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South Side: Uncle John Brashear


Success of "Uncle John" Due to Own Hands and Mind

Dr. John A. Brashear Struggled From Near-Obscurity to Greatness.
City Proud of Citizen.

From the Chronicle Telegraph, 9 April 1920.
John Alfred Brashear, who died last night, was born in Brownsville, Fayette county, Pa., November 24, 1840. His parents were B. B. and Julia B. Brashear. Like Edison, Dr. Brashear was the type of American scientist who struggled from near-obscurity to great success. He had only a common school education. His subsequent development was brought about by his own hands and mind.

Born in Brownsville.
When a mere boy he apprenticed himself to a machinist. At the age of 20 he had mastered the trade. Removing at this time from Brownsville to Louisville, Ky., he found work with a steam engine builder, but Louisville was one of the hotbeds of the Confederacy, and the fact that Dr. Brashear was a Northerner caused so much unpleasantness that he was forced to leave the city. He came to Pittsburgh and obtained employment as a millwright in the plant of Zug & Painter. This was in 1861. For the next 20 years he was closely associated with rolling mill work, but throughout this period he faithfully enlarged upon his elementary knowledge of astronomy, which had been imparted to him as a boy by his grandfather, Nathaniel Smith.
In his school days John Brashear had been so strongly impressed by a traveling astronomer who had set up a telescope in Brownsville, and for a fee of 5 cents had exhibited the wonders of the heavens, that the boy resolved to learn all that was possible concerning the stars. It was difficult, uphill work, filled with discouragement, demanding untiring labor. He studied almost always alone.

Wedded to Miss Stewart.
Soon after he came to Pittsburgh Dr. Brashear was married to Miss Phoebe Stewart. He confided his ambitions to his wife, and the young couple planned ways and means for him to continue his study of astronomy. Selecting and purchasing a site in the south Hills, the young machinist built with his own hands a frame homestead at 3 Holt street. The work was done in the evenings, after his mill labors were over. Often Mrs. Brashear held a lantern, giving light to her husband, while he sawed and hammered on their house. The home was completed in 1870.
Lacking the means with which to purchase a telescope he set to work to construct one. In 1874 it was completed in a little workshop adjoining the house. Meanwhile he had left the Zug & Painter Co. to work in the glass mold plant of Adams & Co. The experience in the glass works he considered invaluable.

Always Improving.
After 10 years of experiments and development in the construction of telescope implements he turned wholly to manufacturing them in 1880. Until his death he continued, always experimenting and improving.
The world's scientific societies honored him. Among them were the British Astronomical Society, Societe Astronomique de France, the Societe Astronomique de Belgium, the America Philosophical Society, the Astrophysical Society of America, the National Geographical Society. He was an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain. He was past president of the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Academy of Science and Art. Washington and Jefferson College and Wooster University conferred upon him the degree of LL. D. Degrees of Sc. D. were given him by the University of Pittsburgh and Princeton University.

Director of Observatory.
From 1898 to 1900 Dr. Brashear was director of Allegheny Observatory, in which remarkable scientific researches were carried on under his supervision.
In 1915 Gov. Martin G. Brumbaugh named him "the most eminent citizen of Pennsylvania." For 50 years his name had been intimately associated with the civic, scientific and educational progress of his community, and he enjoyed from far and wide a love and respect which amounted to veneration.
In Pittsburgh he was affectionately known as "Uncle John." Pittsburgh owed much to the man. The city's pride in his accomplishments was coupled with a warm personal friendship. His kindliness of heart was known to everyone.
On his seventy-fifth birthday anniversary the whole city took part in a great demonstration--a love feast--at which Dr. Brashear was spoken of as "the scientist having the most friends in the world." Again on November 22, 1916, on the eve of his seventy-sixth birthday anniversary, and two days before he left Pittsburgh for a trip to Japan, where he was to make a study of Japanese astronomical discoveries, Pittsburgh honored him.
Dr. Brashear's work and several articles which he wrote attracted the attention of the late William Thaw, one of the patrons of the Allegheny Observatory. Mr. Thaw induced Dr. Brashear to move his shops from the South Side to the North Side, then Allegheny, and it was in the new shops that he invented the spectrascope for astronomic uses. In 1888 he completed his spectrascope for the 26-inch telescope. The optical parts made in the Brashear shop were of higher grade than those previously obtained in Germany.
In later years Dr. Brashear directed the affairs of the John A. Brashear Company, Ltd., a concern which he organized with his son-in-law, James B. McDowell. This firm constructed apparatus for special work, rather than for commercially profitable products, and it was the boast of its heads that it had no patents and no secrets. Whatever was accomplished in its workshops was given freely to the world.
For a number of years Dr. Brashear was a trustee of Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Transcribed by sla.

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