University of California Observatories

Linda Hall Library

James Lick, an American real-estate tycoon, was born Aug. 25, 1796, in Philadelphia. He moved to South America in 1821 to manufacture pianos, living mostly in Argentina and Peru. Having made a modest fortune, and sensing that California was about to boom, he moved to San Francisco in 1848 and started buying land. This was just before the Gold Rush, so he quickly grew wealthy, eventually becoming the richest man in California, owning huge parcels of land in San Francisco and San Jose.

As he neared death, Lick decided to donate his fortune to various charities, but he saved the most sizeable chunk to fund the building of an observatory with the largest telescope in the world. After he died in 1876, the Lick Observatory was constructed on top of Mount Hamilton, just east of San Jose, and in 1888, a 36” refracting telescope was installed, which was indeed the largest in the world (for about 9 years). Lick was buried under the pier that holds the refractor.

The images above show the completed mountain-top observatory, from a period photo; the Lick refractor, from a period wood engraving, a portrait of Lick, and a photograph of the moon, made with the Lick refractor in 1897. We featured the album that contained the Lick lunar photographs in our exhibition, The Face of the Moon.

As an incidental point of interest, when Lick first came to California from Peru, he brought with him over 500 pounds of chocolate, which he sold at great profit. He wrote to his neighbor back in Peru, who had supplied the chocolate, and told him of the opportunities in San Francisco. His neighbor quickly followed suit and re-established his chocolateering business in San Francisco. His name was Domingo Ghirardelli, and you can still find his establishment, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, at Ghirardelli Square, the next time you visit San Francisco.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to