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Joseph P. Wampler [mc1-1], Pioneer in Optics

Section 1.7.C

Last update: 02/05/'04


Joseph P. Wampler was a native of Westmoreland County Pennsylvania. He moved to Versailles township in 1820 as a millwright and then to McKeesport in 1828 (other accounts say the year was 1832 or 1821). He was accompanied to McKeesport by his first wife, the former Polly Thompson, and one or two of their children. For fourteen years he ran the sawmill which was later operated by his son John. Joseph was the son of a Westmoreland County pioneer, Jacob Wampler.

In McKeesport Joseph was elected to be justice of the peace, an office in which he continued to serve for thirty years. During this time he employed himself as a watchmaker and jeweler and developed his interest in optics and telescopes. His youngest son, William P. Wampler, shared his fathers mechanical skills. Joseph was married three times. His first wife, Polly Thompson, bore him four children: Jackson, John, Joseph and David. His second wife was a widow, Mrs. Owen, and no children are listed for this union. His third wife was Mary Griggs, the mother of William P. Wampler.

Joseph was one of the earliest microscope and telescope maker in the country. He was considered by many to be a genius. Allan Wampler of McKeesport, PA, reports that even though "his opportunities in life were very limited, having attended school but three months time," never-the-less...

"when a boy of sixteen years he manufactured a clock, his only tools being a penknife, a gimlet and a knitting needle. The clock is said to have kept good time for number of years. He became quite celebrated on account of his astronomical knowledge. He made barometers, microscopes, several large telescopes and a planetarium, which was in use in the New York Observatory, at Albany.
His skill as a telescope maker was rewarded by a silver medal in the Ohio State Fair of 1832. Cushing reports that this was "the first premium over all exhibits of telescopes from this and foreign countries." In his later years, Joseph served several terms as Justice of the Peace. Recently, we received an inquiry and more information on Joseph's optical skills from Bart Fried of the Antique Telescope Society who says that Joseph "was one of the country's earliest lens makers if not the first, and that possibly also the first microscope maker." He sent the following quote from the autobiography of John Brashear:
"Squire Wampler of McKeesport, then a small town some forty miles from Brownsville, brought a little telescope of his own make to our town and offered a view of celestial objects at a nominal charge which I do not now recall. My grandfather learned of his coming, and I was taken to have a view of the moon and of the planet Saturn, that beautiful ringed planet being in good position for observing, although the rings were only about half open.
Young as I was, the scenery on the moon and the rings of Saturn impressed me deeply. Although I have since seen more than four phases of Saturn's ring-system through several of the finest telescopes in the world, the entrancing beauty of that first sight has never been forgotten. I think just here it would be interesting to give a brief history of that first telescope in which I was privileged to look.
Squire Wampler was a lover of astronomy. Since he did not have the means to purchase a telescope, he undertook to make one for himself. He secured a piece of French plate-glass, but he was unable to get a suitable piece of flint-glass to match it. Finally a search in the glasshouse debris of the Bakewell Glass Works, destroyed in Pittsburgh's great fire in 1845, brought into his possession several very good pieces of this material. From one of these pieces of flint-glass, combined with the crown, he constructed an excellent object glass,and then, being a watch- and clock-repairer, he made a very good mounting for the telescope. He later made several larger telescopes.
Through the kindness of my friend, Mr. E.A. Houston of Pittsburgh, I was recently made the fortunate possessor of a four-inch telescope made by this old-time amateur astronomer, who, in later years, paid a visit to my little workshop on the hill, and gave me words of encouragement that I have not forgotten. The four-inch lens, which I have among my relics, is very nicely corrected for what is known as spherical and chromatic aberration; but is literally full of striae, illustrating the difficulty of obtaining good optical glass at that time as compared with the wonderful products of German and French optical glass workers of these later days."

Acknowledgement: Alan Edwin Wampler of McKeesport PA who provided much of the information on the Jacob Wampler [mc0-1] family.

Wampler, E. Joseph. The 153-inch Anglo-Australian Telescope. Sky & Telescope 50 (Oct. 1975) 225-228.

Fried, Bart. Joseph P. Wampler, A Country Squire Ignites a Tradition. Journal of the Antique Telescope Society #18 (1999) 18-20.

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