In earlier posts, I’ve discussed astronomers who are interred on the grounds of telescopes they were associated with such as Percival Lowell at Lowell Observatory and James Lick at Lick Observatory. While reading the January 2016 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, I discovered two astronomers interred under the pier of a telescope I didn’t know about: John and Phoebe Brashear. The Brashears are interred under the Keeler Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh.
In 1849, young John Brashear viewed the moon and Saturn through a telescope owned by a traveling showman and fell in love with astronomy. Eleven years later, he would meet a Sunday School teacher named Phoebe Stewart and the two would marry in 1862.
John Brashear became a skilled machinist in the Pittsburgh steel mills, but maintained his love of astronomy, which he shared with his wife, Phoebe. Lacking money to buy a telescope, they built a 5-inch refractor in 1875. The telescope so impressed Samuel Pierpont Langley, director of the Allegheny Observatory, that he encouraged the couple to try their hand at making a reflecting telescope.
John took the challenge and set to work grinding and polishing a 12-inch mirror. In those days, the silver coating for telescope mirrors was applied in a hot, chemical bath. John finished the mirror and placed it in the bath to coat it, only to have it shatter. After a restless night, he went to work at the mill and returned home to find that Phoebe had cleaned up his optical shop and had all his tools ready to start again. John went on to make a whole new mirror and ultimately left the Pittsburgh mills to start a company building astronomical and scientific instrumentation.
The Brashear Company built the interferometer used by Michaelson and Morley in 1887 to disprove the existence of the aether that scientists of the time believed supported light waves. This work paved the way for Einstein’s relativity theory. They also built the spectrograph used at Lowell Observatory used to detect the first galactic redshifts. John Brashear would go on to become director of Allegheny Observatory and spent four years as the Acting Chancellor of the University of Western Pennsylvania.
The quote on the tomb’s plaque is adapted from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” and reads “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” Do the Brashears haunt the observatory where they are buried? Somehow, I think they’re too busy appreciating the night sky to bother the astronomers working today. That said, I do find myself looking at the photo of John Brashear here and thinking he looks a lot like the fictional astronomer Robert Burroughs from my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Whats more, the ghost of Robert Burroughs is an old astronomer with a troublesome pupil. John Brashear may or may not haunt Allegheny Observatory, but I’m starting to wonder if he haunts my novel!
If you’d like to know more about the Brashears, be sure to check out the January 2016 issue of Sky and Telescope and a pair of articles by Al Paslow and Tom Dobbins. Those articles were the source of many of the facts cited in this blog post.