Richard Brown Gans
1819 – 1905
Few people know today that in the late 1800s Boone county was home to an experienced and successful manufacturer of telescopes. Richard Brown Gans (born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, 1819) moved to Boone County in 1868 where he purchased a farm near Stephens Station and served as an optician and manufacturer of telescopes for the Columbia area.
In his youth, Gans learned the cabinet-maker’s trade from his father, who was also a skillful mechanic, and attended public school only learning about astronomy from an independent interest. He followed his father’s business until 1847, when he changed professions and began work as an optician. It wasn’t until several years after that he started to make telescopes, the first being for a college in Pennsylvania. He never had any formal instruction or training and his craftsmanship came entirely from a passion and interest that had carried over from his childhood. He spent long and careful study and experimented until he was entirely self-taught in the trade. Though considered an amateur, his work was of such extraordinary quality that he was highly regarded by professionals. Every part of each instrument and the machinery he used was designed and made by him including a home-made lathe that he used to the grind and polish the lens’ of each telescope. He primarily made telescopes for learning institutions, and one of his first ones made upon arriving in Columbia was a telescope for the Christian Female Academy (now Columbia College).
This article from the [Columbia] Weekly Missouri Statesman, September 18, 1878, details the telescope:
“Christian Female College — The Gans Telescope.
Christian Female College in this place takes another important step forward by the recent purchase of a new, very large and very valuable telescope, the manufacture of one of our own citizens, Mr. R.B. Gans. This fine instrument will very materially add to the educational facilities of Christian College, and to an appreciate extent, heighten the public interest in the institution.
The telescope has been subjected to the severest tests by our scientists and is adjudged one of the best in the country. It is an equatorial achromatic refractor, 6 inches clear aperture; focal length 99 inches; with 6 astronomical eye-pieces powers varying from 100 to 700 times. Mr. Gans obtained the optical discs of glass in the rough from Messrs. Chance & Co., of Birmingham, England, the same firm from whom Alvan Clark & Sons procured the glass discs for their world-renowned telescopes. The tube is made of black walnut, heavily banded with brass, with rack and pinion motion for eye-piece. The “finder” has a focal length of 80 inches, a magnifying power of 40, with an achromatic object glass diameter 1 inch. The telescope is mounted on an iron pedestal, weighing about 200 pounds, which stands on 6 foot screws. The mounting is equatorial with equatorial and declination circles, permitting the tube to be pointed with ease and celerity in any required direction. The gearing is turned by a cord instead of a tumbling shaft handle, which secures a smooth uniform motion, with extreme precision in such a way that as the earth revolves from west to east, the telescope shall revolve from east to west with the same velocity, and thus point steadily at the same star throughout its diurnal motion..
Recently the editor of this paper and many citizens, and students of our several institutions of learning, enjoyed very successful observations of the moon and of Jupiter and his satellites.”
At one point he was offered a position with Alvin Clark & Sons, one of the best known telescope makers in the world at the time, and turned it down leaving behind a chance for fame. At the age of 80 he was still only known to a limited circle in the scientific world and his work had garnered little recognition nationally. In addition to his telescope making he worked as an optician for the Columbia area, making lens’ for sight correction and serving an important need in the community. He lived in Columbia until his death at age 85 on January 14, 1905 at his home at 1308 Paris Road. At the time of his death, his wife was eighty-one years old and he had five children, eighteen grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He is buried in the Columbia Cemetery.