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World’s first high-altitude observatory still scanning the skies above San Jose

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World’s first high-altitude observatory still scanning the skies above San Jose

Lick Observatory is in its 125th year of operation.

Photo contributed/


POSTED December 27, 2013 7:26 p.m.

SAN JOSE — Perched high on Mount Hamilton above San Jose is the Lick Observatory.

It was dedicated in 1888 as the world’s first high-altitude observatory. It is at 4,250 feet above sea-level and still operates what was, at the time, the largest telescope of any type in the world – the great 36-inch diameter refractor. A refracting telescope uses a glass objective lens as opposed to a reflecting mirror like most modern, larger telescopes. It remains, after all these years, the second-largest refracting telescope ever built.

The story of Lick Observatory begins with the man whose bequest of $700,000 in the 1870s funded its construction. Lick was a colorful character from the stern tradition of a wood-working family in the Pennsylvania Dutch region of that state who ultimately moved to South America as a young man. There, he made a small fortune building pianos for a wealthy, regional clientele. Upon his much later return to the United States, he settled in Northern California around 1846, in time to witness, first-hand, the land-takeover from Mexico in that region.

He wisely invested heavily in local real-estate and accumulated a substantial fortune in the process. He settled in San Jose, among the many orchards, some fifty miles south of the burgeoning “settlement” of San Francisco. Toward the end of his life, he became obsessed with building a memorial to himself in San Francisco. One of his ideas centered on a huge pyramid, comparable to the great pyramids in Egypt – at the corner of Fourth and Market Streets – the heart of today’s downtown. Later, a trusted friend suggested something “more suitable,” like a world-class observatory to benefit science. Given his late-blooming interest in astronomy, he warmed to the idea. He would build the world’s largest telescope – right in the middle of downtown San Francisco; not a good idea.

In those days, observatories were built in the fairly clear air of readily accessible lowlands, often near colleges and universities. At least smog and light pollution were not such a problem in the 1800’s. Lick benefitted from his acquaintance with at least a few men of sensible practicality, one of whom suggested that his “Lick Observatory” be built on a high mountain-top in order to avoid the fog and city lights of growing San Francisco. Even in those days, knowledgeable astronomers knew that “bypassing” the air blanket of the first few thousand feet of atmosphere would inherently result in much better “seeing” through a telescope.

Lick’s trust was modified, and work began in on the first high-altitude observatory in the world during July, 1880. The observatory was dedicated and transferred, as intended, to the Regents of the University of California on June 22, 1888, twelve years after the death of its eccentric beneficiary. Lick’s body lies in a crypt at the large pedestal-base of the 36-inch telescope.

The 120-inch reflecting telescope, installed in 1950s in a huge dome behind the original buildings, was second in size only to Mount Palomar at that time and remains an important research tool; the venerable 36-inch refractor still earns its keep while doing more mundane work in the heavens.

Visiting Hours

Visiting Hours Memorial Day - Labor Day: Visitor Center every day from noon to 5 p.m. Shane Gallery (Shane 3-m Telescope Building open for self-guided viewing of exhibits and the telescope through a window) every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visiting Hours Labor Day - Memorial Day: Visitor Center Thursday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Shane gallery every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

More information: Lick Observatory Guides Office/Gift Shop: 408-274-5061 or giftshop@ucolick.org

Things to Do

View exhibits in the main Observatory building (see details below), built in 1888. Note the original oak and marble interior.

•Enjoy a short informal talk about Lick history while taking a look at the Great Lick Refractor in the 36-inch telescope dome (no charge). Talks begin at the Gift Shop, throughout the afternoon starting at 1:00pm on weekdays and 12:30pm on weekends, continuing until 4:30pm.

•At the Gift Shop check out Lick Observatory sweatshirts, T-shirts, mugs, wineglasses, astronomical photos, posters, educational toys, and other astronomy-related goodies.

•Take a short walk to the Shane Dome to view the 120-inch Reflector from the Visitors’ Gallery. Displays explain the Shane reflector, one of the major telescopes used to discover extra solar planets.

•Enjoy the view of the Santa Clara Valley from the parking lot at 4209 feet. Bring a picnic lunch to eat in your car. There are no food or gasoline facilities on Mt. Hamilton.

Current Exhibits

•Located in Lick Observatory’s Main Building and open to the public during all business hours.

•Telescopes of Lick Observatory exhibit in the hallway features photos of both modern and historical Lick telescopes and their related instruments.

To get there

Lick Observatory is located on the summit of Mt. Hamilton in the Diablo Range east of San Jose. To get there from Interstates 101, 280, 680, take Alum Rock Avenue exit from Interstate 680 north. Turn right onto Alum Rock Avenue. Take another right on Mt. Hamilton Road Highway.Allow about one hour from San Jose, and please drive carefully as the road is good, but winding.

From the east, take Interstate 580 west to Interstate 680 south. Then follow the directions above. Alternatively, you may take Highway 130 to Mt. Hamilton from the east, but please allow about 1-3/4 hours from Interstate 5 to reach the Observatory. The road is long and winding, but well-maintained. Take the Patterson exit off Interstate 5, and go west on Puerto del Canyon Road (away from Patterson.) At the Junction Cafe, turn left to stay on Highway 130.

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