Lick Observatory is located on the top of Mt. Hamilton south east of San Jose. From most anywhere in the south bay, looking at the mountains you can see small white bumps on the top. These are the domes of the Lick Observatory - the telescope that chocolate built (see James Lick for the story of the man who the observatory is named after).

Prior to his death, James Lick signed a document that designated a large portion of his fortune to the creation of a telescope "superior to and more powerful" than any yet made. However, that was about the sum of the instructions that Lick set down leaving a large amount of discussion (and debate) as to the type of telescope.

Site selection was carried out while James Lick was still alive. Choices included Lake Tahoe (abandoned because of deep snow in winter), Mount St. Helena in Sonoma County. James Lick requested to see this site, and so, paralyzed in the back of a wagon he was brought to Mount St. Helena and bounced out of the back of the wagon within the first few miles. He refused to have it be built there. Thomas Fraser, the foreman of Lick's household, suggested Mt. Hamilton which was visible from Lick's estate.

Realize, that prior to this time, all of the major telescopes were located in the heart of a city. Light pollution and smoke made it difficult to view the sky. Furthermore, San Francisco is well known for its fog which would make only a few nights a year useful. With the selection of Mt. Hamilton, the Lick Observatory would become the first permanently occupied mountaintop observatory in the world. Since then, nearly all other observatories have continued in this trend.

Furthermore, the seeing (the amount of waviness in the atmosphere) was superb. S.W. Burnham was hired by the Board of Trust to verify the observing conditions.

"Burnham had come prepared to like Mount Hamilton ('I am greatly interested in the place, and have but little doubt, unless there is something very peculiar in the general location, that the place will prove to be extremely desirable for astronomical work,' he had written) but the reality exceeded his expectations. Night after night he recorded in his observing books remarks such as 'First class seeing. No wind at all,' and 'Splendid night--absolutely still.'"
(from Eye in the Sky, Osterbrock, Gustafson, and Unruh)

One of the critical questions that needed to be addressed was what type of telescope should it be. Since the dawn of the telescope, nearly all of them to that day had been refractors - using lenses to bend light. While the reflector was slowly gaining acceptance it would be more than 30 years before reflectors truly shown as the "right thing". The board chose a more conservative refractor.

Most of the contracts for building the telescope went to businesses within the United States. A Cleveland firm was contracted to build the telescope and the mount, a San Francisco firm to build the dome, and the lenses to an business and Boston. The only part of the telescope from outside the United States was to Charles Feil in Paris for providing the glass blanks of the highest optical quality.

The production of the blanks of this size had never been created before though the master glassblower was able to produce them. These blanks where perfectly matched as required for a telescope. After their creation, he retired and left the business to his sons. However, one of the blanks was dropped on the boat and shattered into worthless glass. The sons, no match for their father's abilities nearly bankrupt the family business attempting to make a new pair of blanks. Upon near ruin, the father returned to throw out the sons and create a new pair of blanks.

At that time, there was not even a trail that led to the summit of Mt. Hamilton and thus a "first-class road to the summit" was made. This was funded by Santa Clara County as a condition upon the selection of a site within the county boundary - the prestige of such a facility literally paving the way. The road known as "Lick Avenue" (now Mt. Hamilton Road) was completed in 1876 at the cost of $70,000. To any who drive it now (I have), this road appears to be excessively windy with over 300 switchbacks (counted by the son of the current administrator of the observatory one day when he was bored) over about 20 miles. This was done to accommodate horses pulling heavy equipment which didn't mind curves but could not haul up a grade of more than 7%.

Luck was with Fraser when a bed of clay was found near the summit. With this they were able to make the bricks on site rather than have to haul three million bricks necessary to build the buildings. Even more lucky was the discovery of a spring that aided with water power and drinking water than have to haul water 6 miles from Smith Creek.

Two domes were built - a large one for the Lick Refractor and a smaller one for a 12" telescope. The 12" telescope was installed 7 years before the Lick Refractor would see first light and recoded the transit of Mercury.

Work on the Lick Refractor however was delayed. As mentioned above, the glass blanks were slow in production and it was not until 1885 (after 18 failed attempts) that a suitable pair of glass was on its way to Boston. The size of dome for the telescope is related to its focal length and work could not begin until the lenses where ready.

The lenses themselves were made by Alvan Clark and Sons a Massachusetts-based firm. At the time, the 36 inch refractor was the largest telescope in the world. Since then, it has only been eclipsed by the Yerkes 40 inch refractor, also made by Alvan Clark and Sons.

In January 1887, the body of James Lick was brought to the summit of Mt. Hamilton and entombed under the floor of the telescope.

In January 1888 the telescope saw first light. A storm had prevented the installation until January 3 (originally planed for December 31). However, they found they could not focus the telescope. Fortunately, it was realized that the focal length had been mis-estimated and the tube was built a few inches too long. A hacksaw was sent for and quickly fixed this problem. For those who looked through the telescope, they saw a "blazing red sun" - Aldebaran.

A few days later they viewed Saturn:

"In jittery handwriting, caused by the cold working on his ungloved fingers, Floyd wrote 'We are all waiting in this office (next the big Dome) for Saturn to come by our shutter, which will be in about 2 hours.' When Saturn arrived at about midnight, the group gave up the relative warmth of the office for the frigid dome interior. The sight of the ringed planet rewarded them for their patience. 'The definition was exquisite,' Floyd wrote, 'Saturn has the silvery brightness of the moon. All hands were delighted .... There is no doubt that we have the most powerful optical instrument in the world.'"
(from Eye in the Sky, Osterbrock, Gustafson, and Unruh).

Today, Lick Observatory houses a large number of telescopes and prototypes for some of the most advanced optics in the world. While light pollution has become a problem over the years, Lick Observatory has been found to be as good a place as any in the world for viewing the night sky in infrared.

Individual telescopes include:

  • 3 meter Shane Reflector (little brother to one in Keck Observatory)
  • 1 meter Nickel Reflector
  • 0.6 meter Coude Auxiliary Telescope
  • 36 inch Crossley Reflector
  • 36 inch Lick Refractor
  • 20 inch Dual Astrograph
  • 0.75 meter Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope

Lick Observatory has a small group of people that are permanently employed and live on the mountain including maintenance, housekeeping, food service, technicians, and teachers (for the children of the families living there)
Recollections from the visitors tour

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