Ladd Observatory — Open Tuesdays

Weather permitting of course. And last Tuesday the weather was finally permitting and that main telescope was aimed at Saturn. The public has a standing invitation to visit the Ladd Observatory on Tuesday evenings, but if it is rainy or even overcast, nobody will be there. On hand last week to show us around were staff astronomer, Francine Jackson, and observatory curator, Michael Umbricht, as well as a few very knowledgeable Brown students. All were helpful in explaining the arcane pieces of equipment, the history of the building, and the relevant astronomy.

A look into the big telescope requires stepping up a roughly eight-foot ladder, so that may limit some visitors, but there is so much else to see here. The view of Saturn did not disappoint. It looked exactly like a photograph of Saturn. Out on the deck (where I stood to take this photo) there was portable telescope, a 16″ aperture Meade, aimed at the binary star Almach, which I was told is really a multiple star system in Andromeda, but two stars show up very sharply. As we were talking it was suddenly “Oh look, there goes the International Space Station!” which was visible to the naked eye once we knew where to look. Frankly, it started feeling like a summer deck party . . . but with smarter conversations.

This building is bristling with telescopes, many of which don’t quite look like telescopes. And clocks, there are clocks everywhere. This is an area of particular interest for Jackson, and as an astronomy teacher at the Wheeler School she is good at explaining and sharing her enthusiasm.

The first floor transit room — which has the look of a 19th-century schooner — houses astronomical clocks, the telegraph system, and the transit telescope which is permanently aligned north-south. It looks only in one direction, and is only used for telling time. I asked Jackson, who has been associated with Ladd for over 50 years, to explain:

FJ: It only looks in one direction. So what you are doing is waiting for a specific star to pass overhead. And there are little spider webs, spider threads . . .

PDD: Are you saying spider webs?

FJ: Spider webs are the thinnest, most accurate way to measure, by having those in there, you notice when the star hits those specific threads, and from there come the little calculations one would make to determine the time. And this at one point had teletype keys that would send a note to a company in Providence which would disseminate all the timekeeping signals for this area.

PDD: Who or what was inspiring this need to tell such accurate time?

FJ: One of the main reasons for the longest time were railroads. Railroads were the reason we have time zones. Each railroad company created its own time, in fact what made times zones become a better idea, was a train wreck that happened right here in Valley Falls [Rhode Island] in August of 1853. And sure, there had been train wrecks and maybe one person would die, but this time twelve people died immediately and the thirteenth on the way to the hospital  . . . and suddenly they realized we’ve got to do something to prevent that from happening.

What happened was there was a train from Providence to Boston and there was another one from Worcester and there was supposed to be differentiation and there wasn’t. This guy used a borrowed watch which didn’t tell the proper time and he smashed into the other train, and that train was wooden. That’s when people started thinking we’ve got to do something to standardize the system. Ω

Jackson speaks about this historic head-on crash (the first to be photographed) and has written about it for the Griffith Observer. She will be giving a talk in a few months at the Blackstone Valley Historical Society. See: “The Train Wreck that Changed Time.” 

Astronomy enthusiasts should sign up for her comprehensive weekly skywatching report.


Mr. Umbricht is an educator in the Brown Physics Department, who focuses on science outreach and public education programs, demonstrations, and exhibits. He writes articles, gives tours of the observatory, and is responsible for the historic scientific instrument collection. “I keep the telescope lubricated.” (Providence Monthly ran a swell profile five years ago.)

I will be reporting more on Jackson and Umbricht soon as they will be joining the Brown Astronomy Club on the Main Green for a partial solar eclipse coming up in October.

Umbricht promises, “We will have a small telescope that projects an image of the sun onto a piece of paper. You will be able to see the sunspots and the moon blocking part of the sun. Then we have a portable telescope that shows solar prominences and other features of the sun.”

Just like in 2017!

8:30pm, Tuesdays weather permitting, Ladd Observatory, 210 Doyle Avenue, (directions)


Miss Jackson.

Mr. Umbricht.

Ladd Observatory, 1891.

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