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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 26.djvu/402

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

MOUNTAIN OBSERVATORIES.

ON October 1, 1876, one of the millionaires of the New World died at San Francisco. Although owning a no more euphonious name than James Lick, he had contrived to secure a future for it. He had founded and endowed the first great astronomical establishment planted on the heights, between the stars and the sea. How he came by his love of science we have no means of knowing. Born obscurely at Fredericksburg, in Pennsylvania, August 25, 1796, he amassed some thirty thousand dollars by commerce in South America, and in 1847 transferred them and himself to a village which had just exchanged its name of Yerba Buena for that of San Francisco, situate on a long, sandy strip of land between the Pacific and a great bay. In the hillocks and gullies of that wind-blown barrier he invested his dollars, and never did virgin-soil yield a richer harvest. The gold-fever broke out in the spring of 1848. The unremembered cluster of wooden houses, with no trouble or tumult of population in their midst, nestling round a tranquil creek under a climate which, but for a touch of sea-fog, might rival that of the Garden of the Hesperides, became all at once a center of attraction to the outcast and adventurous from every part of the world. Wealth poured in; trade sprang up; a population of six hundred increased to a quarter of a million; hotels, villas, public edifices, places of business spread, mile after mile, along the bay; building-ground rose to a fabulous price, and James Lick found himself one of the richest men in the United States.

Thus he got his money; we have now to see how he spent it. Already the munificent benefactor of the learned institutions of California, he in 1874 formally set aside a sum of two million dollars for various public purposes, philanthropic, patriotic, and scientific. Of these two millions, seven hundred thousand were appropriated to the erection of a telescope "superior to and more powerful than any ever yet made." But this, he felt instinctively, was not enough. Even in astronomy, although most likely unable to distinguish the pole-star from the dog-star, this "pioneer citizen" could read the signs of the times. It was no longer instruments that were wanted; it was the opportunity of employing them. Telescopes of vast power and exquisite perfection had ceased to be a rarity; but their use seemed all but hopelessly impeded by the very conditions of existence on the surface of the earth.

The air we breathe is in truth the worst enemy of the astronomer's observations. It is their enemy in two ways. Part of the light which brings its wonderful, evanescent messages across inconceivable depths of space, it stops; and, what it does not stop, it shatters. And this even when it is most transparent and seemingly still; when mist-veils are withdrawn, and no clouds curtain the sky. Moreover, the evil