All posts by Michael L Umbricht

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. Other research includes the early history of wireless and the industrialization of Providence.

“No Sun Spots Visible”

“No Sun Spots Visible”

―John Edwards, 1913.

In February 1907 John Edwards, assistant to astronomy professor Winslow Upton, recorded a drawing of spots that he observed on the Sun. Due to the brightness of the Sun it is not safe to look at it through a telescope. Instead he used a method called eyepiece projection which forms an image on a sheet of circular graph paper. The outline of the spots can then be accurately traced with a pencil. The sketch shows a complex arrangement of sunspots during a month when the Sun was very active. This was shortly after the peak of the Sun’s 11 year cycle of increasing and then decreasing activity. Sunspots appear in active regions where there are strong and complex magnetic fields.

Sunspot drawing
Sunspot observations, February 11, 1907 at 9:55 am.

By 1913 the Sun’s cycle had reached the minimum of the cycle and no spots were visible during some months that year. It is important to note the lack of sunspot activity so that someone examining the preserved records a century later knows that the astronomer looked and didn’t find any. Otherwise it might be thought that the data was merely missing. Notice that on Jul 18, 1913 there is a note that it was cloudy that day.

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Eclipse meteorology

“Plan of Observations. -The meteorological observations proposed were especially directed towards the subjects of barometric pressure, air temperature, humidity, solar radiation, and wind velocity. The instruments located on the top of the tower were in charge of Mr. Rotch, and those at its base Mr. Upton.”

―Winslow Upton and A. Lawrence Rotch, Meteorological and other observations made at Willows, California, in connection with the total solar eclipse of January 1, 1889. Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, Vol. XXIX, 1893.

Diagram of the solar eclipse
Drawing of the total solar eclipse of January 1, 1889

The scientific instruments used during a solar eclipse include telescopes with a protective filter to reduce the brightness of the Sun to protect an astronomer’s eyesight. The earliest known image of the Sun taken by a camera was recorded in 1845. But it was still common for scientists to draw sketches with pencil and paper as it has been done for centuries. The above image is based on a number of photos taken with different exposure times. The short exposures record bright features but leave out many of the fainter ones. The longer exposures cause the bright features to be overexposed but reveals subtle details. The sketch above is a composite of these different photographs.

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Clock vaults

“Owing to the courtesy of Prof. Upton, the laboratory has now the advantage of a set of time signals.”

―Carl Barus, Report of the Professor of Physics. Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University, June 18, 1896.

The masonry pier that supports the Ladd Observatory’s main telescope contains two clock vaults. These are very small rooms (4 by 4 feet square inside) that contain precision pendulum timepieces called regulators. The purpose of a clock vault is to provide a vibration-free and temperature-stable environment for exact timekeeping. The main clock vault is located in the entrance foyer on the first floor of the Observatory. The basement level vault has not been used in many years. Professor Winslow Upton calibrated the regulators using observations of stars starting in the 1890s.

clock vault
A regulator made by Robert Molyneux in London during the 1850s can be seen inside the main vault on the first floor.

The double doors to the vault seal out drafts and have windows through which the regulators can be observed without disturbing the environment inside. The brick walls are two feet thick which provides insulation to prevent fluctuating temperatures which could cause inaccuracy. There are  telegraph wires to send time signals from the regulators to other locations around Rhode Island. Starting September 12, 1893 and continuing until as late as 1973 the Observatory also transmitted time signals to City of Providence fire stations. Every day at noon and 8:30 p.m. signals sounded on the fire-alarm bells allowing residents and businesses to set their clocks to the correct time. Public time signaling was a common practice during this era.

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Chromospheric lines

“These are some of the problems in connection with the sun which are being investigated at the present time. Their complete solution will help to interpret the mystery, not only of the sun itself, but also of that type of stars of which the sun is a representative.”

―Frederick Slocum, The Study of Solar Prominences. Popular Astronomy, July 12, 1912.

Frederick Slocum (Brown University undergraduate class of 1895) received the first Ph.D. in astronomy at Brown in 1898 and served as assistant professor of astronomy from 1899 to 1909. He then became professor of astronomy at Wesleyan University in 1914 where he planned and supervised the construction of Van Vleck Observatory. The image below shows Slocum observing with a spectroscope attached to the main telescope at Ladd Observatory.

observing with a spectroscope
Observer Frederick Slocum using a spectroscope on the 12″ refractor at Ladd Observatory. March 15, 1905.

This spectroscope was made by the scientific instrument maker John Brashear of Pittsburgh in 1891. It is used to study the spectrum of colors in starlight. It could also be mounted on a table top to examine the spectrum of a chemical which is done to calibrate the instrument. During this era professor Winslow Upton used it in an attempt to predict rain.  It uses a prism or diffraction grating to disperse the light into a rainbow pattern of colors. This reveals dark Fraunhofer lines in the spectrum that can be used to identify the chemical elements present in the Sun or a distant star. Each chemical element has a unique pattern of these dark lines where specific colors are missing.

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Satellite tracking

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 21, 2018. Among the supplies that it carried were nine small educational and commercial satellites know as CubeSats. One of the satellites is named EQUiSat. It was designed and built by Brown Space Engineering (BSE) undergraduate students.

Four of these satellites were released on July 13, 2018 from the ISS by astronauts using a device called the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer. They were ejected at about 1.5 m/.s (3 mph.) Initially they were spaced about 10 to 50 cm (4 to 20 inches) apart. They quickly moved ahead of the ISS together in a cluster as the distance between them more gradually increased over time. EQUiSat is the second cube from the right.

Deployment of a CubeSat flock
Deployment of a “flock” of four CubeSats from the ISS on July 13, 2018. Credit: NASA

Below are maps showing the ground track of the small satellites as they orbit 400 km (250 miles) above the Earth. Also shown are the paths they take across the sky as they pass above the radio ground station at Ladd Observatory. Traveling at a speed of 27,600 km/h (17,100 mph) it takes only 92 minutes to orbit the Earth.

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