This Day in History – January 3rd, 1888

Lick Observatory is the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory. The observatory, in a Classical Revival style structure, was constructed between 1876 and 1887, from a bequest from James Lick of $700,000 (approximately $22 million in 2014 US dollars). Lick, although primarily a carpenter and piano maker, chose the precise site atop Mount Hamilton and was there buried in 1887 under the future site of the telescope, with a brass tablet bearing the inscription, “Here lies the body of James Lick”.

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Lick additionally requested that Santa Clara County construct a “first-class road” to the summit, completed in 1876. All of the construction materials had to be brought to the site by horse and mule-drawn wagons, which could not negotiate a steep grade. To keep the grade below 6.5%, the road had to take a very winding and sinuous path, which the modern-day road (California State Route 130) still follows. Tradition maintains that this road has exactly 365 turns (This is approximately correct, although uncertainty as to what should count as a turn makes precise verification impossible). Even those who do not normally suffer from motion-sickness find the road challenging. The road is closed when there is snow at Lick Observatory.

Lick_Telescope_1889The first telescope installed at the observatory was a 12-inch refractor made by Alvan Clark. Astronomer E. E. Barnard used the telescope to make “exquisite photographs of comets and nebulae,” according to D. J. Warner of Warner & Swasey Company.

The 91-centimeter (36-inch) refracting telescope on Mt. Hamilton was Earth’s largest refracting telescope during the period from when it saw first light on January 3rd, 1888, until the construction of Yerkes Observatory in 1897. Warner & Swasey designed and built the telescope mounting, with the 91-centimeter (36-inch) lens manufactured by one of the Clark sons, Alvan Graham. E. E. Barnard used the telescope in 1892 to discover a fifth moon of Jupiter. This was the first addition to Jupiter’s known moons since Galileo observed the planet through his parchment tube and spectacle lens. The telescope provided spectra for W. W. Campbell’s work on the radial velocities of stars.

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