On-line Book

Book Cover
Cover Page







Other Sites

Existing National Historic Landmarks


Astronomy and Astrophysics
Lick Observatory Building
National Park Service Arrowhead

Lick Observatory
Lick Observatory — Mount Hamilton, California
Exterior View of the Observatory from the West, 1952 (Photo Credit: Lick Observatory)

Name:Lick Observatory Building
Location:Santa Clara County, California
Classification:Public (state), district

Areas of Significance:National Register: education, engineering, science, NHL: science, Subtheme: physical science, Facet: astronomy

Builder:S. E. Todd


The Lick Observatory building is situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, 4,029 feet high, in Santa Clara County, California. A narrow paved road leads to the mile-long ridge at the summit. [1]

The construction of the Lick Observatory building began in January 1880 under the direction of Thomas Fraser, James Lick's agent, who had recommended to Lick the selection of the site, and Capt. Richard S. Floyd, who was responsible to the trustees of Lick's estate for the planning of the observatory buildings and the development of the instrumentation. Fraser insisted on a high standard of craftsmanship in the completion of the project.

To level the top of Mount Hamilton, Fraser had the top thirty feet of the mountain removed with black powder explosives. Workers then moved, by hand, an estimated 40 thousand tons of rock they had loosened. Masons built a kiln next to a clay bed near the summit and fired the bricks for the building. All of the heavy materials for the dome and telescope mounting were hauled up the mountain by wagon team and lifted into place with simple mechanical aids.

The Lick Observatory building was designed by architect S.E. Todd of Washington, DC, in the Italian Renaissance style with the use of deep entablatures and moldings, and a pediment over the west door. The building was completed in 1885 except for the large dome housing the 36-inch refractor. The observatory building has an entrance hall at the center with offices and workrooms opening off a corridor on either side. A small 25-foot dome is at the north end of the building, and a large 75-foot dome is at the south end of the building. The 25-foot dome originally held a 12-inch Clark refractor. This dome now houses a 40-inch reflector known as the Nickel telescope.

The large dome, housing the 36-inch refractor, was completed in 1887 by the Union Iron Works of San Francisco, and weighs 90 tons. The dome was advanced for its time in that its design compensated for metal expansion. The circular floor rises and descends through approximately 17 feet to follow the eyepiece of the 58-foot telescope tube. While electric motors now provide power, the original hydraulic cylinders still support and move the floor.

The 36-inch Clark refractor at the Lick Observatory was installed in 1888. In addition to the crown and flint elements of the achromat, there was a 33-inch correcting lens for photographic work. The 36-inch lens is mounted in a 58-foot riveted tube that is four feet in diameter at the center and surrounded by cranks, gears, rods, and chains to move the telescope.

The mounting for the 36-inch refractor was made by the Warner and Swasey Company. The telescope is set on a cast iron pier 10 x 17 feet at the base, tapering to 4 x 8 feet at the top. James Lick's body is buried in the base of the pier supporting the 36-inch refractor. A simple bronze plaque with the inscription "Here lies the body of James Lick" is mounted on the pier.

In 1985 the 36-inch objective lens was refinished. The walls of the observatory building are under repair to correct recent earthquake damage. The observatory building and 36-inch refractor are still intact and will be returned to full use in 1989.


The 36-inch Clark refractor, housed in the Lick Observatory building, was the first large telescope erected on a site chosen for its astronomical advantages, rather than for convenience in the builder's backyard, or on a university campus. [2] The location of the telescope on Mount Hamilton proved to be an excellent choice and provided an example that has been followed from 1888 until the present day. The discoveries of early Lick astronomers, starting with Shelburne Wesley Burnham, James E. Keeler, Edward Emerson Barnard, and their later successors, began a tradition of excellence at Lick that has had a profound impact in shaping the history of American astronomy in the twentieth century. These astronomers have contributed to almost every branch of research in the history of astronomy. By combining excellent equipment, a favorable location, and the proximity to the resources of the University of California, Lick established the pattern for large modern observatories that has continued to this day and has left a major imprint on modern astronomy.


Lick Observatory was opened in 1888, around the 36-inch refractor, financed by California businessman James Lick. Planned from the beginning for use by a large staff of astronomers for their individual research programs, the institution was built around the great Alvan Clark 36-inch refractor, housed in the main observatory building.

Prior to the establishment of Lick, few astronomers understood the advantages of mountaintop observing, or had even studied the problem of observatory site selection. Major telescopes had always been erected near universities or in cities in convenient locations. Building a major observatory on a mountaintop was unprecedented, but George Davidson, the head of the Pacific branch of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, a dedicated geodesist and astronomer, had traveled throughout California and knew from first-hand experience the advantages of a mountaintop location. Davidson in his capacity as President of the California Academy of Sciences, often met with James Lick, a bachelor, to discuss the disposition of his large estate. During these meetings Lick and Davidson discussed topics relating to science and astronomy and the need for large telescopes. By 1873 Davidson's meetings with Lick were successful when he announced to the Academy of Sciences that Lick had agreed to finance the building of a large observatory in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. James Lick took a personal interest in evaluating various sites for the location of his observatory but the final decision in favor of Mount Hamilton, located east of San Jose, in the Diablo Mountain Range, was made by Thomas Fraser, James Lick's foreman at the Lick homestead, and close associate. Lick personally approved the selection of Mount Hamilton shortly before his death on October 1, 1876.

This selection proved to be a fortunate choice. The skies above the mountain were unusually transparent and Mount Hamilton was a sharp knife-edged mountain that caused little perturbation or turbulence in the airflow from the cool ocean current to the west.

The 36-inch lens for the Lick refractor was cast by a firm headed by Charles Feil, of Paris, France, and ground by the American firm of Alvan Clark, the premier telescope-making firm in the United States. At the time of its completion in 1886 the 36-inch lens was the largest in the world. The mounting for the telescope was completed by the engineering firm of Warner and Swasey, marking the successful entry of this company in the field and establishing their reputation in the mounting of large astronomical telescopes. In the years after the establishment of Lick, most major observatories in the country would turn to the Warner and Swasey Company to mount their telescopes.

After the trustees of James Lick's estate turned over control of the observatory to the University of California on June 1, 1888, Edward S. Holden, the first director of the Lick Observatory, established four major areas of scientific research for the 36-inch refractor. These included double star research, an area of long-standing interest to 19th-century astronomers; astrometry, the measuring of star positions; the preparation of an accurate photographic atlas of the moon; and, finally, spectroscopy--the study of the component colors in a star's light to determine the properties of that star.

Lick Observatory attracted the most famous names in 19th-century astronomy to use the 36-inch refractor. One of the first was Sherburne Wesley Burnham, the well known double star observer from Chicago. Burnham's presence, coupled with the famous 36-inch refractor and the unprecedented location, brought instant fame to the observatory. Burnham's work in discovering and cataloging hundreds of pairs of stars, so future astronomers could study their orbits, continued at Lick for many years and was basic to the future of astronomical research.

Also joining the staff was Edward Emerson Barnard who brought with him experience in a technique new to astronomy--photography. At Lick, Barnard photographed the sky with a passion and in 1892 visually discovered the fifth moon of Jupiter, later named Amalthea, the first after Galileo's discoveries. In all, four additional moons of Jupiter were discovered by other astronomers at Lick. In addition, Barnard assisted Lick's director, Edward S. Holden, in taking a series of photographic plates to create an atlas of the moon, while his photographs of the Milky Way showed astronomers the complex arrangement of the galaxy for the first time. Barnard's work at Lick pioneered the use of photography as a research tool in astronomy.

Another early Lick astronomer, James E. Keeler, completed pioneering work in the field of spectroscopy, by recording the spectra of stars and cataloging this information. Keeler's work in this field would eventually lay the groundwork for understanding the types of stars in the galaxy. Keeler's measurements would also enable astronomers to determine the solar system's motion with respect to the nearby stars and would prove the first step in the march to map out the motions of stars in the Milky Way. This, in turn, led to a better understanding of our Galaxy's contents, size, and dynamics.

Although many of the early astronomers at Lick Observatory went on to successful careers elsewhere, great things continued to happen at Lick. Heber D. Curtis extended Keeler's work by pushing forth the understanding that spiral nebulae are galaxies. Robert Grant Aitken followed in Burnham's tracks by discovering, catologing, and studying thousands of double stars. William W. Campbell organized many solar eclipse expeditions that led to Robert J. Trumpler's confirmation of the general theory of relativity. Trumpler's studies of stars in clusters led to the discovery that dark matter absorbs light in space, one of the most important discoveries of twentieth-century astronomy.

In the 100 years since its establishment the Lick Observatory has left a major imprint on the history of astronomy in America. By combining excellent equipment, favorable location, and proximity to the resources of the University of California, Lick established the pattern for large modern observatories that has continued to this day.


1. The descriptive material in this section was taken from the following sources:

Leslie Sweeney and John Gustafson, ed. "Lick Observatory" (University of California, 1984), pp. 2-14.

Siegfried Marx and Werner Pfau, Observatories of the World (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, no date), pp. 122-124.

Marian Card Donnelly, A Short History of Observatories (Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Books, 1973), pp. 117-120.

2. The historical background for this section was taken from the following sources:

Donald E. Osterbrock, John R. Gustafson and W. J. Shiloh Unruh, Eye on the Sky: Lick Observatory's First Century, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 267-271.

John R. Gustafson, "Pioneering Astronomy at Lick Observatory," Astronomy Magazine, May 1988, pp. 6-15.

Marx and Pfau, op. cit., p. 124.


Abell, George O. Exploration of the Universe. 4th ed., Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing, 1982.

Asimov, Isaac. Eyes On The Universe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.

Gustafson, John R. "Pioneering Astronomy at Lick Observatory," Astronomy Magazine, May 1988. pp. 6-15.

Kirby-Smith, H.T. U.S. Observatories: A Directory and Travel Guide. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976.

Learner, Richard. Astronomy Through the Telescope. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981.

Marx, Siegfried and Werner Pfau. Observatories of the World. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, no date.

Mumford, George S. "The Legacy of E.E. Barnard," Sky & Telescope, July 1987. pp. 30-34.

Osterbrock, Donald E., Gustafson, John R. and Unruh, W.J Shiloh. Eye on the Sky: Lick Observatory's First Century. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1988.

Sweeney, Leslie and John Gustafson, ed. Lick Observatory: University of California. Berkeley, California: University of California, 1984. (Brochure)


Lick Observatory Building Lick Observatory Building

(click on the above photographs for a more detailed view)

Lick Crossley 36-inch Reflector


Last Modified: Mon, Nov 5 2001 8:00:00 pm PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home