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.

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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.

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“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.

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“The pendulum of eternity”

“The vast cycles of change going on in the heavens seem, as it has been sublimely said, like the recurring beats of the pendulum of eternity.”

―William Augustus Norton, First Book of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, 1860.

Providence Union Station, 1847-1896.
Providence Union Station, 1847-1896. The Foucault pendulum was suspended within one of the towers at left.

When news of Léon Foucault’s demonstration of the Earth’s rotation reached the United States in 1851 there was great interest in repeating the experiment in Providence. Two members of the Brown faculty arranged for a public demonstration in the Providence railroad depot. Alexis Caswell was a professor of natural philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. William A. Norton was professor of civil engineering and natural philosophy. The pendulum bob weighed a little less than 40 pounds and was suspended from the end of a wire 97 feet long. The report on this experiment was published in the Proceedings of the AAAS along with an account of the Harvard demonstration in the stairwell of Bunker-Hill Monument.

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The highest point in Providence

The site chosen for Ladd Observatory was at the top of the highest hill in the city of Providence. The hill lost that distinction in 1919.

The borders of Providence have changed a number of times. The settlement of Silver Lake was originally part of Providence, but the residents decided that this agricultural community had more in common with rural Johnston and choose to secede in 1759.

USGS 1894
The border of Johnston and Providence ran through Olneyville Square. Rocky Hill is in Cranston. USGS topographic map, 1894

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