“The radio signals of the satellite [Sputnik II] were followed and recorded on tape frequently by Mr. C. Newton Kraus, an outstanding radio amateur of Touisset Point, R.I. He had followed Sputnik I signals for the three weeks that the transmitters continued to function.”
―Charles H. Smiley, The First Artificial Earth Satellites, August 1958.
On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite which was called Sputnik I. The word Sputnik simply means “satellite” or, more generally, “fellow traveler.” The quotes from Prof. Charles Smiley, director of Ladd Observatory, are from a report published in The Hinterlands, the Bulletin of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society. He describes how Sputnik I could be seen from all parts of the Earth and reports on the local observations of it: “In Rhode Island, between October 12 and November 27, it was observed at Ladd Observatory of Brown University on 13 different passages for a total of 33.2 minutes.” The observed positions and motion were plotted on a star map.
The satellite itself was only 22 inches in diameter and would have been difficult to see from the ground. Instead, they were observing the rocket that launched the satellite which also entered orbit. The second stage of the rocket was 92 feet long and 9.7 feet in diameter. Sunlight reflecting off the rocket body was much easier to see. Notice that observers in Providence RI, Nantucket MA, and Mansfield CT saw the rocket in a slightly different position against the background stars due to parallax.
In 1916 Brown University announced that it would soon offer a course teaching students about a new technology: practical and experimental wireless telegraphy. It was more common during this era to transmit messages by radio waves using Morse code. Voice communication and broadcast radio did not become common until the 1920s.
“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.