In April 1939, steel magnate Charles M. Schwab presented this portrait of John Brashear by August Benziger to the Brashear Settlement Association.
By Len Barcousky / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh celebrated the 76th birthday of telescope-maker John Brashear with a 500-pound cake and a serenade by the Pitt student band.
Brashear, “loved and revered by thousands of persons as ‘Uncle John,’ stood with bared head on the marble balcony in the Frick Building,” The Gazette-Times reported on Nov. 23, 1916. “He shook hands with thousands of men, women and children who had thronged the building like a mighty army …”
“The main and balcony floors of the Frick Building presented a spectacle of beauty and were thronged from 6 o’clock until long after the reception was over with an eager, homage-paying crowd,” the newspaper said.
The Frick Building, designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham, remains a Grant Street landmark in Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle.
Brashear’s birthday was Nov. 24, but Pittsburgh celebrated the event two days early. That was because the internationally known scientist was leaving on his birthday for Chicago, the first leg of a trip that would take him to the Philippines, China and Japan.
Brashear, a native of Brownsville, left school at 15 to train as a machinist’s apprentice. While working as a millwright in a steel rolling mill in Pittsburgh, he spent his free time pursuing his boyhood interest in astronomy.
He built his own refracting telescope, an accomplishment that ultimately led to his second career and life’s work as a manufacturer of scientific instruments. By the time of his public birthday party, he also had served as director of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory and acting chancellor the Western University of Pennsylvania. That institution became the University of Pittsburgh in 1908.
His connection to Pitt was one reason for the participation of the university musicians. “During one [of the band’s selections], an especially lively number, Dr. Brashear and Mrs. Enoch Rauh created considerable merriment by waltzing,” the newspaper reported.
The Gazette-Times story noted that Brashear had friends from all parts of the community. “The democracy of the event was emphasized when a delegation from the Loendi Club, a Negro organization, came in,” the newspaper reported. “Dr. Brashear welcomed them heartily.”
Brashear returned in good health from his Asian tour, but he became ill in the fall of 1919 and died April 8, 1920. He was 79. His public viewing was held in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. His ashes and those of his wife, Phoebe, are sealed in a crypt at Allegheny Observatory.
Brashear High School and craters on both the moon and Mars are named in his honor.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com. Mr. Barcousky’s new book, “Hidden History of Pittsburgh,” is published by The History Press.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.