The Cryptic Case of Jacob Campbell’s Clark Refractor

Missing Twelve Inch Fitz -Missing Twelve Inch Fitz – The first successful commercial telescope making enterprise in the United States was started right here in New York City by one of America’s earliest photographers, Henry Fitz, Jr. (1808–1863). Fitz, a locksmith and amateur astronomer, had no place to buy recently invented Daguerreotype cameras needed for his photographic work so he taught himself to make them, including grinding his own optics. By the 1840’s, Fitz turned  his attention to producing optics and complete assemblies for telescopes which were comparable in quality to the best telescopes that could be bought in Europe. After two decades of telescope making, and with his career flourishing, it’s unfortunate that Fitz contracted tuberculosis and died in 1863 at age 54. At the time of his passing, Henry left two prominent projects incomplete. One was the photographic corrector for pioneering New York City astrophotographer Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. That lens would be finished by Henry Giles “Harry” Fitz (1847–1939), Henry’s young son, under Rutherfurd’s guidance. But almost no information survived about the other unfinished project. What is known is that Fitz was working to complete an order for a very large refractor, a twelve-inch diameter, for an unknown customer. But its fate, and the name of the customer were never well documented. That’s very surprising considering that, in 1863, a twelve-inch refractor was still considered a very large telescope

Jacob Campbell’s Clark—Around 1867, a talented Brooklyn amateur astronomer named Jacob Campbell (1816–1889), President of the Pacific Bank in New York, built for himself a prodigious observatory in the rear of his house at No. 150 Columbia Heights Brooklyn. Built into the bluff of Brooklyn Heights, it was large enough to be visible to people on ferries crossing between Brooklyn and Manhattan. While no photographs of it have been located, it does appear in a print of the 1879 Brooklyn waterfront. It is visible in the center of the image shown here. Campbell’s observatory was “thirty-eight feet square, with dome-room in the centre, having an entrance room on the south side and transit room on the east.”

Brooklyn Heights & Waterfront, Currier & Ives 1879

Since it was built on a bluff, the foundation was supported by “a very substantial wall built up from Furman street” at the base of the bluff. Including walls, the top of the dome rose 64 feet above the street, giving Campbell’s telescope an unobstructed view of the complete horizon over the houses down to an elevation of about 40 degrees. The dome room itself was 25 feet wide. The pier, on a separate foundation, was solid masonry. The observatory and telescope together cost $27,000. /1/  Campbell built his observatory to house a Twelve-inch Alvan Clark &  Sons refractor. It was completed by Alvan Clark, and was operational before June 1867, when Campbell reported the discovery of a previously unknown close companion to Procyon. /2/

credit: ken laurie
Clark signature on Campbell’s refractor, 1867

At the time of its completion in early 1867, Campbell’s telescope—a twelve-inch refractor with a focal length of 17 feet—was the third largest telescope in the nation in private hands.


/1/From Peter Abrahams and Bob Hambleton: Kennion, John W., “A Private Dome-Topped Observatory,” The Architects’ and Builders’ Guide (New York: Fitzpatrick & Hunter, 1868), Part II, pp. 40–41.

/2/“Telescopic Discovery,” Scientific American 16(22): 350, June 1, 1867.