Focus helped a humble millwright develop some of the best telescopes.
Born in Brownsville, Pa., John Brashear had to support his family by working in a Pittsburgh steel mill after his father went off to fight in the Civil War. John worked his way up to a good living at the mill -- and that might've been it.
"He started out with very modest means and a very limited education," said Glenn Walsh, director of a planetarium equipment preservation group called Friends of the Zeiss. "He was a very accomplished millwright."
Walsh says Brashear (1840-1920) earned promotions because whenever the mill went down, he got it up and running faster than anyone else.
Brashear might've stayed a millwright -- except he longed for more. So he devoted himself to a childhood passion: telescopes.
When Brashear was 9, his grandfather took him to look through a flint glass telescope. He saw the planet Saturn. Captivated, he began his love affair with astronomy.
Brashear wanted everyone to be able to see what he saw.
"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," he said years later in his autobiography.
Money And Work
Once Brashear earned enough cash at the mill, he paid for the parts he needed to build a telescope. "You couldn't buy one back then," Walsh said. "He had to build the actual lens himself, which wasn't easy."
Brashear spent two years building that first 5-inch lens at home after long shifts at the mill, only to have to start over. "He held it up to the light and it fell and broke," Walsh said.
Undaunted, Brashear decided to move with even more care, and spent three years building his next lens. It was probably even more perfect than the first one, Walsh says. That would've been no minor feat. Building a telescope in that era took the love of a master craftsman and an inordinate amount of hard work.
"He had literally rubbed his thumbs raw, to where they were bleeding from rubbing the lens over the glass surface to remove imperfections," said George Gatewood, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory. "Back in those days they would cool lenses -- make them anneal -- by pouring them into horse manure."
Despite having had to employ such a practice, Gatewood says, Brashear built some of the best telescope lenses in the world. Only recently did the Allegheny Observatory replace a 30-inch Brashear telescope lens with something newer. The reason wasn't the optical quality -- that remained exquisite -- but the quality of the glass itself. "When the temperature would change, the lens would change slightly," Gatewood said.
Many people came to Brashear's house to take a peek through the first refractor telescope he built that didn't break. While that made him happy, he wanted more people to have the chance to see the heavens.
He realized he had to talk to someone about how it should be done. Pittsburgh was a rare city that had an observatory. So Brashear talked to its main astronomer.
"He met Samuel Pierpoint 12angley and showed him the 5-inch glass lens he'd made for a telescope and Langley was immediately impressed," Walsh said. Langley asked what book Brashear used as a guide; Brashear said he hadn't used any. Amazed, Langley offered Brashear a book that detailed how to build a different kind of telescope -- one that used a mirror to gather light.
"So Brashear made one of those," Walsh said.
Long Shelf Life
Langley offered Brashear a grant to build a telescope for the observatory. Eager for the challenge, he accepted, quit the mill and opened a shop for building telescopes and other instruments. The telescopes he produced were so well built that they came into use not just in the U.S., but also in Canada, Europe and Africa. Some are still used today.
Brashear -- who'd taken an accounting course as a young man but decided to follow his passion for scientific interests -- wasn't interested in personal profit. However, his work and his enthusiasm for it inspired philanthropists. William Thaw, for instance, bankrolled an expansion of Brashear's business.
"Thaw contacted him and said, 'Charge what you can and I'll put in the difference,'" Gatewood said. "He impressed people.... That charm of his really made his business a success."
Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse were among the businessmen who saw his work. Carnegie asked him to build a telescope to help see Halley's comet in 1910.
This story originally ran Oct. 18, 2006, on Leaders & Success.