I’m the Curator of the historic Ladd Observatory. The Observatory opened in 1891 and is part of the Department of Physics at Brown University. Today it is operated as a working museum where visitors can experience astronomy as it was practiced a century ago. I spend most of my time presenting science outreach and public education programs, demonstrations, and exhibits. I’m also responsible for the historic scientific instrument collection. My primary research interest is late 19th and early 20th century astronomy with a focus on precision timekeeping using mechanical clocks and transit telescopes.
“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.
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.
“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.
Note: this was originally published on March 6. It was updated on March 8 to include new information.
On March 6 we received local reports that the aurora was observed in New England just before sunrise. One of our visitors described seeing it from a rest area on Route 495 near Boston. There was another report from Vermont. Our automated all sky camera was running the entire night and captured the view above Providence. Also visible is the International Space Station (ISS) streaking through the sky about 500 miles from Providence as the planets Mars and Saturn shine brilliantly in the south.
During the night the camera recorded 3,750 images of the sky. North is at right, west at bottom, and the zenith is at center. The field of view is about 140 by 90 degrees, capturing most of the sky above Providence. The images can be processed to produce a time lapse movie that shows 5 minutes of changes in the sky per second of video. Click on the image below to watch an excerpt. A number of artificial satellite can be seen streaking through the sky just before dawn.
Our sky camera has been in operation since the spring of 2008. We’ve never captured images like this before.
A Near-Earth Object is an asteroid or comet that is in an orbit that sometimes brings it close to the Earth. The largest of these are known as Potentially Hazardous Objects as they could cause significant damage if they impacted our planet. There are sometimes news reports of a “close approach” where an object passes particularly near the Earth. An asteroid called 2013 TX68 will pass the Earth on March 8, 2016. It is estimated to be 100 feet in diameter.
“An Astronomical Blunder. — Professor Waltemath of Hamburg recently announced through a private circular that he had discovered a second moon to our earth. The contents of the circular were the basis of sensational articles in leading newspapers… He also quotes descriptions of strange objects in the sky seen at various times since the sixteenth century, which his calculations show were probably this second moon.”
Georg Waltemath made an extraordinary claim: that the Earth had a second moon. It was supposed that it was much smaller and dimmer than the known moon. He calculated that this object orbited the Earth every 119 days and would pass between the Earth and Sun, on average, every 177 days. He predicted that on February 3rd of 1898 it would be visible in silhouette as it moved across the disk of the Sun, an event known as an astronomical transit.
Winslow Upton was skeptical of the existence of this long unnoticed moon, but nonetheless attempted to observe it.
“Prof. Winslow Upton, of Brown university, one of the most learned astronomers in the country, has been busily engaged at the Ladd observatory, making photographic exposures of the constellation Perseus, in which the new star appears, and has given out an interesting statement concerning the unusual event. He says:”
―”Catastrophe of tremendous import believed to have caused appearance of bright new star.” The Detroit Free Press, Feb. 27, 1901.
“The appearance of this brilliant star is a rare astronomical event, not equaled in the memory of anyone now living. In fact, no similar event has occurred since the time of Kepler in 1604.”
“The term ‘new star’ or ‘Nova’ is applied to stars which unexpectedly increase their brightness and then fade out again. It is not supposed that any of them are new creations, since those whose histories are best known have been observed as faint stars before the outburst which made them famous. Probably every year witnesses occurrences of this kind, but unless the increase of light is very pronounced it may not be detected among the great multitude of stars.”
“I have intrusted Mr. Winslow Upton with the work of compiling the accompanying circular of information relative to time-balls, and have the honor to present herewith the results of his labor.”
―Cleveland Abbe, “Information Relative to the Construction and Maintenance of Time-Balls.” October 1881.
Winslow Upton was a “computer” (in the sense of one who computes) at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1880. The following year he went to the U.S. Signal Service where he was tasked with compiling a summary on the practice of using time-balls for the distribution of accurate time.
The practice of dropping a ball at exactly noon every day was used to calibrate the chronometers on ships in a nearby harbor. These accurate timepieces were then used for celestial navigation. The balls were installed on tall buildings within a couple of miles of the docked ships. An example is the Boston Time-Ball. The procedure used in Boston was described by B.M. Purssell of the Signal Corps in Upton’s compilation.
“During the greater part of the year the 3-inch transit instrument has been in the hands of the maker, Mr. G. N. Saegmuller. This instrument, while a fairly satisfactory instrument, was not of such superior excellence as the builder expected it would be. He therefore, without any suggestion on my part, offered to rebuild it without expense, which he has done at considerable cost to himself, and it is now a very superior instrument.”
During the 2010 restoration of the transit room we went to great lengths to ensure that the colors used were historically accurate. The George N. Saegmuller transit telescope had been painted black at some point. We suspected that this was not original but it is impossible to tell from the black and white archival photographs.
In 1916 Brown University announced that it would soon offer a course teaching students about a new technology: practical and experimental wireless telegraphy. It was more common during this era to transmit messages by radio waves using Morse code. Voice communication and broadcast radio did not become common until the 1920s.
“A very valuable Howard clock has recently been placed in the Steward’s office. It is regulated by Ladd Observatory standard time, and is thus kept as near correct as possible. The clock is connected with the bell-ringer’s room, so that now the college bell will be rung at exactly the right time, doing away with the nuisance and inconvenience often caused last year by the bell being rung too soon.”
“In appearance the clock is very attractive. The case is of handsome oak, and is about three and one-half feet high. It will undoubtedly be a great convenience to the students and will be used by many for regulating their own time pieces.”
Ladd Observatory placed an order on behalf of Brown University for one #89 Regulator on Sept. 13, 1895 . The clock was manufactured by E. Howard & Co. at a cost of $100 and was shipped to Providence on Sept. 25 where it was installed in the office of the Steward. The position of Steward was held by Archibald Grant Delaney from 1884-1904. His office was 1 University Hall. A telegraph break circuit connected the clock to the college bell in the tower of the building. It was regulated to the correct time by comparing it to the precision timepieces at the Observatory.