Lick Observatory - 10 Fascinating Facts

Lick Observatory - 10 Fascinating Facts
Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California [Photo:,Antique Telescope Society]

James Lick (1796-1876) was a craftsman, businessman, property magnate and philanthropist. He provided the money to build an astronomical observatory that would be his memorial. Lick Observatory was built at the top of Mount Hamilton near to San Jose, California where Lick lived in what is now "Silicon Valley".

Here are ten fascinating facts about Lick Observatory.

1. James Lick had originally wanted his memorial to be a giant pyramid built on land he owned in San Francisco.
Fortunately for astronomy (and San Francisco), a friend persuaded him that an astronomical observatory would be a greater and more lasting memorial. This was a good move because I don't know what earthquakes would have done to a giant pyramid, but Lick Observatory is still doing cutting edge research over 125 years later.

2. Lick Observatory was the first permanent mountaintop observatory.
In the days when cities weren't lit up and traffic was horse-drawn, observatories were conveniently located nearby. Mount Hamilton, at 4200 feet (1280 m), is high above the surrounding area. We now expect observatories to be in locations where the air is clearer, away from the light and pollution of cities.

3. The road to the top of Mount Hamilton was designed so horse-drawn wagons could carry the building materials up.
The road wound up the mountain along a shallow gradient because horses and mules couldn't pull heavy loads up a steep road. Supposedly, the road has 365 turns. There are certainly a lot of them, though I didn't try to count them.

4. One of the pieces of glass needed for the lenses of the 36-inch refractor broke – it took nineteen attempts and several years to make a new one.
The glass pieces were made in Paris and shipped to Boston where the lenses were ground. These would be the largest lenses ever made, so not only was it a difficult job to make the lenses, but the glass itself needed specialists. It was probably fortunate that only one piece broke in shipment. The finished lenses were carried by train across the USA and then very carefully taken up the mountain. They arrived safely at the top of Mount Hamilton just after Christmas 1886.

5. James Lick is buried under the Great Refractor.
At the base of the refractor is a bronze plaque which says simply "Here lies the body of James Lick."

6. E.E. Barnard discovered a fifth moon of Jupiter with the Great Refractor.
Galileo discovered four Jovian moons in 1609. By the time two and a half centuries had passed, people assumed there were only four moons. But in 1892 Barnard discovered another one, given the name Amalthea. Since then four further moons have been discovered at Lick Observatory. There are at least 79 altogether.

7. Lick Observatory had one of the first seismographs in the USA and it recorded part of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The observatory's seismograph used pendulums to capture motion in three dimensions. Their traces were recorded onto a smoked glass plate, which could then be transferred to photosensitive paper by shining a light through the glass. The paper trace of the 1906 earthquake is now carefully mounted and on display at the observatory. It shows that the shaking went quickly out of the range of the instrument. It's an amazing connection with one of history's most famous events.

8. Lick Observatory was one of the first to work out the distance to the Moon using the retroreflector that Apollo 11 astronauts left on the Moon.
Lick astronomers aimed a laser pulse at the reflector Armstrong and Aldrin had left on the Moon. Using the time taken by the reflected pulse to return to Earth and the known speed of light, you can calculate the distance. Later Apollo missions left more retroreflectors, and the method (called laser ranging) is precise enough to tell us that the Moon is moving away from us at the rate of about 3.8 centimeters per year.

9. Lick Observatory has been one of the leaders in finding extrasolar planets.
In addition to an impressive number of discoveries, astronomers at Lick found the first multi-planet system as well as the first system with five planets. Well known planet-hunters Geoff Marcy, Paul Taylor and Debra Fischer are among those who have made discoveries at Lick. The observatory's Automated Planet Finder has added to Lick's total of extrasolar planets.

10. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) named an asteroid in honor of the city of San Jose.
San Jose started a program to reduce street lighting in 1980, in collaboration with the observatory. Although the city has expanded, this control of the lighting has meant that Lick Observatory can still make cutting edge discoveries. Besides the benefit to science, it has saved San Jose money and reduced its carbon footprint. In recognition of the city's efforts, the IAU named asteroid number 6216 San Jose.

You Should Also Read:
Exploring the Apollo Landing Sites
Jupiter's Galilean Moons
Searching for Extrasolar Planets

Related Articles
Editor's Picks Articles
Top Ten Articles
Previous Features
Site Map

Content copyright © 2023 by Mona Evans. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Mona Evans. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Mona Evans for details.