John A. Brashear was born November 24, 1840 in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, to Basil Brown Brashear and Julia (Smith) Brashear. He would be the oldest of seven children. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a saddler but he was greatly influenced by his grandfather, Nathanial Smith, a clock repairer. His grandfather and John visited the traveling telescope exhibit of 'Squire' Joseph P. Wampler, in 1849, in Brownsville. The view of the moon and Saturn stayed with John the rest of his life. Once he had completed common education at age 15, he took on an apprenticeship for a machinist and mastered his trade by age 20.
In 1861, John worked in a rolling steel mill as a millwright in Pittsburgh. By 1862 he had married Phoebe Stewart, a Sunday school teacher he had meet in 1861. He pursued his love for astronomy at night, but did not have enough money to purchase a telescope. He built his own workshop out of a three-meter-square coal shed behind his house and began to build his own refractor.
By 1880, he began to performed various experiments with his manufactured astronomical as well as scientific instruments. He developed an improved silvering method, which was the standard for coating first surface mirrors (known as the "Brashear Process") until 1932 when vacuum metalizing began available. During this time John and Phoebe were also active in their church. John was the choir director of Bingham Street Methodist Episcopal Church and organized a group of church choirs from Pittsburgh's South side, which became known as the Cantata Society.
John never patented his techniques and few instruments he invented. He founded "John A. Brashear Co." with his daughter's husband, James Brown McDowell (now a division of L-3 Communications, and still based in Pittsburgh). John's instruments were respected worldwide as optical elements and instruments of precision. Known for their quality by almost every important observatory in the world, some are still in use today. When a crew demolishing his factory years later, a time capsule was found that became an object of dispute.
On his second of three trips to Europe in 1892, John gave lectures on his work and in 1898, he became director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh. He would remain in this position until 1900.
After he left the Allegheny Observatory, he became the acting chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He held this post from 1901 to 1904, after he had served as a member of the board of trustees since 1896. He was also a trustee of the Carnegie Institute of Technology and served as President of the Academy of Science and Art.
During the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915), in which a 20" Warner-Swasey telescope with Brashear optics was displayed, Brashear was named "the State's most distinguished man" by Pennsylvania's Governor Martin Grove Brumbaugh. The telescope is still in use today at Chabot Space and Science Center at Oakland, California.
John Brashear was admired and beloved by fellow western Pennsylvanians and international astronomers, who familiarly called him "Uncle John". John died on April 8, 1920. He had incurred food poisoning in 1919, and suffered a debilitating illness which lasting six months. He died at age 79, at his South Side home. His body was held in state in the Great Hall of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
John and Phoebe's ashes are in a crypt below the Keeler Telescope at Allegheny Observatory. A plaque above is engraved with the words: "We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.". This is paraphrased from the poem "The Old Astronomer to His Pupil" by Sarah Williams. He was survived by a daughter and several siblings.
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