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James Lick

Paul Kohlmiller


Everyone reading this newsletter is aware that the observatory on Mt. Hamilton is named after James Lick. But you may not be aware of the unusual life he led and how he came to be associated with astronomy.

He was born in 1796. George Washington is still the president. He trained to be a carpenter and from there he went into building organs and later pianos. The piano making business wasn’t going very well and he found himself in a predicament. His girlfriend was pregnant and he wanted to marry her. Her father refused. The one thing that he had going for him was a chance to move far away. Specifically, he made a deal with a ship’s captain wherein he would build a piano for the ship if he could go to South America onboard. He set up a piano making business in Buenos Aires which turned out to be quite successful; often selling pianos back to the United States.

At one point Lick, who found life in Argentina to be difficult for a non-Spanish speaker, went to Europe for about a year. Presumably he returned to Buenos Aires reinvigorated but a Portuguese ship captured Lick and the vessel he was on. He was held as a prisoner of war but somehow he managed to escape.

With his new fortune he went back to Pennsylvania to once again try to marry his girlfriend. Apparently, Lick’s family did not want to burden him with the news that his beloved had married. On the other hand, she did learn of his return and she took their son and left the city.

James Lick returned to Buenos Aires again, evading capture this time. He later moved to Chile and then Peru. Each move was motivated by an attempt to find a more stable political climate. At the age of 50 he decided to go to California. He left his piano-making business behind but took the proceeds from the sale of the business to the San Francisco area and started buying land. It was January of 1848 and his luck had only started to turn for the better. The gold rush came the following year and Lick actually thought he might be a gold miner but he later decided that land ownership would work out better.

Nor was he the only one to make a strong move by going to San Francisco. He asked his friend, a chocolate maker, to join him. If you know about Ghirardelli chocolate then you know how that turned out.

When James Lick was 77, he had a stroke. At that point he started to give serious consideration to his legacy. He decided that he wanted to be buried inside a giant pyramid in San Francisco. Fortunately he was surrounded by friends who could dissuade him. The most influential of these friends may have been George Davidson who was an astronomer and President of the California Academy of Sciences. Davidson slowly turned James Lick toward the idea of building a great astronomical observatory.

And that's how the Lick Observatory was started. James Lick died about 3 years after his stroke. He participated in the site location and he wanted the telescope to be the largest in the world. This led to the 36 inch refractor on Mt. Hamilton with the reinterred remains of James Lick buried at the telescope’s pier.

Fast Facts About James Lick

James Lick is reported to have been an atheist. Mt. Hamilton is named for a Methodist minister.

The 36 inch refractor is still in use today. Only the Xerxes 40 inch refractor is larger and it is located near Chicago.

At the time, the location of Lick Observatory was considered remote and mountainous — the first of its kind.

When his son was 37 years old, James Lick finally met him. They lived together for 8 years before John went back to Pennsylvania — only returning when his father was on his deathbed.

James Lick built a great hotel in San Francisco which included magnificent woodwork, some of it done by Lick himself. The hotel, which was on Montgomery Street, was destroyed in the '06 earthquake.

Lick purchased an iron and glass conservatory for the city of San Jose. However, before the crates arrived, he read a local newspaper article criticizing his shabby dress. This angered him and he left the crates unopened until after his death. A group of San Franciscans purchased the crates and you now know this as the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park.

At one point, James Lick owned Catalina Island — all of it.

The father who turned down Lick's request for his daughter's hand in marriage, did so because Lick had no money. The father, a mill owner, said he would not relent until Lick had a mill the equal of his own. In 1855, Lick completed a far greater mill. He had it photographed and had copies sent back to Pennsylvania. By then, not only had the father died but so had his girlfriend, the mother of John.

This article was compiled from various web sources. Primarily the following:
Lick Observatory History

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