Science Art: Four views of the Alvan Clark & Sons workshop…, from Scientific American, Sep. 24, 1887

Here, an astronomical family is building a 36-inch refractor telescope known as the Great Lick Refractor in the 1880s. It’s named for James Lick, an eccentric entrepreneur who financed the observatory. Please, don’t lick the telescope.

The lenses were fabricated in France, then shipped to Boston where Alvan Clark and his sons ground and polished the glass, built the telescope to house the lenses, then set them in place in a new observatory in Harvard College. They had to wait to put the finishing touches on it, because one of the original pieces of glass cracked in transit and needed to be replaced.

Clark had been a portrait painter who got interested in lens grinding and telescope building, and by the time the Lick Observatory hired him for its awesome refractor telescope, Clark’s talent was arousing international interest. Prior to him, it was thought that the only decent lenses had to be ground in Europe and then shipped to wherever you wanted to watch the skies. The cover of Scientific American here celebrates the accomplishment of the new observatory and acts as a memorial for Clark; he passed away a month before the issue went to press.

The Lick telescope is still one of the world’s largest refractors; more common are reflectors, which use a curved mirror to magnify images. Today, it’s second in size only to the 40-inch Yerkes Observatory refractor (also built by Clark and his sons) in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

I found out about Clark and his optical obsession via the Linda Hall Library.