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Holcomb, Fitz, and Peate_ Three 19th Century American Telescope Makers

Holcomb, Fitz, and Peate_ Three 19th Century American Telescope Makers
Title: Holcomb, Fitz, and Peate_ Three 19th Century American Telescope Makers
Release Date: 2019-01-21
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Contributions from
The Museum of History and Technology:
Paper 26

Holcomb, Fitz, and Peate:
Three 19th-Century American Telescope Makers

INTRODUCTION—Robert P. Multhauf 156
I. Amasa Holcomb—Autobiographical Sketch 160
II. Henry Fitz—Julia Fitz Howell 164
III. John Peate—F. W. Preston and William J. McGrath, Jr. 171


Three 19th Century American Telescope Makers

Practically all the telescopes used by amateur scientists in 18th-centuryAmerica were of European origin. Our dependence uponforeign sources for these instruments continued well into the 19thcentury, and the beginning of telescope making in this country hasconventionally been associated with the names of Alvan Clark andJohn Brashear, whose work dates from the 1860’s.

Presented here are biographical sketches of two predecessors and acontemporary of Clark and Brashear whose obscurity is not deserved.The accounts relate some hitherto little-known aspects of telescopemaking in America as it progressed from mechanic art to science.

The Author of the Introduction, Robert P. Multhauf, is headcurator of the department of science and technology in the UnitedStates National Museum, Smithsonian Institution.


Robert P. Multhauf

The telescope was invented about 1600. It wasbrought to America about a half-century later,and within another century had become a commonplaceappurtenance to the library of the cultivatedgentleman.[1]

Throughout this period, from Galileo to Herschel,the telescope found use in scientific astronomy, althoughthe possibility of contributing to the scienceof astronomy by simple observation diminished continuouslyafter the time of Galileo. Herschel’s workhad aimed at the advancement of scientific astronomythrough increasing spectacularly our powers ofvision, just as had that of Galileo in the 17th centuryand of Hale in the 20th. But even in Herschel’stime the monstrous size of the instrument requiredmade the project something of a national effort.The telescopes of the 18th-century American gentlemanwere already toys, as far as the astronomer wasconcerned.

However, the telescope had another, if less glamorous,use in the 18th century. This was its use inpositional astronomy, in the ever more precise measurementof the relative positions of objects seen in theheavens. Measurement had been the purpose servedby pre-telescopic astronomical instruments, the sightingbars of the Ptolemaic observers of Alexandria andthe elegant quadrants of Tycho Brahe. For a time[157]after the invention of the telescope the professionalastronomer resisted the innovation, but by the end ofthe 17th century the new optical instrument was beingadapted to the quadrant and other instruments forthe precise measurement of the positions of heavenlybodies in relation to the time-honored astronomicalcoordinates. By the late 18th century telescopes werefound serving three relatively distinct purposes: theincreased magnification of the sky in general (inwhich use Herschel’s 48-inch reflector had made allothers obsolete): the more precise measurement ofplanetary and stellar positions (and, conversely, ofthe Earth’s shape) by means of the quadrant, verticalcircle, zenith sector, and similar instruments; and thesimple edification of the educated but not learnedclasses, who wished not only to see what the astronomersaw, but to have an instrument also useful forlooking occasionally at interesting objects on earth.

Of these three purposes the second was the mostunimpeachably scientific. It is remarkable thatthe earliest American-made telescopes of which wehave knowledge were made for this purpose andnot for the mere gratification of the curiosity of theeducated layman. These are the telescopes of theremarkable Philadelphia mechanic, David Rittenhouse(1732-96). In an atmosphere not unlikethe intellectual democracy that characterized theformation of the Royal Society a century earlierin London, Rittenhouse began as a clockmaker andended as president of the American PhilosophicalSociety, our counterpart of the Royal Society, inPhiladelphia. He demonstrated not merely thatan instrument-maker was capable of being a scientist,but also that the work of the instrument-maker,as it had developed by the late 18th century, wasin itself scientific work. One of several observersassigned by the Society to the observation of thetransit of Venus in 1769, he constructed instrumentsof the most advanced types, apparently employingEuropean lenses, and used the instruments himself.Of these, a 1¾-inch refractor mounted as a transitinstrument stands in the hall of the PhilosophicalSociety. It is probably the oldest extant American-madetelescope.

Rittenhouse made other telescopes which survive,notably two zenith sectors now in the U.S. NationalMuseum of the Smithsonian Institution,[2] but hedoes not appear to have made them for commercialsale. In the history of telescope-making in Americahe seems to have been something of a “sport.” Notonly were the instruments which still grace thedesks of Washington, Jefferson, and others, of Europeanmanufacture, but the earliest observatories inthe United States (eleven between 1786 and 1840)were outfitted exclusively (except for the Rittenhouseobservatory) with European instruments.[3] In itsendeavor to establish a permanent observatoryeven Rittenhouse’s own Philosophical Society seemsto have thought exclusively in terms of instrumentsof European manufacture.

It must therefore have required some courage forAmasa Holcomb, 43-year-old Massachusetts surveyor,to approach Professor Silliman of Yale in 1830 witha telescope of his own construction. In the autobiographyprinted here, Holcomb states that all thetelescopes used in this country before 1833 had beenobtained in Europe, and indicates that thereafter“the whole market was in his hands during thirteenyears,” a period which would fall, apparently, between1833 and 1845. It should be mentioned, althoughit is no conclusive negation of Holcomb’sclaim, that the New York instrument-maker RichardPatten in 1830 built a telescopic theodolite that wasdesigned by Ferdinand Hassler for use on the WilkesExpedition, and was subsequently used at the observatoryof the Navy’s “Depot of Charts and Instruments”in Washington.[4] We do not know the source ofPatten’s lenses.

Holcomb would appear to have succeeded as acommercial maker of telescopes. He claims to havesold his instruments “in almost every state in theUnion,” and also abroad, but we know nothingof what use was made of any of them. The telescopehe showed Professor Silliman was a refractor.Another, preserved in the Smithsonian Institution,[5]is like Rittenhouse’s 1769 instrument, a transit. ButHolcomb seems to have specialized in reflectors of theHerschelean type, i.e., instruments, in which theimage is viewed through an eye-piece located at themouth of the tube. It is probably reasonable to doubtthat the serious astronomer of this period sharedHolcomb’s enthusiasm for this type of difficult-to-adjustinstrument in the small sizes he produced(10-inches is the largest reported). In 1834, 1835,[158]and 1836 he presented instruments of this type tothe Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where committeescompared them with the best availableEuropean refractors and found them more thanadequate. One of Holcomb’s instruments of 1835,apparently his only surviving reflector, is now in theSmithsonian Institution (see appendix, p. 184).

Toward 1845, Holcomb tells us, “one after anotherwent into the business,” and indeed they did. Atthe American Institute Fair in New York that yeara gold medal was given Henry Fitz “for the bestachromatic telescope.” In Cambridge, Massachusetts,Alvan Clark is supposed to have already takenup the hobby of lens and mirror making. And inMcKeesport, Pennsylvania, an amateur telescope-makernow known only as “Squire Wampler” madea small achromatic refractor which he demonstratedin 1849 to a 9-year-old boy named John Brashear,of whom more later.

Some of Holcomb’s telescopes must have come tothe attention of Henry Fitz during his wide travelsas a locksmith after 1830, if, as is reported, he wasat that time pursuing his avocational interest inastronomy. It is interesting to note that bothHolcomb and Fitz seem to have pursued feverishlythe new photographic process of Daguerre in 1839,the former near the end of his career as a telescope-maker,the latter near the beginning of his.

The decade before 1845, when “one after anotherwent into the business,” seems to have been markedby the flowering of observational astronomy in theUnited States. The professional work of the Navy’sDepot of Charts and Instruments (forerunner ofthe Naval Observatory) began about 1838. In1844 the first instrument larger than 6 inches cameto this country, an 11-inch refractor for the CincinnatiObservatory. The Bonds established whatwas to be the Harvard Observatory in 1839, and by1847 Harvard had obtained its famous 15-inchrefractor from Merz and Mabler.[6] Fitz was tohave a more sophisticated market than had Holcomb.

Despite the glowing recommendations of theFranklin Institute committee,[7] no actual use ofHolcomb’s instruments by astronomers has come tolight. We may owe to the rapid progress of Americanastronomy after 1840 the fact that we have evidenceof a more distinguished history for some of Fitz’sinstruments. It will also be recalled that Holcombspecialized in Herschelian reflectors. Fitz, on theother hand, made few reflectors. He specialized inachromatic telescopes mounted equatorially, the typeof instrument which was in greatest demand amongprofessional astronomers at the time.

Some of Fitz’s instruments had individual historiesand were associated with important events in astronomy.One was taken in 1849 on the Chilean astronomicalexpedition of Lieut. James M. Gilliss.Another was used by L. M. Rutherfurd in his epochalastronomical photography at Columbia University.One, made for the Allegheny Observatory, is still inuse at that institution. It appears from his accountbook that Fitz made many telescopes, and some haveturned up in strange places. The lens of one of hisrefractors was located a few years ago in South Carolina,in use as substitute for the lens in an automobileheadlamp![8] At an eastern university in 1958 thewriter saw another of his refractors incorporated intoapparatus used in graduate student experimentation.

Among the others who began telescope-makingabout 1845 was the portrait painter who was to becomeone of the world’s foremost telescope-makers,Alvan Clark. Clark is supposed to have becomefirst interested in lens and mirror making about 1844,and, as a resident of Cambridge, Mass., to have beeninspired three years later by the great 15-inch refractorinstalled at Harvard. His first encouragementcame from the British astronomer W. R. Dawes, withwhom he had a correspondence on their respectiveobservations and to whom he sold a 7½ inch refractorin 1851. The following year he established, withhis sons, the firm of Alvan Clark and Sons, a namewhich was later to become one of the most famousin the field of telescope making. Whereas Holcombhad demonstrated that telescopes could be made inthis country, and Fitz that American instrumentswere adequate to the needs of the professional astronomer,Clark was to prove that American instrumentscould compete commercially with the finest made inEurope. In 1862 Alvan Clark and Sons completedan 18½-inch refractor which was long to serve the[159]Dearborn Observatory. It is now in the Adler Planetarium.The famous Lick Observatory 36-inch refractorwas completed in 1887, the year of Clark’sdeath, and his sons went on to build the 40-inchYerkes refractor, (1897) still the largest refractor everbuilt. It is no reflection on Clark to note that he wasmore fortunate than Fitz, in his longer life, his associationwith Warner and Swasey in the constructionof mountings, and in the continuity given to his workby his sons.

Let us return for a moment to the 1840’s and JohnBrashear, the 9-year-old Pennsylvania boy who, wasgiven his first opportunity of looking through a smallrefractor telescope by its maker, Squire Wampler ofMcKeesport. Brashear became a professional machinist,but retained an interest in astronomy whichled him to make a 5-inch achromatic refractor in 1872and subsequently to show the instrument to SamuelPierpont Langley,[9] then director of the Allegheny Observatory.With Langley’s encouragement Brashearwent on to construct a 12-inch reflector and in 1880decided to make a business of telescope-making.He subsequently made, among other telescopes, a30-inch refractor in 1906 for the Allegheny Observatoryand in 1918 a 72-inch reflector, at Victoria, BritishColumbia. Brashear’s greatest fame, however, camefrom his accessory instruments—spectroscopes andthe like.

Not the least thrilling aspect of the story of the spectacularascendancy of American-made telescopes isthe story of their financing—of the big-telescope erain American philanthropy and the financial giants(Lick, Hooker, Thaw, Yerkes, and others) who peopledit. In the biography of our third telescope-maker,John Peate, we see at once the persistence ofthe amateur and the difficulty of his position at theend of the 19th century.

Peate, too, may have acquired his interest in astronomyduring the years just before 1845. It has beensurmised that he was

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