John Brashear, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Kordite’s photostream

John A. Brashear built the instrument which changed physics forever — and he did it right here in Pittsburgh. Brashear was an astronomer, an instrument builder and a philanthropist who was born in Brownsville, PA in 1840. To the Pittsburghers of his time, he was affectionately known as “Uncle John,” but his gigantic contributions to science are not as well known to the average citizen today.

Brashear was only nine years old when he first viewed the moon and Saturn from a telescope — it started a lifelong love of astronomy. He built his own refractor in a coal shed turned workshop. In 1880, he started manufacturing astronomical and other scientific instruments and performing experiments in Pittsburgh. His achievements included developing an improved silvering method, which would become the standard for coating first surface mirrors, building high quality telescopes and precision scientific instruments used in observatories around the world, and more. From the Tribune-Review:

In addition to telescopes, Brashear developed revolutionary processes used in spectroscopes, permitting scientists to determine the chemical composition of stars, and photography that led to the discovery of 300 astrological bodies.

A mirror he built in 1886 was used in experiments for calculating the velocity of light that led to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Brashear never patented his discoveries. He published them for “the good of science,” Fried said, and he relied on benefactors to keep his Brashear Co. afloat. Pennsylvania Railroad baron William Thaw was his biggest benefactor.

Richard Sanderson, curator of physical science at Springfield Science Museum in Massachusetts, said collectors across the globe consider Brashear telescopes as valuable as Stradivarius violins.

“These telescopes, lenses and the sophisticated instruments that he made led to the Space Age,” he said.

A documentary, “Undaunted, The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory,” tells the fascinating and inspiring story of John A. Brashear and other giants in the field of astronomy who made their discoveries at the original version of this local landmark. The executive producer of the film is Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto. You can see a WTAE News story on “Undaunted” here, and view the trailer for it below:

Brashear was acting director of the Allegheny Observatory (he also raised the funds to build it), acting chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh), served on a committee that formed Carnegie Technical Schools (now Carnegie Mellon University), and was president of the Academy of Science and Art.

Both Brashear’s Perry Hilltop home and his factory are still standing and have been nominated by our state for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. From The Northside Chronicle:

The Brashear house at 1954 Perrysville Ave. is owned by Michael Goldstein of Slam Properties LLC and Goldstein Photography.

Goldstein bought the house last year, and has since remodeled it into a transitional living home, where people coming out of rehab live with month-by-month leases.

He said when he bought the house from a bank, it was filled with drug paraphernalia, and most of the original fixtures were gone.

Goldstein isn’t sure how he feels about the nomination, and said he needs to do more research.

The factory, located at 2016 Perrysville Ave., is owned by the city, is not currently vacant and not undergoing any renovations.

Photographs of both buildings can be viewed at the article in the Tribune-Review.

You can help to ensure that these structures receive the acclaim and preservation that they deserve by adding your comments to those that will be sent to the National Register of Historic Places (they require a public comment period). From SpaceWatchtower:

Written comments, in favor or opposed, to the nomination of these buildings to the National Register of Historic Places may be transmitted to City of Pittsburgh Historic Preservation Planner Sarah Quinn at the following addresses:

Sarah Quinn
Historic Preservation Planner
City of Pittsburgh
200 Ross Street, 4th Floor
Pittsburgh PA 15219
Electronic Mail: < >

Written comments for the nomination of these two buildings will be accepted until 2012 October 12.

Suggestions for questions to address in your comments can be found at the above link.

Looking up, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from nrrjr’s photostream