Lick Observatory Celebrates James Lick's 200th Birthday

August 29, 1996

Author: Robert Irion
Contact: Tim Stephens, UCSC Public Information Office

MOUNT HAMILTON, CA--Of all the legacies of the eccentric businessman and land baron James Lick, born August 25, 1796, none has endured like the observatory near San Jose that bears his name. If Lick had heard Sunday’s celebration from his crypt beneath the observatory’s original telescope, he would have been pleased to learn how his bequest has expanded our knowledge of the universe--even if the buildings aren’t as grand as the colossal statues and pyramid he had envisioned as monuments to himself in downtown San Francisco.

Friends of the Lick Observatory marked the 200th anniversary of Lick’s birth on August 25 with a special edition of “Music of the Spheres,” a summer concert series on Mount Hamilton. Lick’s great- grandniece, Paquita Lick Machris, commissioned a bronze bust of Lick for the occasion. Observatory personnel unveiled the bust and a new plaque describing Lick’s achievements and philanthropic deeds.

Proceeds will help finance renovations inside the historic dome enclosing the Lick 36-inch telescope, which first cast its eye on the sky in 1888. Architects have designed new railings and exits to bring the structure in line with current safety codes.

The event featured music by the Smith and Gail Dobson Quartet and a science lecture by observatory director Joseph Miller of UC Santa Cruz, which operates Lick Observatory. Past director Donald Osterbrock of UCSC and Dorothy Schaumberg, curator of the observatory’s Mary Lea Shane Archives at UCSC’s McHenry Library, gave historical talks.

Schaumberg focused much of her talk on James Lick himself. As Lick neared the end of his life in the 1870s, scientists convinced him that an observatory housing the world’s largest telescope would perpetuate his name through science, much as the Smithsonian Institution had for James Smithson. They also assured him that building the facility on top of a mountain, which astronomers had never done, would lead to stunning results.

Lick chose Mount Hamilton over sites in the Sierra Nevada and near Napa Valley. Although he could see Mount Hamilton from his Santa Clara Valley property, he didn’t journey to the summit until his reinterment there in 1887, more than ten years after his death.<

Schaumberg also described the pivotal roles of two men, Richard Floyd and Thomas Fraser, in building Lick Observatory. “If ever there was an odd couple to build the observatory, it was those two,” Schaumberg says. Floyd, president of Lick’s Deed of Trust, was an officer for the Confederate Navy during the Civil War; Fraser was Lick’s longtime foreman, an uneducated but exacting man who pushed the Herculean project to completion as superintendent of construction.

Osterbrock reviewed three of the many noteworthy contributions to astronomy from Lick Observatory’s history. His vignettes, based on work at different telescopes and in different eras, were as follows:

The research of James Keeler, the observatory’s second director, at the Crossley 36-inch reflecting telescope in the 1890s. Unlike the original Lick refractor, which uses a heavy lens of glass to focus light at the end of an immense tube, the Crossley reflector uses mirrors to focus light more compactly and with no distortion in color. “Reflectors were tagged as ‘amateur’ telescopes, but that was a misconception,” Osterbrock says. “Keeler recognized that reflectors were better for photography.” He convinced other astronomers with his stunning photographs of spiral nebulae--later recognized as entire galaxies of stars.

A sweeping effort under W. W. Campbell to measure the velocities of stars. Campbell was the longest-serving director at Lick, from 1901 to 1930; he also served for his last seven years as president of the University of California. He optimized the Lick refractor for measuring the speeds at which stars approach or recede from earth--their “radial velocities.” The massive program lasted until World War II. “Lick became a factory for measuring radial velocities,” Osterbrock says. “All of this laid the groundwork for our understanding of how stars evolve.”

The current efforts at Lick’s main research instrument, the 120-inch Shane Telescope, to detect planets outside our solar system. This work, which has made headlines worldwide, was done and is being continued by Geoffrey Marcy and Paul Butler of San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. Marcy, who earned his Ph.D. at UCSC, uses an exquisitely sensitive tool designed by his former adviser, UCSC astronomer Steven Vogt. The instrument, called the Hamilton Spectrograph, unveils tiny “wobbles” in the motions of stars across the sky--hints of the gravitational tuggings of unseen planets. Marcy and Butler have thus far announced six planets spotted in this way.

Miller focused on current astronomy in his talk, “The Violent Universe: Quasars, Blazars, and Galaxies in Collision.” Miller directs the UC Observatories/Lick Observatory, which oversees both Lick Observatory and the University of California share of the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, home to the world’s largest optical telescopes. The California Institute of Technology divides Keck equally with UC.

UCO Press Release Archives

Have a press release you'd like to see on these pages? Email it to