Grubb, Sir Howard (1844–1931), engineer and manufacturer of optical and astronomical instruments, was born 28 July 1844 in Dublin, youngest child among five sons and four daughters of Thomas Grubb (qv), optical engineer, and Sarah Grubb (née Palmer). He was educated at a private school in Rathmines, Dublin, before entering TCD (1863) to study engineering. When his father, owner of a well known scientific instruments factory, secured the contract to construct a telescope for the Melbourne Observatory, Australia, Howard left university (1865) without completing his degree, to construct under his father's supervision the 48-in. (1.22 m) Cassegrain reflecting telescope with a metal speculum. The largest telescope in the southern hemisphere and a masterpiece of engineering, it made the firm internationally famous; however, the speculum mirror required sophisticated maintenance which was not forthcoming in Melbourne, and it was subsequently regarded as a relative failure.
After his father's retirement (c.1870) Grubb greatly expanded the business, which was unique as a technologically advanced enterprise in nineteenth-century Ireland and served a worldwide market. The period coincided with significant developments in astronomy and the building of many observatories; for the following twenty years Grubb responded to the changing needs of astronomers, was highly innovative, and produced telescopes with high-quality objective lenses, often in consultation with Sir George Gabriel Stokes (qv), as well as equatorial mountings and clock drives with the necessary precision for the new science of astronomical photography.
In 1870 he completed a 15-in. (38 cm) refractor, which was lent by the Royal Society to William Huggins, the pioneering astrophysicist, at Tulse Hill Observatory, London. In 1873 he supplied one of the same size to the Dun Echt Observatory in Aberdeen, Scotland, and met the Scottish astronomer David Gill (1843–1914), later director of the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town), South Africa, who became a valued customer, a lifelong friend, and the stimulus for many of Grubb's innovations during their frequent collaboration. In 1875 he won the contract for the Great Vienna Telescope, a 27-in. (68.6 cm) equatorial refractor – then the world's largest – together with a 45-ft (13.7 m) dome and three smaller ones for the Royal Observatory, Vienna, which on completion established his reputation as a producer of large telescopes of the most modern design. For this enterprise Grubb built a factory specialising in astronomical equipment, the Optical and Mechanical Works; opened (1875) in Observatory Lane, Rathmines, Dublin, it was employing over thirty-five men by 1888.
Grubb entered into photographic astronomy with the completion (1885) of a 20-in. (50 cm) reflector for Isaac Roberts (1829–1904). His most important contract in this field was for the construction of seven 13-in. (33 cm) photographic (astrographic) telescopes for observatories engaged in the ‘Carte du Ciel’, an international project launched in 1887 and sponsored by Gill, for a photographic survey of the sky. For this project Grubb designed suitable object glasses and the refined clockwork needed for the accurate movement of telescopes; these provided a lasting contribution to astronomy as general-purpose, wide-field photographic telescopes. Notable larger photographic refractors included a 24-in. (60 cm) for the Royal Observatory, Cape Town (1900), and for the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, England (1902). Grubb is chiefly associated with the construction of large refracting telescopes. Between 1890 and 1914 he produced over ninety lenses for refractors with diameters ranging from 5 in. (12.7 cm) to 28 in. (70 cm). These included a 24-in. refractor for the National Observatory, Santiago, Chile (1925), with a 45-ft dome and hydraulically powered rising floor, which he had first designed in his unsuccessful submission for the Lick telescope in California in the mid 1880s; the 25.5-in. (65 cm) for the Union (National) Observatory, Johannesburg, South Africa (1925); and the 28-in. for the Royal Greenwich Observatory, London (1893). His largest reflector was the 40-in. (102 cm) for the Pulkova Observatory, Simeis, in the Crimea (1925). He also made smaller telescopes and a variety of other instruments including spectroscopes, stereoscopes, micrometers, and heliostats, and (according to Grubb's 1908 catalogue) domes for twenty-four observatories.
About 1900 he turned his attention to military optics, particularly in the design and construction of submarine periscopes (Grubb apparently supplied 95 per cent of those used by British submarines during the first world war); he also designed gun-sights, taking out the first of many patents in 1900. For security reasons the business was moved to St Albans, Herts., England (1916–18), but Grubb was never able to adapt to post-war conditions and the firm went into voluntary liquidation in 1925. It was purchased by Charles Parsons (qv), son of the 3rd earl of Rosse (qv), and became ‘Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons & Co.’ with headquarters in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland; Grubb returned to Dublin. The family connection continued only till 1929, when Grubb's third son, Romney Robinson Grubb (1879–1947), left the company and settled in Jamaica, where he had a plantation.
Grubb published numerous papers in scientific journals, which together with his patents, catalogues, and a list of his larger telescopes, are recorded in I. S. Glass, Victorian telescope makers. Interested in photography, he was president (1888, 1889) of the Photographic Society of Ireland and was appointed president when the Photographic Convention of the United Kingdom met in Dublin (1894). Grubb was a member of the social and scientific establishment: knighted (1887) and elected FRS (1883) and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (1911), he gave lectures at the Royal Institution in London and was a founding council member of the British Astronomical Association (1890). He was awarded the Cunningham gold medal (1881) by the RIA; a member of the RDS from 1869, he was its secretary (1889–93), vice-president for many years, and governor, and was awarded its Boyle medal (1912); he was also awarded an hon. MAI (Dubl. 1876) and honorary member ICEI (1870). Appointed scientific adviser to the commissioners of Irish lights (1913), he was a member of the board of visitors of the Science and Art Museum, Dublin, governor of the NGI, DL for Dublin, and hon. member of the Astronomical Society of Mexico.
A delightful companion with a keen sense of humour, he was modest, courteous, kindly, and hospitable, enjoying a wide circle of friends. He died 16 September 1931 at his home, 13 Longford Terrace, Monkstown, Dublin, where a plaque is placed in his honour; he was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery, Dublin. Observatory Lane is the only reminder of the famous Grubb works. He married (1871) Mary Hester Walker (d. 12 April 1931), daughter of Irish parents living in Louisiana, USA; they had four sons, two of whom died young, and two daughters.