Tag Archives: Winslow Upton

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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“An Astronomical Blunder”

“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.”

The Cyclopedic Review of Current History, 1898.

Georg Waltemath
“Dr. George [sic] Waltemath. The German astronomer, who says he has discovered a second moon circling around the earth.” – Chicago Daily Tribune, March 22, 1898.
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.

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“A catastrophe of stupendous import”

“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.

Winslow Upton
Winslow Upton (1853-1914), professor of astronomy and director of Ladd Observatory

“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.”

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The Boston Time-Ball

“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.

Boston Time-Ball
The Boston Time-Ball in the dropped position with the hoisting and releasing machines to the right.

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.

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