Literature, Science, Technology

Occasional Quote of the Day: Worlds Beyond Earth

“I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night”– Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams was a British Victorian poet who is best known for “The Old Astronomer,” written in the person of an elderly astronomer on his deathbed who speaking to his young pupil. Her output is short, as was her life (1837-1868), as she died much too soon following complications from cancer surgery.

The fourth stanza of her poem:

You may tell that German College that their honour comes too late.
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate;
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.

has inspired the epitaphs of many amateur and professional astronomers and scientists.

One who bridges both worlds, spending large parts of his life as one, and then the other, was born not far down the road from me, in Brownsville PA, on Nov. 24, 1840. His family was composed of tradesmen and educators: His mother was a school teacher; his father was a saddler, and his grandfather was a clock-repairer and amateur astronomer who gave the nine-year-old John Brashear his first taste of a world beyond the “surly bonds of earth” when he took him to look through the “traveling telescope” of Squire Joseph P. Wampler, and a lifelong love affair with the stars was launched.

Things being what they were in the Brashear household, though, young John left school at 15, trained as a machinist, and spent the next 20 years working in a Pittsburgh mill.

He continued tinkering with his beloved hobby on the side, and completed his first refractor telescope in 1870, afterward inviting friends and neighbors into his garden to observe the stars and planets through it. His efforts were noticed by Samuel Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory, who encouraged the now early-middle-aged-and-married John in his passion, and in 1880 he founded the John A. Brashear Co. in partnership with his son-in-law.

The company’s reputation as an innovator and manufacturer of high-quality optics grew, as did its contributions to the field, including a new and extremely effective way of silvering mirrors. Although many of the company’s efforts depended on the inventiveness and genius of its founder, Brashear never applied for a patent for any of his work, and made no money from it other than that which came from his own company.

During his later life, he traveled internationally, lecturing and learning, and in 1898 he himself became the Director of the Allegheny Observatory, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Samuel Langley. For a time, he was Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) although he’d never attended a day of college in his life, and he also served as a trustee of several academic and scientific organizations.

In 1919, he became seriously ill as the result of food poisoning and, never having recovered his normal robustness, he died at the age of 79, on April 8, 1920. His ashes are interred in the crypt of the Allegheny Observatory, and the spot is marked with a plaque bearing the last line of the fourth stanza of Sarah Williams’s poem.

Although he’s given his name to numerous schools, streets and areas in and around Western Pennsylvania, John Brashear isn’t much talked about around here anymore. However, in 2015 he made an unexpected appearance in the news when workers demolishing the Brashear Telescope Factory on Pittsburgh’s North Side (where the company made its worldwide reputation, but which had fallen into disrepair and was condemned, despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places), discovered a 120-year-old time capsule buried in its walls.

The box was opened on March 18, 2014, and found to contain an optical glass, family pictures, blueprints from the factory, a lock of hair from Phoebe Brashear, John’s wife, and a photograph of company employees dated August 1894. Several other items were also in the box, including a book labeled “In Memoriam William Thaw,” a tribute to the man who’d underwritten the young company and paid for the land and buildings.

After a rather undignified “custody battle” as to who owned the box, its finders or the City of Pittsburgh, it, and its contents found a permanent home at the Heinz History Center where it remains to this day, speaking across the centuries to those who have ears to hear:


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