Newsletter of the Finger Lakes Chapter, ACBS

Volume 17, Issue 1.................................................................. March 2007

UPDATED: March 13, 2007

















John Brashear was a remarkable man - a mechanical genius, educator and humanitarian! He was born in Brownsville, PA in 1840, and early-on became fascinated with astronomy and things celestial. When the Civil War broke-out, and his father enlisted in the Union Army, Brashear went to work in Pittsburgh's steel mills to support the family at a salary of $10. per week. He did well and became one of the most highly-skilled millwrights in the city.


In a workshop behind his home, he started building a lens for a telescope even though he had never read a book on astronomical physics. In 1862, he married Phoebe Stewart, and in their spare time the self-taught couple worked to develop optical telescopes, optical components, a glass silvering process for making mirrors, and other precision instruments. Over the years, they built a name for themselves in the amateur and professional worlds of astronomy. In 1880 at the age of 40, John was invited to become Chief Instrument Maker at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh and left the steel plants behind. He founded a large business for the design and manufacture of astronomical instruments, and produced telescopic and spectroscopic optics, and other scientific apparatus to a precision unheard-of up until that time. His successes were traceable to two primary factors; his personality, which was totally disinterested in profit and financial gain while insisting on perfection in everything he produced, and the subsidy of wealthy industrialists, such as William Thaw, Henry Clay Frick, Charles Schwab, Andrew W. Mellon, George Westinghouse and Andrew Carnegie - all men who understood Brashear's mechanical genius while tolerating his lack of business acumen.

In time, Brashear also became involved with the University of Pittsburgh where he was appointed Professor of Astronomy, and later Chancellor of the University, guiding the institution through a period of expansion and change. Through it all he made many, many friends, and between 1893 and 1916, his achievements were recognized through six honorary doctorate degrees.

When John turned 55 in 1896, he and Phoebe began taking summer vacations in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario, Canada. Three years later they bought Urania Island, "A veritable paradise in the Canadian wilderness," according to John. They enjoyed their cottage and entertained guests there until Phoebe's death in 1910.

Then, when John retired four years later, Andrew Carnegie, colleagues, students and friends presented him with a 48-ft. steam launch in appreciation of his lifetime's work and many achievements. The gift replaced two other steam launches --- the Alleghenia and the original Phoebe - both successively lost to fire earlier. It also included a well-appointed boathouse for the launch which John named Phoebe II. John continued the tradition of summering in the Muskokas, until his death in 1920 at the age of 80.

Phoebe, moored and flying an American ensign at the Muskoka Wharf in August 1914, shortly after its completion. Photo credit: Ken Robinson
Phoebe's boathouse at Isle Urania on Muskoka Lake. In this early photo it has not yet been painted. Photo credit: Jean Wray.

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