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.
“The night is passed at the hut, and the final ascent to the summit made on the second morning. This occupies several hours, as the animal stops to rest every fifteen or twenty feet at this altitude. On two occasions I was obliged to walk a short distance to cross snow which had drifted across the path, and realized the extreme difficulty of breathing during the exertion required.”
“The effect of the altitude upon me was chiefly to cause headache, sleeplessness and partial loss of appetite. On one occasion while at the summit I experienced a decided feeling of faintness for a short time.”
During this time he also made four ascents to the summit of the dormant volcano El Misti, which was the site of recording instruments (pictured above) maintained by Harvard. At the time it was the highest meteorological station in the world at an elevation of 19,200 feet.
“It is impossible not to conjecture a connection with the volcanic eruption in the Sunda Straits, by which, on Aug. 26, the island of Krakatoa disappeared wholly from the face of the earth.”
“The terrible nature of this outburst can hardly be realized: the sky was darkened for several days, the noise was heard two thousand miles, magnetic disturbances were noted, the tidal wave was distinctly felt at San Francisco, and the atmospheric disturbance was sufficient to cause marked barometric fluctuations, which were noted by the barographs on the continent, in England and America, for several succeeding days.”
During the fall of 1883 there was a remarkable atmospheric phenomenon which “attracted great attention not only from the general public, but from scientific men, who have endeavored to give a satisfactory explanation of it.” At the time that he wrote those words Winslow Upton had just accepted the position of Professor of Astronomy at Brown University. Prior to this he had been Assistant Professor of Meteorology in the U.S. Signal Service from 1881. The phenomena that he endeavored to explain were the “recent fiery sunsets” seen throughout the world.
Regular meteorological observations were made at Brown University by Alexis Caswell (1799-1877) who was Professor of mathematics, astronomy and natural philosophy. Caswell began recording these observations in 1831 and his “Meteorological Register; Providence, R.I.” was published in Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. Caswell kept these records until 1876; after that date the records were kept by the City Engineer.
Weather observations for Providence, RI continued at Ladd Observatory soon after the building was constructed in 1890. An instrument shelter was installed on the deck of the building next to the dome. These weather records were kept by Winslow Upton (1853-1914) who was Professor of astronomy and the first Director of the Observatory.