“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” – “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams
Photo: Allegheny Observatory Records, 1850-1967, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System.
November is a great time to think about “Uncle John” Brashear and his wife, Phoebe. John Alfred Brashear was born on Nov. 24, 1840 in Brownsville, Pa. but came to fame during his time in the former Allegheny City and his affiliation with the Allegheny Observatory, located in Riverview Park. This article was mainly sourced from Brashear’s obituary, published in The Gazette Times on April 9, 1920 with the headline “‘UNCLE JOHN’ BRASHEAR IS DEAD.” The article has been paraphrased below.
As a boy, Brashear became the apprentice of a machinist. When he was 20, he mastered the trade. He moved from Brownsville, Pa. to Louisville, Ky. and began working with a steam engine builder. Louisville was a focal point of the Confederacy though, and Brashear’s status as a Northerner forced him to leave the city. In 1861, he came to Pittsburgh and found work at Zug & Painter in the Southside as a millwright. This was his career field for the next 20 years. He continued to grow his elementary knowledge of astronomy—a subject introduced to him by his grandfather and galvanized by a traveling astronomer in his hometown—during this time, too. He made it his goal to learn everything he could about the stars.
Once he came to Pittsburgh, Brashear married Phoebe Stewart. He told his wife about his goals with astronomy and the young couple planned how he could continue his study. They found a site in the Southside and Brashear built a home at 3 Holt St. The work was done in the evenings, after his mill labor was over. The home was completed in 1870. He and Phoebe could not afford to buy a telescope, so instead, he started building one. It was completed in 1874. Unfortunately, as Brashear lifted his first lens to the telescope, it dropped on the floor and broke. He went to the mill the next morning, doubting whether he wanted to continue or not, but when he arrived home that evening, Phoebe had already started on the next lens.
Brashear’s work and articles attracted the attention of the late William Thaw, a patron of the Allegheny Observatory. Thaw induced Brashear to move his shops from the Southside to the Northside, then Allegheny City. Brashear and his wife made a new home at 1954 Perrysville Ave. and a workshop was built next to the house. It is here that Brashear became affectionately known to Alleghenians and Pittsburghers as “Uncle John.” People of all backgrounds and interests would knock on the door of the Perrysville home and in short order, a telescope was set up for viewing with Uncle John alongside it. It was also in this shop, in 1888, that Brashear improved the spectroscope for astronomy uses.* The optical parts made in the Brashear shop were of higher grade than those previously obtained in Germany and resulted in scientific discoveries that birthed current day astrophysics.
From 1898 to 1900, Brashear was the director of the Allegheny Observatory. From 1901 to 1904, he was acting chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh); he also served as a trustee of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).
In later years, Brashear directed the affairs of the John A. Brashear Company with his son-in-law. The firm had no patents and no secrets. Whatever was accomplished in its workshops was free to the public.
Brashear’s kindness was known by everyone. According to a story published in The Gazette Times following Brashear’s death, the whole city of Pittsburgh took part in a “love feast [sic]” in 1915 to celebrate his 75th birthday where he was called “the scientist having the most friends in the world.” Again on Nov. 22, 1916, the night before his 76th birthday, a string of thousands of people clasped his hands as he stood on the staircase of the Frick building lobby to honor him. In 1919, his friends arranged a postcard “shower” for his birthday that “became a storm,” pouring in from across the nation to his home at 1954 Perrysville Ave.
Brashear died in 1920. His ashes are contained in an urn in the cupola under the Keeler telescope in the Allegheny Observatory, next to Phoebe’s. A plaque on the crypt reads: “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,” a paraphrase of the last line of the poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams.
Although the Allegheny Observatory is now closed to the public due to COVID-19, when it reopens, the tours, open houses, and lectures are always free, as Brashear declared that the stars should always be available to the people.
Nancy Schaefer is a City of Pittsburgh Park Ranger in the Northside’s Riverview Park.
Editor’s note 12/6/2021: To clarify, Brashear did not invent the spectroscope, but rather improved upon it. Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff are credited with inventing the spectroscope.