Category Archives: history

“An Astronomical Blunder”

“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.”

The Cyclopedic Review of Current History, 1898

Georg Waltemath
“Dr. George [sic] Waltemath. The German astronomer, who says he has discovered a second moon circling around the earth.” – Chicago Daily Tribune, March 22, 1898.
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. Continue reading “An Astronomical Blunder”

“A catastrophe of stupendous import”

“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.

Winslow Upton
Winslow Upton (1853-1914), professor of astronomy and director of Ladd Observatory

“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.” Continue reading “A catastrophe of stupendous import”

The Boston Time-Ball

“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.

Boston Time-Ball
The Boston Time-Ball in the dropped position with the hoisting and releasing machines to the right.

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. Continue reading The Boston Time-Ball

Mid Brunswick Green

“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.”

– Prof. Winslow Upton, Report of the Professor of Astronomy and Director of Ladd Observatory, 1895.

transit telescope
The transit telescope as it looked in the 1890s.

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. Continue reading Mid Brunswick Green

A fine aerial

“The installation of a wireless plant by the Department of Electrical Engineering necessitated the erection of steel towers on Maxcy and University Halls to carry the aerial.”

– Edwin A. Burlingame, Report of the Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings, Oct. 1916.

Maxcy Hall
Maxcy Hall with a steel tower on the roof to support the wireless aerial. This photo was taken sometime between 1916 and 1925. The aerial is also visible in a photo taken after 1925.

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. Continue reading A fine aerial

Steward Delaney’s New Clock

“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.”

– “Steward Delaney’s New Clock.” Brown Daily Herald, September 30, 1895

Archibald G. Delaney, 1884
Steward Delaney in his office, circa 1884. This photograph was taken before the new clock was installed.

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. Continue reading Steward Delaney’s New Clock

Development on the summit

“This summit is near the intersection of Hope Street and Doyle Avenue. If in existence in 1835, Hope Street was a rough country road known as East Pawtucket Turnpike. Doyle avenue was not laid out until many years later. On this summit stands Ladd Astronomical Observatory of Brown University erected in 1891.”

– Rhode Island Geodetic Survey, COLLEGE HILL, 1935

USGS 1894
Topographic map of the East Side of Providence as surveyed in 1885 & 1887. The small brown oval near the center is the hill where Ladd Observatory was built. USGS, 1894.

When the construction of Ladd Observatory began in May of 1890 the area was rural with few buildings nearby. At a distance to the east and northeast of the hilltop were low lying areas that were swampland, as indicated by the blue hash marks on the map above. These marshes were later drained and filled to allow for building the residential neighborhoods that are seen there today. A short distance to the south there was a large reservoir, built in 1875. A steam powered pumping station delivered the water through pipes buried beneath the streets. The former reservoir is now the site of Hope High School and the athletic fields behind the building. Continue reading Development on the summit

Flight-critical calculator

“In addition to helping the crew organize its time, the second HP-41 computer was kept ready for flight-critical, deorbit-burn calculations. Once during each orbit around the Earth, the shuttle has an opportunity to land at one of six contingency locations. During a routine flight, Mission Control supplies the shuttle crew with deorbit-burn information. Should the shuttle encounter an emergency, however, the astronauts would rely on the HP-41 for these calculations.”

– “HP-41’s Again Aboard Columbia.” HP Key Notes, March-May 1982.

HP-41 advertisement
Hewlett Packard advertisement, 1982.

To prepare an orbiting Space Shuttle for re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere it is critical that the spacecraft be “balanced” by taking into account the mass of the fuel left in the tanks at the end of a mission. An astronaut would use a handheld computer or programmable calculator to determine how many minutes and seconds of fuel to burn to get the center of gravity correct for a smooth descent and landing. The “personal computing system” used for this was made by Hewlett Packard in the 1980s. NASA donated one of these, a model HP-41CV, to Ladd Observatory after the retirement of the Shuttle program. Continue reading Flight-critical calculator

The Weather Bureau in Providence

“In Philadelphia I dragged out a colorless and an unhappy existence till September, 1904, when to my delight I was ordered back to New England, and this time nearer the centre of civilization. (Of course by that I mean Boston, which is the “hub of the universe” the “Athens of America”, the “Centre of Culture”, and last but not least, the home of the humble baked bean and the sacred codfish). I was sent to Providence, R. I., and have remained here ever since and hope to continue my residence here. By a happy combination of circumstances I have lived in the classic halls of Brown University ever since my arrival in Providence. The location and environment are eminently satisfactory.”

– George Francis Field, “Harvard College Class of 1901.” June 1911

University Hall Weather Bureau
An instrument shelter on the roof of University Hall.

In addition to the weather station at Ladd Observatory there was another on the Brown campus. Located on the roof of University Hall it was operated by the U.S. Weather Bureau. The pole behind the chimney at left was likely used to support the anemometer, an instrument to measure wind speed. Continue reading The Weather Bureau in Providence

“The Magic Voice of Science”

“This is truly scientific magic. Just think of it! You want to know the true time to the fraction of a second, and all you have to do in order to get it is to open your electric ear to these sounds, which seem to drop out of the sky, as if Old Time himself were speaking to you!”

– Garrett P. Serviss, Wireless Time Signals from the Eiffel Tower. Washington Post, September 7, 1913.

During 1913 the Washington Naval Observatory and the Observatoire de Paris attempted to exchange wireless time signals. The experiment was used to calculate the difference in longitude between the two locations more accurately than was possible with other techniques. They were also trying to measure the velocity of radio waves through space. The goal was to improve communication with ships at sea which used the time signals to calibrate the chronometers used for celestial navigation. For most of the year atmospheric conditions prevented the reception of the signals sent across the ocean. The conditions improved in November and the two observatories were then in regular contact by radio. Prof. Winslow Upton of Ladd Observatory was listening in on the transmissions.

Upton notebook
The notebook of Winslow Upton describes reception of the “Special Wireless Signals from Washington” in November, 1913.

Continue reading “The Magic Voice of Science”