Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Disappearing Legacy of a Backyard Astronomer

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Demolition of a historic North Side factory began Tuesday morning after a wall partially collapsed onto an occupied apartment building the night before, a city director said.
The John A. Brashear Factory located at 2016 Perrysville Ave., Perry Hilltop, was built in the 1880s for the self-made Pittsburgh astronomer who was the world’s leading manufacturer of precision optical and scientific instruments....
The factory and a nearby mansion were built for Brashear, who died in 1920, and later produced Norden bombsights during World War II....
“[Brashear] didn’t have money to buy a telescope, so he made his own. That to me is a real Pittsburgh thing,” said Mr. Bonnet, 38, of Ohio Township. “That building could have helped keep that story fresh and alive for future generations.”
More on Brashear:
Brashear was born in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, a town 35 miles (56 km) south of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River. His father, Basil Brown Brashear, was a saddler, and his mother, Julia Smith Brashear, was a school teacher. He was the oldest of seven children. As a boy, John Brashear was heavily influenced by his maternal grandfather, Nathanial Smith, a clock repairer. When he was nine, his grandfather took him to view through the telescope of 'Squire' Joseph P. Wampler, who set up his traveling telescope in Brownsville. That influential view of the moon and the planet Saturn stayed with Brashear for the rest of his life. After receiving a common school education until age 15, he became an apprentice to a machinist and had mastered his trade at age 20.
Beginning in 1861 Brashear worked as a millwright in a rolling steel mill in Pittsburgh. He pursued his love for astronomy at night, with the help of his wife Phoebe Stewart, a Sunday school teacher whom Brashear met in 1861 and married in 1862.[1] Of too little means to purchase a telescope, Brashear built his own workshop from a three-meter-square coal shed behind his house and proceeded to build his own refractor.
Starting in 1880, he dedicated his time to manufacture astronomical as well as scientific instruments, and performed various experiments. He developed an improved silvering method, which would become the standard for coating first surface mirrors (known as the "Brashear Process") until vacuum metalizing began replacing it in 1932.
Brashear patented few instruments and never patented his techniques. He founded "John A. Brashear Co." with his son-in-law and partner, James Brown McDowell (now a division of L-3 Communications, and still based in Pittsburgh). His instruments gained worldwide respect. Optical elements and instruments of precision produced by John Brashear were purchased for their quality by almost every important observatory in the world. Some are still in use today.
In 1892 Brashear made his second of three trips to Europe, this time providing a lecture tour. In 1898 he became director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, continuing in this post until 1900.
Wow, I didn't know that.

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