Advancing Astronomy & Community:
John Brashear

by Lisa A. Miles © 2009

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When Samuel Pierpont Langley discovered the genius lens-making of a humble Pittsburgh millwright in the late 1870s, set in motion would be a course of events that changed telescope-making forever. It is an appropriate time, in this 2009 Year of Astronomy, to honor that man who soon thereafter had observatories across the Atlantic calling on his precision work in lenses and scientific instruments.

John Alfred Brashear was fascinated with the stars as a young man, but too poor to buy amateur telescope. So he built one. Over ten years, after day-labor, with wife Phoebe faithfully by his side, he constructed in a little workshop behind home a telescope that would catch the attention of Langley.

PBS has recently aired a documentary of the telescope, but in the interest of time clipped mention of the Langley-Brashear collaboration and the significant contributions of Brashear. Locally, On Q just aired a story on Brashear and left out any mention of the fact that Brashear’s house and factory (during his most famous years) still stand on Perrysville Avenue.

Later to be titled “Father of Aviation” when he went to the Smithsonian Institute, Langley first tested flight with his numerous early “whirlybird” experiments off an Allegheny City hilltop (Pittsburgh’s North Side). This hilltop land housed the campus of the Western University of Pennsylvania, and was where the Allegheny Observatory originally sat, with Langley as director.

Allegheny Time, set for the nation’s first railroads, was established at this Observatory, which also grew out of remarkably humble beginnings. Quite a group– mostly laymen on up to the ultra-wealthy William Thaw–the Allegheny Telescope Society was formed after intense interest in the 1850s discovery of Donati’s Comet.

Brashear lived on the South Side of Pittsburgh and was not associated with the group, but he traveled across the rivers to see Langley, who would become mentor and colleague. And he soon hooked him up with Thaw.

A railroad man, William Thaw owned undeveloped land on this central peak of Allegheny City, adjacent the campus. He would become Brashear’s benefactor, giving him title to the land and having a beautiful Second Empire home, with three-story brick factory in the rear, built to accommodate his every need.

The Western University of PA later relocated to the Oakland neighborhood, becoming the University of Pittsburgh. But for a time before the City of Pittsburgh would controversially annex Allegheny City, students would mingle for dinner and conversation with scientists from around the globe, gathered around the long table in the later-added Arts & Crafts Board Room of John Brashear’s home.

Langley and Brashear, oft working together, had a reputation for their down-to-earth teaching manners and humanitarian ways. Whenever mishaps occasionally occurred in the lens-making process in the factory, students were called to be let out of Langley’s class to witness the teachable loss. Brashear especially had an affinity for young people; some even referred to him as “Uncle John.”

At his new factory, Brashear filled orders for the Lick and Lowell Observatories, among many others. Within a short time he went from mill worker to being world-renowned in the field of science, and he even served as Director of the Allegheny Observatory and Acting Chancellor of the University near turn of the new century.

Perfecting his skill in his factory, however, was his passion and he returned to that alone until his death in 1920. He was then interred alongside his wife, in a crypt at base of a telescope in the relocated Allegheny Observatory, with inscription “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

The historic home and factory of John Brashear sit unoccupied and long-neglected on Perrysville Avenue of Pittsburgh’s North Side– two structures emblematic of a forgotten chapter in our national history of astronomy and aviation. As well, locally, the buildings are lone remnants of the wondrous contribution to scientific history of a North Side neighborhood now known as Perry Hilltop.

Educational programming surrounding the Brashear structures was conducted last Fall, as means to ‘stimulate a community via its history.’ In primitive fashion (no heat or electricity) and a humble manner (that perhaps would have pleased Brashear), with creativity and the kindness of a realtor (as agent for bank-owner)– children and community ushered a public in to see where so much history stemmed from. The event began to open the eyes of many to the hidden history of this now economically deprived neighborhood. But much work remains.

There have been calls and now recent support for a museum to be housed in both the structures (for Brashear’s work, astronomy, Langley’s early work, and possibly early University). Both structures are open to sale, directly and indirectly, for modest sums, and both retain historical elements. Certainly, restoration or renovation would be required.

There have been pro-offerings of antique telescope instruments as base for the collection, and interest from individuals in the national scientific community. Historic designation is also finally under way. But the necessary web of historians and scientists who might shepherd this project through to viable reality is just beginning.

The house and factory should be now cared for, open to schoolchildren and public, to tours and study. The essence of Brashear, the character of the man, can still be sensed in the structures. His life and work, though evident, are only minimally known by anyone treading the hilltop land which holds so much history. His contributions should be known and celebrated by children and adult visitors, and as inspiration to all residents, educators, historians and scientists.

John Brashear was best known in the scientific community as the man who developed advanced silvering techniques for telescope mirrors, but in Pittsburgh was most remembered as humanitarian scientific educator. With telescopes still in use to this day, he advanced astronomy to great end, and his memory challenges a current-day community to resurrect his legacy.

LISA A. MILES is a creative artist herself and the author of This Fantastic Struggle: The Life & Art of Esther Phillips and the best selling Resurrecting Allegheny City. Portions of the former comprise part of this article. More info:   lisamilesviolin.com.

Artists as Workers · Rethinking Teaching · John Brashear · The North Side’s North Shore