“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.
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 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.
“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.