Tag Archives: clocks

Mechanism

The Timekeepers

Inside the Ladd Observatory Transit Room (built 1891)
Brown University
Providence, RI
May 6th, 2014

Ever wonder how everyone kept track of time way back when? Read below to find out. This was taken in the Transit Room inside the Brown University’s Transit Room. Above the telescope in the photo, the roof opens up exposing the North to South line. From there, the stars could be viewed and the exact time could be determined for Providence, RI. The telegraph device seen to the right of the telescope would be used to mark the time and the official time could be adjusted. If you are the least bit interested in astronomy, definitely plan to visit the Ladd Observatory when they are open to the public on Tuesday’s night, see this for more info on times: http://ift.tt/WaU4G2

Some info on the Transit Room:

At the far end of the observatory one can find the old transit room. This is where an observer would use a transit telescope to time stars crossing the local meridian, an imaginary north-south line passing through the observatory. Local time could then be precisely established, which was not only needed for astronomical calculations, but also for deriving civil time. Ladd Observatory was responsible as a time keeping service for the Providence area. And speaking of time, please note the various clocks throughout the observatory. They were an important piece of this time keeping tradition.

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Some info on how the Transit Room got to be restored:

Many observatories kept time before it became a function of the federal government, said Targan, also associate dean of the College for science education. When the nation moved from an agrarian lifestyle to an industrially based economy, keeping exact time became more vital. Train accidents occurred in the 1800s because the conductors’ watches were on different times, Targan said.

Since then, new technology such as computers and navigation systems have made precise timekeeping even more important. The science of timekeeping has kept up with the technology, Targan said.

Ladd’s two telescopes are less advanced than the atomic clock at the National Institute of Science and Technology in Boulder, Colo., which sets the international standard for time, but they still allow people to learn about the science and history behind timekeeping.

“We lose track of how we determine time in the first place,” Targan said. “When people look at their watches, what does that mean and what does that come from?”

With the restoration, Targan hopes to educate the public and answer those questions.

So, where do clocks get their time?

“The Earth itself is the most reliable timepiece we have,” astronomy concentrator David Eichhorn ’09 said.

Astronomers use the rotational period of the earth to keep time. “By looking at the stars entering above, you can time those stars as they cross key imaginary lines across the sky,” Targan said.

In Ladd Observatory’s transit room, an observer can press a key that makes an extra mark on the chronometer, which is already marked to show when certain stars move across the sky. By measuring the difference between the marks, an observer can calibrate clocks accordingly, Eichhorn said.

Fixing this telegraph system is one of the many repairs planned, Targan said.

Sarah Zurier, special projects coordinator at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, which awarded the grant, listed other intended tasks including fixing slits in the roof that provide the telescope with a view of the sky, repairing windows and upgrading the electrical system.

Zurier cited the observatory’s history of serving the public as one of the reasons for its selection for the grant.

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