Nor’easter

On March 2, 2018 a severe storm impacted southeastern New England. The storm was classified as a Nor’easter which is named for the characteristic strong winds from the northeast. During the storm our weather station recorded fifty-five wind gusts greater than 50 miles per hour. The two strongest were 62 mph at 1:48 and again at 1:50 pm.

Average wind speed and highest wind gusts graph.

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“An excellent apparatus”

“Connected with this school is an excellent apparatus, including a telescope, which we understand to be among the largest in the State; this, however. is owned by the Principal, Mr. J. M. Ross.

―”Town of Smithfield.”  Twenty-First Annual Report on Public Schools, January 1866.

The School Committee of the Town of Smithfield submitted a report to the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island for the school year ending May 1, 1865. One of the challenges conveyed was poor attendance by pupils “… who were suffered to be roaming the streets and fields, when they should have been at school.”

Map of Lonsdale
Map showing the location of the village of Lonsdale in the southeastern portion of Smithfield. From Map of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations by Henry F. Walling, 1855.

The Committee highlights the success of the school at Lonsdale, the only high school in the town at the time. The principal is praised for his work and it is mentioned that he lends his own personal telescope for use by the students. The school is seen as a model that other school districts should emulate.

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The observatory that wasn’t

“The writer of this sketch has been there when the building was thronged with guests; some of them in the upper story enjoying the breezes, and the delightful views far and near; some below were at the billiard or card table; some in the nine-pin alley; some in the saloon; and some in the refectory. The hill itself has utterly disappeared and the neighboring houses have all been either removed or torn down, and all that now remains of this once noted scene of fashion, amusement, gayety and dissipation is this picture of the observatory and of several other buildings,—a picture that was taken near the close of the first third of this century.”

― “Fox Point Observatory.” Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, April, 1895.

This is not what I was expecting to find when searching for information on the Fox Point Observatory. It was named for the scenic views of Narragansett Bay, rather than for astronomical viewing which is what I was looking for. The only telescope used here appears to be a spyglass for viewing the sailing ships approaching the port by an observer on the deck, as shown below.

Fox Point Observatory.
“The Observatory” as it looked in the early nineteenth century. By Edward Peckham as reproduced in “A Painter of Old Providence.” The Journal of American History, 1912.

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Fellow Travelers

“The radio signals of the satellite [Sputnik II] were followed and recorded on tape frequently by Mr. C. Newton Kraus, an outstanding radio amateur of Touisset Point, R.I. He had followed Sputnik I signals for the three weeks that the transmitters continued to function.”

―Charles H. Smiley, The First Artificial Earth Satellites, August 1958.

On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite which was called Sputnik I. The word Sputnik simply means “satellite” or, more generally, “fellow traveler.” The quotes from Prof. Charles Smiley, director of Ladd Observatory, are from a report published in The Hinterlands, the Bulletin of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society. He describes how Sputnik I could be seen from all parts of the Earth and reports on the local observations of it: “In Rhode Island, between October 12 and November 27, it was observed at Ladd Observatory of Brown University on 13 different passages for a total of 33.2 minutes.” The observed positions and motion were plotted on a star map.

Observations of Sputnik I
Observations of the Sputnik I rocket body from southeastern New England. October 12-17, 1957.

The satellite itself was only 22 inches in diameter and would have been difficult to see from the ground. Instead, they were observing the rocket that launched the satellite which also entered orbit. The second stage of the rocket was 92 feet long and 9.7 feet in diameter. Sunlight reflecting off the rocket body was much easier to see. Notice that observers in Providence RI, Nantucket MA, and Mansfield CT saw the rocket in a slightly different position against the background stars due to parallax.

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Tin-top Hill

“PROVIDENCE – The Hon. Jonathon Chace, former United States senator from this state, is to remove his domicile from Valley Falls, in the Blackstone valley, to “Tin Tops” hill this city, where he is preparing to build a brick mansion.”

―Christian Science Monitor, Mar 21, 1910.

Ladd Observatory is on the second highest point in Providence, a site that was once referred to as Tin-top (or sometimes Tin Tops Hill.) Anecdotes describing the origin of this name are frequently given. For example, an article in the Providence Journal states that “Before the observatory was built in 1891, this land was known as Tin Top Hill because it was a dumping ground for tin cans.” However, the name may have more to do with a carefully placed, but misunderstood and then forgotten, surveying aid.

Connecticut shore, 1837.
Connecticut shore, 1837. NOAA John Farley collection.

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