Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton

The winding road up Mount Hamilton is not for those with acrophobia, aeroacrophobia, or any fear related to high, narrow roads with no guardrails. The ride is full of twists and turns; the closer you get to the top, the narrower the road. And the narrow road –barely adequate for two mid-size cars– seems to be allergic to railing. The steeper you climb, the less railing there is. You might enjoy it, or you might suffer from anxiety attacks. But never mind that. Because the views at the summit are rewarding.



If you’re quite done admiring the vista, shall we learn a little history? We’re at the world’s first permanent mountaintop observatory, which, in 1888, housed the largest telescope in the world: The Great Lick. This telescope, now the world’s 2nd largest refractor, was named after Carpenter/Piano Builder/Realtor/Philanthropist James Lick.

When Lick Observatory was built, most other observatories were constructed in cities; this means more discoveries were made up on Mount Hamilton than in other observatories during its heyday. What’s today’s interesting discovery? The floor around the telescope is built on hydraulics. It moves up and down to meet the telescope so you don’t have to climb a ladder. At time of its construction, it was the first in the world. (Lots of firsts here!) Although the floor appears to be hardwood, it’s actually concrete. And this concrete rotunda is essentially the world’s largest elevator.

Another discovery: Observatory patron James Lick is buried in a crypt at the base of this telescope. I suppose one should not expect less from a philanthropist who was once the richest man in California. The rags-to-riches tycoon, wanting to be remembered long after his death, donated $700,000 to the University of California. It may not sound like much, but calculate the equivalent of that amount today, and it’s well over $20 million.

The Lick Refractor was utilized in a century’s worth of research. It’s no longer used for this purpose, but the mountaintop now houses other telescopes which focus on supernovae, galaxies, and planets beyond our solar system.






Left: Before we leave, here’s one final gem: The original seismographic record of the historically devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake.