“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!”
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.
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.
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.
Prof. Winslow Upton tapped a telegraph key as he watched the planet Mercury transit the Sun. The signal was sent to a chart recorder where an electromagnet moved a pen on a slowing turning drum of paper to record the observation. The instrument is called a chronograph. This one was made by the Warner and Swasey Company of Cleveland in 1890. Primarily it was used for calibrating the astronomical regulators (precision pendulum clocks) to set the time accurately. It was also used for timing events such as lunar occultations of stars.
The Leonid meteor shower was approaching and as the astronomers prepared cameras to capture the event they must have wondered: will the skies be clear tonight?
Prof. Winslow Upton taught astronomy at Brown from 1883 until his death in 1914. He also had a keen interest in meteorology. He had been a professor of meteorology at the Weather Bureau of the U.S. Signal Survice from 1881 until 1883. In 1884 he was one of the organizers of the New England Meteorological Society and operated a weather station at Ladd Observatory starting in 1890. We can gain some insight into how he might have forecast the cloudiness of the sky by noting a curious instrument to the left of the cameras in the photo above.