Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

Somewhere beneath the stars is work which you alone were meant to do. Never rest until you have found it,” proclaims a plaque at a small museum on Pittsburgh’s South Side. For the author, John Alfred Bras­hear (1840-1920), the stars were his life’s work.

At the age of nine, encouraged by his grandfather, Brashear peered through a telescope with a lens ground from fire­hardened glass found in ruins following a catastrophic fire in Pittsburgh in 1845. He was forever fascinated. In A Man Who Loved the Stars: The Autobiography of John A. Brashear, he wrote that as a young millwright during the 1860s, “I made studies of the constellations, particularly on Saturday nights, after the fires and smoke of the mills had ceased to darken the sky. l would then take my Barritt’s Star Map, get between the piles of pig metal out on the [Ohio] river-bank, and with a candlelight, locate positions on the map.”

He was born to Basil, a saddler, and Julia Smith Brashear, a teacher, in Brownsville, Fayette County, a site which is commemorated by a state historical marker installed in 1946 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Brashear studied at Duff’s Mercan­tile College (now Duff’s Business Institute) in Pittsburgh, but quickly realized he had little ambition for bookkeeping. After completing an apprenticeship with a steamboat builder in 1859, he found employment with a company engaged in building engines for the Louisville, Kentucky, water works.

When the Civil War broke out, the company ceased operation and he was trapped in Louisville without an income or savings. For a few months he worked for a coffin-maker and learned woodworking. He performed missionary work after hours, noting that Southerners treated him well.

Brashear’s mother believed her son, a gifted communicator self-taught in philosophy, religion, and science, should become a minister. Returning home, he served as choir director at his church and in 1862 married Phoebe Stewart, a Sunday school teacher. He studied for the ministry, but also embraced unpopular scientific approaches to creation and the Bible. Invited to preach a Sunday ser­mon, Brashear received a polite but frosty reception from the congregation whose minister sternly rebuked him after the service. “I went home heartbroken,” Brashear remembered. He had failed to realize his mother’s wish and, although consoled by his wife and friends, he never entered the ministry. “I never got over the ‘most unkindest cut of all,'” he wrote.

Phoebe Brashear provided invaluable assistance to her husband over the years. They enjoyed a happy partnership in a modest house on a hill that Brashear considered a “fine place to view the heavens.” The couple was childless and “Uncle John,” as he was known to children, welcomed young school students to his workshop to peer through his telescope and listen to his stories of the stars. The Brashears raised two adopted children, Effie Afton McDowell, who filled the house with her descendants, and Harry, who died of typhoid fever at the age of nineteen.

Unable to afford a telescope, Brashear constructed a refractor in 1872. After learning about lenses from optician friends, he and his wife spent many evenings cutting, grinding, and polishing glass into a lens, but despaired when he dropped an unfinished five-inch lens that shattered. A friend generously replaced the glass, followed by more cutting, grinding, and polishing. Brashear showed his telescope to Allegheny Observatory director Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), a self-taught astronomer. Brashear was anxious about meeting the noted scientist, but Langley was impressed by Brashear’s work and offered suggestions for improving his lens.

After working twenty years as a mill­wright, Brashear quit his job in 1881 to devote to building telescopes and components. He set up his first workshop in a small coal shed purchased from a neighbor. The John A. Brashear Company, still operating in Pittsburgh as Brashear LP, is recognized worldwide for its telescope systems, optical components, and electro-mechanical instrumentation.

Brashear devoted extraordinary atten­tion to quality, rarely estimating his costs. “It led me,” he wrote, “from this time on into frequent financial worries.” Brashear freely shared his telescope and techniques with anyone – friends, neighbors, even strangers – and was particularly fond of children and elderly acquaintances who appreciated stargazing. He was never too busy to help a child build a telescope out of homemade materials; lecture a group of amateurs; or help raise money to build an institute of science.

For amateur astronomers, he remains an inspiration. His technique of silvering telescope mirrors is used to this day, a method adapted by the world’s observatories. In their 1940 biography, John A. Brashear: Scientist and Humanitarian, Har­riet A. Gaul and Ruby Eiseman wrote that their subject’s mirrors where so precise and delicate that “the touch of a hand or the warmth of one’s breath would distort its surface.”

An eleven-inch refractor, made by Brashear in 1908 for industrialist Andrew Carnegie and philanthropist William Thaw to view Halley’s Comet in 1910, but not used, was relegated to storage, where it remained for a half-century, until 1960. Carnegie Mellon University loaned the retractor to Ohio State Uni­versity, which was unable to raise funds for the construction of an observatory. In 1984, Carnegie Mellon donated the tele­scope to the AmateUI Astronomy Association of Pittsburgh, which refur­bished it as the showpiece of its Wagman Observatory at Deer Lakes Park, north­east of Pittsburgh.

In 1915, Governor Martin G. Brum­baugh (1862-1930) called Brashear “the most eminent citizen of Pennsylvania.” Two years later, admirers established the John A. Brashear Association to celebrate his humanitarianism. The association continues to enrich South Side and sur­rounding neighborhoods in Pittsburgh with a wide variety of community out­reach programs.

Despite little formal education and a meager income, Brashear became a re­spected friend of scientists, writers, and industrialists such as Carnegie, Thaw, Henry Clay Frick, and George Westing­house. Universities and scientific organizations honored his scientific achievements and major contributions to astronomy, and his telescopes and com­ponents have been installed in observatories throughout the world. Brashear became a director of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and acting chancellor, from 1901 to 1904, of the Western Uni­versity of Pennsylvania, renamed the University of Pittsburgh in 1908.

In 1917, at the age of seventy-six, he made his final journey to England, France, Germany, and China, receiving accolades as a distinguished educator. When he returned home, Brashear was dismayed to find the government insist­ing that his company produce optical equipment for the war effort. Neverthe­less, he put in a full workday and did what he could to help America’s war veterans, especially those disabled and out of work.

Brashear died April 8, 1920, and, along with his wife Phoebe who died in 1910, their ashes are interred at the base of the thirty-inch Keeler Memorial Re­flector at Allegheny Observatory. The couple’s final resting place is marked with a line drawn from one of their fa­vorite poems, “The Old Astronomer to his Pupil,” by American poet Sarah Williams (1837-1868): “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”