Located in the Diablo mountain range east of San Jose, California, Lick Observatory is the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory. It was founded in 1888 and has been part of the University of California ever since.
• Shortly before his death in 1876, James Lick, an eccentric businessman and one of the state’s wealthiest citizens, designated a portion of his estate for the construction of a telescope “superior to and more powerful” than any yet made.
• Lick’s gift led to the construction of the 36-inch (91.44-cm) refracting telescope on Mt. Hamilton. This scope, built by Alvin Clark and still in use today, was the world’s largest telescope from January 3, 1888, until the opening of Yerkes in 1897. It remains the second largest refractor in the world.
• The dome for the 36” refractor was engineered by ship-builders. Today, you can see markings on the inside of the dome that reveal the naval origins of some of the materials.
A Deeper Look
• The location of Lick on Mt. Hamilton provides calm air and excellent viewing despite ambient light and pollution. The peak is normally above the level of the low cloud cover often seen in San Jose.
• The peak provides a stunning view to the west of the Valley of Heart’s Delight, now better known as Silicon Valley. To the east, the Sierra’s can be seen on a very clear day.
• Despite its proximity to the 10th largest city in the U.S., Lick Observatory has kept up with the times. After 120 years of operation, it remains among the most productive research observatories in the world.
• While the 36” refractor was the centerpiece in the early days, Lick also houses many modern telescopes, including the Shane 120-inch reflector, the Nickel 40-inch reflector, the Crossley 36-inch reflector, and the Automated Planet Finder which will search for Earth-like planets around nearby stars.
A Bit of History
In 1887, Lick’s body was buried under the pier of the telescope. A brass tablet bears the inscription, “Here lies the body of James Lick.” Lick’s story in itself is endlessly fascinating, but we’ll leave that for a later issue.
For a short time in my younger days, I worked in Silicon Valley and lived at an apartment complex built on the site of James Lick’s mansion and granary, which are national historical landmarks. Small world.