John Brashear: A Man Who Loved the Stars

Pittsburgh telescope maker, optician, and educator John Alfred Brashear (1840-1920) was born 180 years ago this day. His world-renowned optical company made much of the astronomical equipment in use in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works included a 30-inch refractor for Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, a 15-inch refractor for the Dominion Observatory in Canada, and the 8-inch refractor at the Drake University Municipal Observatory in Des Moines, Iowa.

My good friend, telescope maker Drew Sorenson in Jefferson, Iowa, has been a fan of John Brashear for many years. Not only does Drew make fine refractors as did Brashear, but there is more than a little resemblance between the two men. Drew introduced me to a delightful book entitled John A. Brashear: The Autobiography of A Man who Loved the Stars, which was first published posthumously in 1924. For anyone interested in the history of astronomy and the life of a scientist and humanitarian who struggled from near-obscurity to great success with only an elementary school education, this book is a must-read.

Here are three of my favorite passages from the book.

Somewhere beneath the stars is work which you alone were meant to do. Never rest until you have found it.

There is another yarn I cannot resist telling. The young farmer who had been bringing Mrs. Brashear her supply of vegetables asked her one day if I would let him look in the big telescope if he came up some clear evening. She encouraged him to do so, and I found him waiting one night to see the sights. I did not know whether or not he had any knowledge of astronomy, but I asked him what he would like to look at. He replied, “Juniper.” I told him that unfortunately that planet was not visible in the sky at the time. Then he expressed a desire to see “Satan.” But his Satanic Majesty was not around either. The climax came when he asked if I could show him the “Star of Jerusalem!” I ended it by showing him the moon and some clusters, and he went home very happy.

I remember, too, an old gentleman over eighty years of age who climbed the hill one moonlight night for a look in the telescope. The good man was utterly exhausted when he reached the house, and Ma and I had him lie down on the lounge to rest before climbing the stairs to the telescope. The views that night were fine, and I can hear the soliloquy yet of the dear fellow as he said, “For many years I have desired to see the beauties of the heavens in a telescope. I have read about them and heard lectures about them, but I never dreamed they were so beautiful.” We invited him to stay all night; but as it was moonlight, and much easier for him to go down the hill than to come up, he insisted on going home. I went part of the way with him to see that he got along all right; and all the way he expressed his delight at having the wish of a lifetime gratified that night.

Three weeks later the funeral cortège of that old man passed along the road on the opposite hillside that led to the cemetery, and it has always been a pleasure to remember that I was able to be of some service in gratifying one of his desires of a lifetime.

I think that all my life I have been partial to old people and children, and it has always been a source of genuine pleasure to contribute to their happiness.

John A. Brashear: The Autobiography of A Man who Loved the Stars (1924)

2 thoughts on “John Brashear: A Man Who Loved the Stars”

  1. Your story on Brashear and his experience with the old man arduously climbing the hill to observe through a telescope 3 weeks before his death, brought to mind a more contemporary story I read written by Stephen James O’Meara. It is in the introduction to his Deep Sky Companions book, “The Caldwell Objects”.

    It involves him working late one spring evening at the offices of Sky & Telescope in Cambridge, MA.
    He got a phone call and as it was after hours he considered not answering it, but did. It was the voice of an elderly gentleman. His strained voice asked if he could identify a star for him that was currently ascending the eastern sky. He mentioned that he’d never bothered to learn its name, but now that he was dying, he’d like to know what it was. Stephen knew that it was Arcturus but wanted to go outside and confirm it. Of course that’s what it was. So Stephen went in to tell the gentlemen that it was Arcturus. Hawaiian’s called it Hoku-lea the star of gladness, the star that leads great voyagers home.

    I remember working as a docent on Kitt Peak when one day a women and her elderly father arrived for daytime tours. His daughter said it was on her father’s bucket list. And now that he was suffering from cancer, they thought it finally the time to check off that item on the list.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Phil. I did not know that Arcturus (Hōkūleʻa) is the “star of gladness” in Hawaiian star lore. It’s a nice thought, and one that I will share at future star parties when pointing that prominent star out.
      It is interesting to note that Arcturus passes through the zenith as seen from Hawaii.

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