Historical Markers
Brashear House Historical Marker
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Brashear House

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
6th and Union Sts. (old US 40) in Brownsville.

Dedication Date:
November 22, 1946

Behind the Marker

One  black and white image of two separate oval head and shoulders shots of a man and a woman.
John and Phoebe Stewart Brashear, September 24, 1862.
Born in 1840 in a stone tavern at Sixth and Market Streets in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, John Brashear was nine when his grandfather took him to gaze at Saturn through the lens of a traveling telescope exhibit. Brashear then absorbed every science and astronomy text he could locate. By the age of fifteen he was working in a grocery store to support his family; by nineteen he also had worked as a "printer's devil" and pattern maker for steamboat engines. At the age of twenty he settled in as machinist in a rolling mill in Pittsburgh. "Every one of the master mechanics was kind to me," he later wrote, "I had every opportunity to do high class work."
John Brashear, standing next to the coal shed where he first began work on telescope lens in the early 1870s, Pittsburgh, PA, 1913.
John Brashear, standing next to the coal shed where he first began work on telescope...

After work, Brashear and his wife Phoebe built a new house on the South Side with their own hands, and studied astronomy; star-gazing on Saturday nights because that was when the mills put out less pollution to obscure the sky. Soon they decided to build a telescope of their own. In an 8½-by-10-foot coal shed bought from a neighbor, John made the tools they needed to work the optical glass they had ordered from New York. Phoebe's special skill was in patiently "fining," or polishing, the glass.

Seven hundred nights later, they had precisely finished an exquisite five-inch refractive lens. When John removed it from the lathe to peer through, he was so excited that he dropped the lens. "It broke in two pieces," he wrote in his autobiography. "It broke my heart, as well as my wife's, in a good many hundred pieces!"

The Brashears then spent the next three years working on another five-inch lens. When finished, they mounted it in a nine-foot tube, cut a hole in the roof of their house, and called in the neighbors to view the night sky through their telescope.

John Brashear rough grinding a 72-inch lens.
John Brashear rough grinding a 72-inch lens for the Dominion Astronomical Observatory...
The Brashears also showed their work to Samuel Langley at the markerAllegheny Observatory, who encouraged them to make something more complicated: a twelve-inch reflecting lens. After months of work, they had two samples completed. As they were silvering the first lens, it too cracked. "I slept little or none that night.... I went to the mill the following morning; walked around like a crazy man." When he arrived home that day John found that Phoebe–ever his executive and muse–had prepared the shop to begin work anew. "The little shop in prime order, a fire burning under the boiler, engine oiled ready to start, and the extra disk in the lathe ready to have its edge turned with the diamond tool, and its surface roughed out to the approximate curve. Could anyone have done more? The memory of that moment, filled with the love and confidence of the one who was more than life to me,marker I can never forget."

The second lens was soon silvered with a process John invented. This technique, "Brashear's process" revolutionized the finishing of lenses and became the industry standard until 1933. Brashear published it freely, refusing to patent it for his own profit.

The Brashears advertised in the Scientific American, offering custom made "silvered glass specular, diagonals and eye-pieces" for people who wanted to construct their own telescopes. They brought in so much business over the next three years that John collapsed from overwork. His doctor told him to pick the mill job or the lens work; he could not do both. With a grant from Langley and Phoebe's persuasion, Brashear quit his mill job to make a living manufacturing lenses.

The Allegheny Observatory's 30 inch Thaw Telescope, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1913.
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The Allegheny Observatory's 30 inch Thaw Telescope, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1913.
In 1881, Brashear had a chance meeting with Pittsburgh industrialist William Thaw while delivering a lens to Langley at the Observatory. Three days later, Thaw offered the Brashears $3,000 to build a large workshop more suited to their needs. According to Brashear, their only obligation would be "if I ever became wealthy, I could either return it to him or pass it on to the other fellow!" Thaw also paid off the mortgage on their home. The Brashears' son-in-law, James McDowell, joined them in the business, freeing John to travel to scientific conferences in North America and Europe (also subsidized by Thaw). In 1886, Thaw built Brashear another, larger, workshop near the Allegheny Observatory.

The Brashear Company soon became known worldwide for its silvering and fine lenses, producing state-of-the-art spectroscopes and equipment for optical experiments and observatories in North America, Europe, and Africa. It specialized in finely scored speculum metal blanks used for diffraction gratings in the study of spectroscopy. The Allegheny Observatory's thirteen-inch refractor telescope, the Keeler Memorial, and thirty Thaw Memorial telescopes were all built with Brashear equipment. Brashear himself designed and constructed the thirty-inch Thaw Memorial Refractor, which was installed in 1914. Used for photographic astrometry, which precisely measures the distance between celestial objects, it has since been used by astronomers to take over 110,000 parallax images. Approximately 40 percent of all known stellar distances have been measured by this telescope.

Dr. John Alfred Brashear stands, surrounded by a group of young children, c.1914
"Uncle John" Brashear with a group of young children outside his home at 3 Holt...
Brashear taught astronomy at Western University of Pennsylvania (now markerthe University of Pittsburgh) and was Acting Chancellor from 1901 to 1904. A founding director of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University), he also became Director of the Allegheny Observatory.

True to their words, he and Phoebe made a vocation of giving back to their local communities. In 1911,marker Henry Clay Frick chose Brashear to direct a $500,000 fund to improve the educational system of Pittsburgh. The Brashears designed a program giving scholarships to the city's teachers to attend summer classes at some of the country's best colleges. Years later, grateful recipients of this program got together and formed "Phoebe Brashear Clubs," which did charitable and educational work. The old Brashear house on Holt Street became a settlement house and a community center, providing recreation, and English and citizenship classes to immigrants.

The Brashears also donated telescopes to the public school system, and arranged a fund that still helps the Observatory give free tours to the public. "Uncle John" Brashear donated countless hours to playing with children the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, and regularly visited inmates at the Western Penitentiary, teaching them astronomy. Together, Brashear and the inmates constructed fourteen telescopes.

After Phoebe died in 1910, Brashear worked on his autobiography. He died at the age of seventy-nine, in 1920. On the day of his funeral the flags in Pittsburgh stood at half-mast, and the city's church and school bells tolled for five minutes in his honor. The ashes of John and Phoebe Brashear are interred together in a crypt below the Allegheny Observatory, marked with words from a poem by Sarah Williams, entitled "The Old Astronomer to His Pupil." It was one of their favorites.

Though my soul may set in darkness;
it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.

The Brashear Company operated until 1974, when a Swiss company bought it. Still located near Pittsburgh, Brashear L.P. makes optical equipment for military use.
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