Tag Archives: Winslow Upton

“The Magic Voice of Science”

“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!”

―Garrett P. Serviss, Wireless Time Signals from the Eiffel Tower. Washington Post, September 7, 1913.

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.

Upton notebook
The notebook of Winslow Upton describes reception of the “Special Wireless Signals from Washington” in November, 1913.

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“The pendulum of eternity”

“The vast cycles of change going on in the heavens seem, as it has been sublimely said, like the recurring beats of the pendulum of eternity.”

―William Augustus Norton, First Book of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, 1860.

Providence Union Station, 1847-1896.
Providence Union Station, 1847-1896. The Foucault pendulum was suspended within one of the towers at left.

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.

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Observing the “rain-bands”

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?

Leonids 1898
Astronomers preparing cameras to capture the Leonid meteor shower, Nov. 14, 1898.

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.

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The summit station at El Misti, Peru (19,200 feet)

“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.”

―Winslow Upton, “Physiological Effect of Diminished Air Pressure.Science, 27 December 1901

El Misti Summit Station

During the academic year of 1896-97 Prof. Winslow Upton took sabbatical from his work as Director of Brown University’s Ladd Observatory. He spent ten months at the new southern station of the Harvard College Observatory (elevation 8,050 feet) in Arequipa, Peru. His primary goal was to measure the geographical position of the station before astronomical observations could commence.

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.

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“The Red Skies” of 1883

“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.”

―W. Upton, “The Red Skies.Science, 11 January 1884

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.

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