Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  9 (1884–85), 399–406.

The Lick Observatory of California

Simon Newcomb


Essay, Biography

Relevant illustrations:

eng. [2]


Observatories, Patronage, Astronomy, Instruments, Popularization, Instrument-makers, Amateurism, Photography, Universities

People mentioned:

Darius O Mills , Richard S Floyd , Alvan G Clark , Henry Draper

    Announcing that 'After ten years of preliminary work [...] the great Lick Observatory of California now seems fairly on the road to success' (399), gives a brief biographical account of its 'wealthy and eccentric' patron James Lick (400). Details how in 1873 Lick, who had made a fortune in San Francisco real estate, devoted $700,000 to the 'construction of a telescope "larger and more powerful than any ever made before", together with an observatory which should be connected with it', although 'he evidently regarded the observatory as an appendage of the telescope'. Reflects that Lick, despite his largesse, 'knew nothing more of astronomical instruments or their uses than the average California gold-digger', and his beneficence was probably prompted by 'a discussion in some papers devoted to diffusing scientific knowledge of the possibility of constructing a "million dollar telescope"'. (401) Reveals that because 'Mr. Lick had suddenly taken an antipathy to the only American firm who could undertake so great an instrument', an unnamed 'special agent was sent abroad to gather information on [...] European mechanicians' who might be able to complete the project (402). The eventual positioning of the observatory on Mount Hamilton was advised by Sherburne W Burnham, who, 'although an amateur in the science [of astronomy], had gained a world-wide reputation by the discovery, with an eight-inch telescope, of a great number of double stars which had escaped the scrutiny of the Herschels [William and John F W] and the Struves [Friedrich G W and Otto W]'. The 'steadiness of view' afforded by Burnham's choice of location was soon confirmed by the 'observations and photographs of the transit of Venus taken [...] in 1882 by Professor D. P. Todd'. (404) Even now, however, there remain problems with the construction of the actual telescope, and the 'great object-glass' that is being manufactured in France by Charles Feil 'has not been shipped up to the time of sending these pages to press, and no one this side of the Atlantic knows what the state of things in the Paris foundry really is' [the glass was not completed until late in 1885]. Warns that 'it will probably require two years to complete the instrument'. (405) Expresses unease that 'the terms of Mr. Lick's donation are such as to prevent the [board of] trustees from inaugurating a course of observations', and that instead the 'institution is to be turned over to the Regents of the University of California, who are to appoint an astronomer, and put the institution into operation', but whose actions will always be dependent upon the 'current income of the establishment'. Even then, the 'frank opinion of the ablest astronomers of to-day [...] would no doubt be that the making of great telescopes had already been pushed beyond the requirements of science, and that current solid work must mostly be done with smaller instruments'. Concludes by advising that careful consideration must go into 'getting the right man as astronomer of the institution', for the 'plain fact is that upon him more than upon the instruments the reputation of the observatory must depend' [the Lick Observatory's first director was the author's protege Edward S Holden]. (406)

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