Brashear Telescope Aimed at Stars Again





SUNDAY, OCT. 22, 1995

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



(Copyright 1995 PG Publishing Co. Do not reprint.)

On a clear night in 1849, a 9-year-old boy fascinated with the moon and the stars experienced his first close-up view of the heavens.

With the required few cents and encouragement from his grandfather, young John A. Brashear gazed through the telescope made by Squire Wampler of McKeesport. Amazed at what he saw, he vowed to build his own instrument and let everyone see the stars he so admired.

Years later, Brashear would write in his autobiography, ''I thought, also, how nice it would be if there were a telescope or a place where the layman, boy or girl, could have a chance to look at the stars, the moon and the planets, little dreaming that in my later life I should have an opportunity to help bring this very miracle to pass.''

Nearly 150 years and numerous telescopes later, Brashear's ''miracle'' continues.

An 11-inch refractor he built in 1908 has been restored and assembled by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh at the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Regional Park, near Russellton in West Deer. The instrument gets its public unveiling at free star parties Friday and Saturday. The parties begin just before sunset.

Though Brashear remained committed to astronomy as he grew older, he knew he couldn't make a living from it. He was trained as a machinist by age 20 and spent the next 20 years as a millwright, primarily in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. But he continued to educate himself in the field: ''I made studies of the constellations, particularly on Saturday nights, after the fires and smoke of the mills had ceased to darken the sky. I would then take my Barritt's Star Map, get between the piles of pig metal out on the river-bank, and, with a candlelight, locate positions on the map.''

Despite working 12-hour days in the mill, Brashear spent his nights learning how to craft lenses and make a telescope. Through trial and error, he and his wife, Phoebe, completed his first instrument in 1874. The first night the Brashears set up the telescope in their South Side home, they called in the neighbors to take a look at the stars, planets and the moon.

Encouraged by his success, he continued to teach himself about the workings of telescopes and lenses, and he designed and built them in a workshop behind his home.

With help from Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley, then director of Allegheny Observatory, Brashear began to produce and design optical lenses. His business boomed, and he resigned from the mill.

That same year he met philanthropist William Thaw, whose subsidies allowed Brashear to build a bigger workshop and obtain better equipment and machinery. From then on, he began to make a name for himself designing and making lenses and building telescopes and spectroscopes for observatories in the United States and around the world. Many of them are still in use.

He hobnobbed with the scientists of his day, as well as wealthy industrialists, among them Henry Clay Frick, George Westinghouse and Andrew Carnegie.

It was Carnegie and Thaw who asked Brashear in 1908 to design and build a telescope to view Halley's Comet, which would be visible in 1910. The resulting refractor, the only 11-inch Brashear built, is now housed at the Wagman Observatory.

It was that same comet that caught the attention of another boy, 61 years after the young Brashear first put his eye against a telescope. Seven-year-old Leo Scanlon stood in awe of the comet. ''There was a big thing up in the sky I had never seen before,'' said Scanlon, now 92. ''There was a head and a tail to it. The head was very bright and the tail extended a quarter of the way across the sky. I asked my dad what that was and he said, 'That's called Halley's Comet. It appears every 75 years and you're just young enough that you might see it again.' I said, '75 years?' He said 'You can do it -- just keep breathing.' ''

The comet sparked Scanlon's lifelong interest in astronomy. In 1928, he bought a book titled ''Amateur Telescope Making'' and constructed his first instrument. By then he was earning his living as a plumber.

''I turned it to the eastern sky, where there was a bright star coming up. I had the thrill that Galileo had when he viewed Saturn through his telescope,'' Scanlon said.

He wanted to meet other people in the area who had built telescopes or were interested in viewing the stars. Those meetings evolved into the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh in 1929. The club now has nearly 350 members.

One of the early highlights of the group was a visit from Albert Einstein in 1934. Before Einstein came to Pittsburgh to speak about his theory of relativity, Scanlon sent him a letter asking him to see an exhibit the amateur astronomers had produced for the occasion. After his talk, Einstein sought out the group and its display.

Once Scanlon had his own telescope, he mounted it on the top of a flat concrete building next to his home on the North Side. But his view was hampered by the glare of a nearby street lamp.

Scanlon at first tried to paint the lamp with black polish. ''Then I had a boy in the neighborhood who had gotten an air rifle for his birthday, and for 10 cents, he'd shoot the light out for me.''

But the lamp would always be replaced. Finally, Scanlon built his own observatory, the first in the world with an aluminum dome.

Now an honorary member of the association he founded, Scanlon was the first to look through Brashear's refractor during a ''first light'' ceremony with association members Oct. 7.

''(The telescope) is a wonderful opportunity to advance knowledge, to instigate the public to a greater degree. Who knows what children will come in and see? Maybe another Copernicus or Galileo. You have to give them a start. This will help keep astronomy popular and help the advancement of it,'' Scanlon said.

While Scanlon was just developing his boyhood interest in the stars, Brashear's refractor was being housed in an observatory at Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University). Brashear's fame continued to grow within the science community.

''Uncle John,'' as he became known, was also a crusader for education, serving as an original member of the board of directors of the Carnegie Institute, a member of the Frick Educational Commission, temporary director of the Allegheny Observatory and acting chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (later the University of Pittsburgh).

He died in 1920, and his ashes are buried with his wife's at the base of the Keeler Memorial Reflector at Allegheny Observatory. The crypt's inscription reads, ''We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.''

The refractor stayed at Carnegie Technical School until 1914, when the observatory was torn down to make way for a fine arts building. It was disassembled and put into storage.

In the mid-1940s, the telescope was shipped to Ohio State University to a former Carnegie faculty member hoping to start an astronomy program there, said Dr. Truman Kohman, retired professor of chemistry and astronomy at CMU and AAAP member.

''But the fellow there was unsuccessful and was unable to put (the telescope) up. It was returned to Carnegie Tech in the early 1960s. Then it stayed in storage for quite some time, and it appeared there was no future for it at CMU, so I arranged that the university donate it to the association.''

Wade Barbin, Wagman Observatory's associate director and chief telescope engineer, wasn't surprised by the lack of interest.

''Institutions such as CMU and Ohio State didn't take a great interest in it because it has a visual lens, for visual observation alone. Photography was really starting to take off then and the lens wasn't well-suited for photography. ... But for our purposes and for the general public, it's ideal,'' he said.

But the telescope was in less than ideal shape when the association received it.

''It was completely dismantled,'' said Barbin. ''The lenses were in a vault at Allegheny Observatory and they were covered with dirt. The main objective lens was covered with 50 years' worth of sticky film.''

It also was missing several parts, including the moving device that allowed it to follow the stars, according to AAAP telescope engineer Flaccus Stifel. ''And its parts were rusted. We figured it to be only a $25 value the way it was. It looked like a hunk of junk.''

But the lenses were cleaned, tested and found to be of good quality. Some of the original drawings for the telescope were discovered, allowing members to duplicate missing parts. As they restored the refractor, they documented each step.

In order to house the 20-foot-high telescope, however, the association had to expand the observatory.

''We had to do a 20-by-40-foot addition. It's a concrete block structure with a roll-off framework. The roof rolls back under the roof,'' said Stifel, who oversaw the construction. The $40,000 cost was paid for by membership contributions and institutional gifts. The new wing will be dedicated next spring.

The refractor joins the observatory's 12 1/2-inch reflector that is on indefinite loan from CMU. ''It will be a complement. It will be good for planetary views and when the moon goes by in front of a star. It will also be good for any work having to do with variable and multiple stars,'' Stifel said.

''It wasn't ahead of its time,'' he added. ''It was a handsome instrument in terms of size, but not the largest he made. Three years later he made the 30-inch refractor called the Thaw, since Thaw was the benefactor. It's still one of the large refractors around.''

The newly restored, painted and polished black and brass telescope ''is benefiting the club and astronomy and will help educate people of all ages,'' said Tom Reiland, AAAP president, director of Wagman Observatory and senior observer and assistant astronomer at Allegheny Observatory.

''People are starting to understand that they must learn about the world around them,'' Reiland said. ''By learning about other planets, we can see what can happen to the Earth in the future or what could have happened in the past if Earth had gone the way of, say, Mars.''

The telescope also symbolizes the continuing legacy of Brashear. The association unanimously elected the astronomer an honorary member in 1993, the only member to receive the honor posthumously.

''He contributed so much to astronomy and to Pittsburgh and people remember him fondly. I run into people who were children when he was still alive; they're in their 80s and 90s now,'' Reiland said.

Now future generations can gaze through the lens Uncle John crafted, see his heavens and come closer to his universe.

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