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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.