Lick Observatory

Apart from attending local star parties we love visiting observatories to take a look at gigantic telescopes. Lick Observatory is on Mt. Hamilton in Diablo range east of San Jose at an elevation of 4200 ft. The road to Lick Observatory is winding, we were told in observatory tour that there are more than 300 curves.

In the restrooms I found cloth-towel dispensers for the first time.  Before paper towels were used,a single sheet of cloth was used in restrooms which circulated after each use. In the end the cloth was taken out and washed and used again.


There is a gift shop in the Observatory, where a short tour starts. We were taken to The Great Lick Refractor telescope room. Reflector and Refractor are two main telescope types. Reflector uses mirror to gather light from distant objects while refractor telescope uses lens. Refractor telescope was the first to be invented and is best suited to observe moon, planets and terrestrial objects while reflector telescopes are best suited for deep-sky observing. Fascinating thing about this 36 inch telescope is that it was fabricated in France and shipped to Boston, polished in Massachusetts by Alvan Clark and his son Alvan G. Clark. The challenge was it’s transportation in 1800s. It was transported in railroad from Boston and on horse carriages up the curvy roads of Mt. Hamilton. The original lens broke during transportation and it took 18 attempts to fabricate the replacement lens. After it’s completion it was the largest refracting telescope in the world (today, it is second in size only to the 40-inch Yerkes Observatory refractor.)


Lick Observatory is named after James Lick who donated most towards the observatory. His tomb lies inside Lick Observatory. Like many other wealthy men, Lick wanted to leave something behind so his name and reputation lives after him. He thought of many things but finally invested money in Lick Observatory which served his purpose. He chose Mt. Hamilton so he could see observatory from his house. Because of this there’s very less light pollution from cities near by. He died even before the Great Lick refractor and Lick Observatory was completed.

Lick Observatory home page:


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