The Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton: Historic Outpost of Science!

Some places on this planet make an indelible impression on our mind and spirit. The majority of these can be found in travel brochures – places like Paris and Venice – places that cater to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. There are other places, less known and less traveled, yet very compelling.

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In regal solitude, perched high on Mount Hamilton, California, sits the Lick Observatory, the world’s first high-altitude observatory. Dedicated in 1888 and situated at 4,250 feet above sea-level, it still operates what was, at the time, the largest telescope of any type in the world – the great 36-inch diameter refractor. A refracting telescope uses a glass objective lens as opposed to a reflecting mirror like most modern, larger telescopes. It remains, after all these years, the second-largest refracting telescope ever built!

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“Stage At Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton, Cal.”
Postcard postmarked from San Jose, Ca. on Feb. 10, 1906

The message on the front, dated Feb. 9, remarks on visiting the observatory “last night.” Note that this was less than two months prior to the great 1906 earthquake which destroyed San Francisco and did widespread damage.

 For the first fifteen years, stage, wagon, or horseback were the only way to ascend Mount Hamilton – a real tribute to the builders in the 1880’s who hauled everything up by horse-drawn wagon; the narrow dirt road was new and certainly treacherous!

My First Visit to Lick Observatory: Indelible Impressions

My first visit occurred during high school, on an outing with my YMCA- sponsored teen-club. It has been many, many years, but my first impressions remain vivid. Although located in San Jose, California, which is only fifteen miles south of here (Silicon Valley) as the crow flies, a full hour is required to traverse the winding, torturous, narrow road up from the base of the mountain. Tight switchbacks abound, and, despite the challenging, but safe drive, the Friday night “open-house” has, for decades, attracted those with an interest in science as well as those intrigued by the concept of blessed solitude inherent in the observatory’s location and “outpost” nature.

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The Great 36-inch Lick Refractor

I recall our high-school group traipsing through the old, original main building with its twin domes – the large one housing the 36-inch telescope, the small one, the fine 12-inch refractor; both were there in 1888, at the dedication. We students were treated to some heavenly attraction (I do not recall which) through one of the telescopes that evening. The fine interior wood finishing in the 36-inch dome reflects Lick’s early involvement with fine woodworking. The huge circular floor is a radiating pattern of finely-joined, circularly milled, concentric strips of wood. To our amazement, the entire floor of the large dome moves some seventeen feet up and down in order to accommodate astronomers at the eyepiece of the 58 foot-long telescope tube of the 36-inch refractor. We boys were fascinated by that floor, some fifty-eight years ago; I am still fascinated, especially now that I know that the floor was moved by the same water-powered hydraulic pistons installed in the 1880’s. Originally, the hydraulic system was fed from a cistern located slightly uphill from the dome.

After darkness fell during that long-ago visit, I recall pausing to peer through a small, rectangular, cut-out window of the 36-inch dome into the cold blackness of the night outside; standing there, I felt inspired by the noble concept of this early, man-made outpost and its attempts to reveal nature’s mysteries – secrets so well-hidden for so long in the black cloak of limitless space.

I will never forget one night on the mountain in the 36-inch dome. The astronomer-in-charge said to the small group, that night, “The ‘seeing’ is fabulous tonight; we are going to give you an unusually close look at the planet Saturn and its ring-structure.” Good “seeing” means very little movement in the earth’s atmospheric layers; this allows for greater image magnification and results in a spectacular view – which is just what we saw through the eyepiece that night. Saturn, a large ball with its major ring divisions clearly visible, hung in the night sky radiating subtle colorations of both planet and rings; it was spectacular.

James Lick’s Gift to the People of California…and the World!

The story of Lick Observatory begins with the man whose bequest of $700,000 in the 1870’s funded its construction. Lick was a colorful character from the stern tradition of a wood-working family in the Pennsylvania Dutch region of that state who ultimately moved to South America as a young man. There, he made a small fortune building pianos for a wealthy, regional clientele. Upon his much later return to the United States, he settled in Northern California around 1846, in time to witness, first-hand, the land-takeover from Mexico in that region.

He wisely invested heavily in local real-estate and accumulated a substantial fortune in the process. He settled in San Jose, among the many orchards, some fifty miles south of the burgeoning “settlement” of San Francisco. Toward the end of his life, he became obsessed with building a memorial to himself in San Francisco. One of his ideas centered on a huge pyramid, comparable to the great pyramids in Egypt – at the corner of Fourth and Market Streets – the heart of today’s downtown! Later, a trusted friend suggested something “more suitable,” like a world-class observatory to benefit science. Given his late-blooming interest in astronomy, he warmed to the idea. He would build the world’s largest telescope – right in the middle of downtown San Francisco; not a good idea!

An Observatory in Downtown San Francisco?

In those days, observatories were built in the fairly clear air of readily accessible lowlands, often near colleges and universities. At least smog and light pollution were not such a problem in the 1800’s. Lick benefitted from his acquaintance with at least a few men of sensible practicality, one of whom suggested that his “Lick Observatory” be built on a high mountain-top in order to avoid the fog and city lights of growing San Francisco. Even in those days, knowledgeable astronomers knew that “bypassing” the air blanket of the first few thousand feet of atmosphere would inherently result in much better “seeing” through a telescope.

Lick’s trust was modified, and work began in on the first high-altitude observatory in the world during July, 1880. The observatory was dedicated and transferred, as intended, to the Regents of the University of California on June 22, 1888, twelve years after the death of its eccentric beneficiary. Lick’s body lies in a crypt at the large pedestal-base of the 36-inch telescope.

An Historical Treasure, Still Scientifically Relevant!

Is it not remarkable that the old observatory is still a viable and vital astronomical resource after all these years? The 120-inch reflecting telescope, installed in 1950’s in a huge dome behind the original buildings, was second in size only to Mount Palomar at that time and remains an important research tool; the venerable 36-inch refractor still earns its keep while doing more mundane work in the heavens.

Great Memories of Trips “Up the Mountain” …and, Luckily, Back Down

I have treasured recollections of several trips up the mountain to this place which has always fascinated me. During my first year of college, the four of us freshmen who lived in Mrs. Lucas’ boarding house on 15th Street in San Jose ventured up by car one Friday evening – in the winter. We piled into my room-mate Jay’s nifty1949 Ford (stylishly lowered in the rear, per the fashion in 1958) and started up the mountain for the hour’s drive (normally!) to the 4,250 foot summit. Before long, we were enveloped in a very dense fog. We could see virtually… nothing! With Jay at the wheel and crawling along, I, in the right-front seat, peered out of the side window to keep him apprised on the edge of the narrow road relative to his right-front wheel. At numerous places, there is a steep drop-off (no guard rails in those days), and in some places near the top, there is barely enough room for two cars to pass! We were in that dense fog much of the way up. Somehow we made it up to the top and back down again, surviving the harrowing experience to complete our freshman year and move on to sophomore status …except for one of the other guys who flunked out of school at year’s end.

Another Friday evening trip up the mountain was made years later with our two young daughters and our good friends, Gil and Linda and their two children. The date was August 24, 1990, printed clearly on our family’s four admission tickets (visits arranged in advance in those later years) which I still have.

Lick Tickets

I will not go on to cite the numerous major contributions to astronomy and science made at Mount Hamilton over the past 125 years; my main focus, here, is to bring this marvelous, historical outpost of science to your attention. I encourage you to Google the internet and find out more interesting facts for yourself.

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One can see the twin domes of the old central building which looks out from its lofty perch over the whole of the “south bay (area)” as it is known, here. Turning left onto the main street which passes near our house, the summit of Mount Hamilton is clearly visible far off in the distance, as are the two tiny reflections from the twin silver domes – a constant visual reminder to residents of the whole south bay of one of the most important and interesting places to visit – anywhere on this earth.

2 thoughts on “The Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton: Historic Outpost of Science!

  1. I’ve always loved looking up at Mt. Hamilton. We so enjoyed our trip with you even though it was cloudy and we were unable to view through the telescope as I recall (I think your memory is better than mine though, judging by your blogs). I do remember the tarantula we saw on our drive up, walking across the road. The kids enjoyed that too.

    • That was a fun evening in 1990. You are correct – we had a pesky, wispy, part-time fog hanging around near the summit that night – nothing like my trip up there as a college freshman – but enough for them to call-off the viewing! We were supposed to look through the 40 inch Nickel telescope as noted on the tickets…alas!

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