct their own telescopes.” He was now at a cross-roads. After suffering a nervous breakdown from hard work in the mill, along with the many hours spent working in his optical shop, he started considering leaving the secure living as a millwright, to become a lens-maker full-time.


Then, in July of 1881, he  received an important commission from Dr. Langley, to silver the heliostat mirror for an expedition to further study the selective absorption of the Earth’s atmosphere from the summit of Mt. Whitney, California. Yet, he still had a mortgage on his home and a family to support. The long-time benefactor of Langley, wealthy Pittsburgh philanthropist William Thaw, came to Brashear’s assistance. In addition to financing the enlargement and better equipping of Brashear’s workshop, Thaw paid-off Brashear’s mortgage! As with the generous assistance he had provided to Langley, Thaw considered this money to be an investment in future scientific knowledge, for the benefit of mankind. A few years later, Thaw provided Brashear with an even larger and better-equipped workshop, and a larger home, both near the Allegheny Observatory—all at the annual lease rate of zero! This unique lease arrangement, continued with Thaw’s heirs, lasted until Brashear’s death.


            When James Keeler left Allegheny Observatory to direct the Lick Observatory, Brashear became Acting Director of the Allegheny Observatory from 1898 to 1900. In 1901 to 1904 he became Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania, now the University of Pittsburgh. In both cases, he refused a permanent appointment. While continuing to provide precision optics and instruments to the scientific community, he also spent much time raising funds for a new Allegheny Observatory building, which would be beyond the smog and development of industrial Pittsburgh.


            In addition to his university appointments, Brashear became quite involved in education, as described in the section on Astronomical Contribution and Significance. And, he never forgot his dream of bringing the heavens to the common man. Hence, in this era before the construction of public planetaria and museums of the physical sciences, he insisted that the new Allegheny Observatory include a public lecture hall and public use of the original 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor Telescope; Henry Clay Frick endowed a program of weekly Observatory tours free-of-charge to the public. It was, also, no accident that the Observatory was located only a couple of blocks from a major street railway line, for easy public access; the 11D Perrysville Avenue bus line still provides frequent service to the Observatory.




1)      John Brashear 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. Two things, in particular, made this possible:

a)      Brashear’s personality, which was totally disinterested in profit and financial gain—yet insisting on perfection in every thing he produced.

b)      The subsidy of wealthy industrialists, such as William Thaw, who understood his mechanical genius, while tolerating his lack of business acumen.


It could be argued that, due to the immense industrial wealth produced in Pittsburgh during this time period, Brashear could have gone unnoticed had he been so unfortunate as to have lived elsewhere(and, perhaps “other Brashears” did go unnoticed in this era). It could well be that John Brashear was the right man, at the right place, at the right time!


After Thaw placed Brashear on a firm financial footing in 1881, Brashear started

making lenses for telescopes and spectroscopes, both large and small, for people and organizations throughout the world. Scientists from all over the world would seek Brashear’s expertise in solving problems, where adequate equipment did not exist. Brashear would work with them in designing the equipment needed; he would then instruct them on how to use it. When Brashear finished constructing the parts for the British Royal Observatory’s spectroscope, it was so advanced that no one at the Observatory knew how to assemble it! Through lengthy correspondence, Brashear explained the assembly to the Observatory staff.


Brashear also produced much of the equipment used by Samuel Pierpont Langley in his experiments on aerodynamics. Langley’s first order to Brashear, for construction of an airplane model, came on March 8, 1887. Brashear felt Langley’s disappointment when the 1903 experiments, of a man-carrying airplane, failed—just months before the success of the Wright Brothers.


2)  John Brashear is the one person who worked, literally for years, for the erection of the new(1914) building of the Allegheny Observatory of the University of Pittsburgh. The new Allegheny Observatory is primarily responsible for giving Science a much better idea of the distances to nearby stars, and helped set the distance scale of the Universe, and hence, the Earth’s true place within it. With the beginning of an aggressive stellar parallax program, shortly after the opening of the new building, Allegheny Observatory now has a library of more 110,000 photographic plates, showing star positions over most of the Twentieth Century. Today, Allegheny Observatory is also involved in extra-solar planet detection, recently providing evidence for the possibility of two Jupiter-sized objects in orbit of Lalande 21185.


By the end of the Nineteenth Century, development and the emissions of Pittsburgh industry made the site of the original Allegheny Observatory almost useless for quality research work. In 1894, Brashear secured a plot of land for a new observatory, on a high hill in a new Allegheny City park, Riverview Park, three miles north of the original Observatory. He then started raising the nearly $300,000 needed for the new observatory building. Although he did have some success, major obstacles blocked the near-term construction of the new building—particularly the Panic(Recession) of 1893 and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1894, Andrew Carnegie advised him to wait “until coke sells at a dollar a ton and we will build the Observatory.”


            By 1905, 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 Brashear could raise the other half by October. Due to his wife’s failing health, Brashear was committed to his annual Summer vacation at Muskoka Lakes in Canada. From there, by long-distance correspondence, Brashear raised $20,000. After returning to Pittsburgh, Brashear raised the rest of the amount, and a wee bit more, by 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.


3)  Brashear was heavily involved in educational pursuits, in addition to his Western University of Pennsylvania(now the University of Pittsburgh) appointments mentioned earlier. Andrew Carnegie appointed him a Life Trustee of The Carnegie Institute(Museums of Natural History and of Art and the Music Hall) in Pittsburgh in 1896, and to the three-member Plan and Scope Committee which designed the Carnegie Technical Schools in 1900, now Carnegie Mellon University.


In 1909, Henry Clay Frick asked Brashear to organize a commission that would provide grants to public school teachers, which would enable them to study, travel, and do research work. What became the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission began with an endowment of $250,000; Frick later added an additional $62,500. Due to his wish of anonymity regarding the original donation, Frick needed someone with the prestige of Brashear to head the Commission; in 1916, Frick agreed to lend his name for the Commission.



Brashear, John A., Edited by W. Lucian Scaife. John A. Brashear, Autobiography of A Man Who Loved the Stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925


Brashear, John A. John A. Brashear, Autobiography of A Man Who Loved the Stars.

Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988

Special Note: This edition omits chapters 19 and 20 from original edition.


Brashear Association, Inc. The Story of John Alfred Brashear, The Man Who Loved the Stars. Pittsburgh: U.S. Steel Corporation, 1989(Reprint of February, 1977 edition)


Elkus, Leonore R. Famous Men & Women of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1981


Walsh, G.A. (1999). History of Astronomer, Educator, and Optician John A. Brashear.

< http://johnbrashear.tripod.com > (2001 July 28)



Glenn A. Walsh, free-lance writer and Internet web page designer. Former Planetarium Lecturer and Astronomical Observatory Coordinator, Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh. Former Treasurer and Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library, Carnegie, Pa. The author can be contacted by electronic mail:

< gawalsh@planetarium.cc >.


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