Picture yourself on the banks of the Ohio River in mid-19th-century Pittsburgh, when the smoke from the steel mills had crept away to reveal a starry sky. In a boat on the water, a man in his 20s looks thoughtfully up at the southern constellations. The man in the boat is a local millwright named John Brashear who will go on to become a giant in the world of astronomy.
Since his teenage years, Brashear made his living in the steel mills while maintaining a boyhood fascination with astronomy. In his 30s, Brashear was determined to have a telescope of his own, and because he lacked the money to buy one, he decided to build one with the help of his wife, Phoebe.
Over the next three years, Brashear’s evenings after working in the mill consisted of painstaking trial and error — grinding, polishing and even breaking lenses for his telescope. Finally, he and Phoebe had a functioning telescope and, thus, an enhanced view of the heavenly bodies over Pittsburgh.
Looking to improve his new craft, Brashear wrote to Samuel Pierpont Langley, then the director of Allegheny Observatory, asking for a critique of his lenses. He soon found himself at the observatory door — the nervous guest of the director. The meeting had what Brashear called “a profound effect upon all [his] life.” Langley praised the lenses, but, more importantly, he shared with Brashear books, stories, equipment and the enthusiasm that would help transform an amateur into one of history’s most successful producers of astronomical lenses, and a champion of scientific inquiry.
The legacies of both Brashear and Langley prove that when the curiosity and ingenuity of the lay person meet with the generosity and wisdom of the educator, there results an unveiling of what Brashear called “nature’s hidden truths in spite of poverty, isolation and increasing work of body and mind.”