Ladd Observatory to celebrate 125 years

A weeklong series of events will commemorate the observatory’s rich history.

Inside Ladd observatory, a black and white photo from the turn of the century is held up against the current view
The Ladd, then and now: Separated by more than a hundred years, but joined by the spirit of celestial discovery, Frederick Slocum, class of 1895 and an astronomer at Ladd in the early 1900s, and Michael Umbricht, present-day Observatory curator, show the change in astronomical spectroscopy over the last century. Mike Cohea / Brown University

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A Providence landmark — and a window to the stars for generations of Brown astronomers, students and Rhode Island skywatchers — will celebrate its 125th anniversary the week of Oct. 17.

The Ladd Observatory, located just north of the University’s campus on Doyle Avenue in Providence, opened its doors for the first time on October 21, 1891. Ever since, the Ladd has been open for weekly public viewing nights, providing an astonishing view of the Moon, neighboring planets, comets, meteors and distant stars. The Ladd staff will commemorate the anniversary with a series of talks by scientists and astronomers starting on Monday Oct. 17, a birthday cake celebration on Friday, Oct. 21 and two nights of public sky viewing on Tuesday and Friday.

The schedule of anniversary events can be found here.

“The Ladd is considered a gem by the national astronomical community,” said David Targan, associate dean of the college for science education and the Ladd’s director. “It’s one of the best examples in the country of a continuously operating, finely preserved 19th century observatory. For Brown, it’s been an important means of connecting with the community and communicating science, as well as simply giving people a beautiful view of the night sky.”

Construction of the Ladd began in May 1890, overseen by renowned astronomer Winslow Upton, who would serve as the facility’s first director. Upton was lured to Brown as a professor in 1883 with a promise that the University would build a state-of-the-art observatory. Thanks to a $55,000 gift from former Rhode Island Gov. Herbert Warren Ladd, the University was able to make the observatory a reality.

The facility’s main attraction is its colossal refracting telescope. Measuring 15 feet long, with a 1-foot-diameter lens, it’s an ideal instrument for viewing intricate surface features on planetary bodies, Targan says. The telescope is powerful enough to see the detailed patterns of Saturn’s rings and resolve the borders of Jupiter’s atmospheric bands. When viewing the Moon, it brings the rims of craters, the rays of impact ejecta and other features into sharp focus.

The telescope was on the cutting edge when it was built, but it was also among the last of its kind built in the eastern U.S., Targan says.

“Industrialization had started creating more light pollution in the east, so around this time astronomers and telescopes started migrating out west to work in places that were darker, higher in elevation and had clear, dry air,” Targan said. “This was really the end of an era for these big telescopes on the East Coast.”

Initially, the plan was to build the observatory in the middle of the College Green. But that plan was scrapped in favor of a location that was (at the time) more rural, away from buildings and city lights. In the 125 years since the Ladd’s construction, a busy urban neighborhood has grown up around it. But that growth, and the ambient light that comes with it, hasn’t changed the viewing experience much, Targan says.

“What’s affected by light pollution are views of faint objects like distant galaxies, which aren't really the strength of a refracting telescope anyway,” he said. “Everything else — the details of planets and the Moon, which is what the refractor is best for — is really the same as it ever was.”

Over the years, the Ladd has been witness to its share of spectacular cosmic events. It’s seen numerous meteor showers during its history, and the passing of Halley’s Comet twice, in 1910 and in 1986. In 2010, visitors to the Ladd were thrilled by the transit of Venus, the passage of our nearest planetary neighbor across the face of the sun as seen from Earth.

In 1901, Upton trained the Ladd’s telescope on an exploding star — a nova — in the constellation Perseus. Though first discovered by an astronomer in Scotland, Upton kept a close watch of it through the Ladd’s large refractor, carefully chronicling the evolution of the event. He described the nova to a reporter with the Detroit Free Press, for an article that ran on February 27, 1901.

“Probably the star has met with a catastrophe of stupendous import, possibly a collision with some other body or bodies, perhaps an internal explosion,” Upton said. “Should our sun increase its brightness in any such way, and its heat increase also, life on our planet would cease.”

That nova was also viewed by an 11-year-old H.P. Lovecraft, the legendary horror writer and Providence native, who used the event as a plot point in his story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” The Ladd was a favorite haunt of Lovecraft, who was also an avid amateur astronomer. For years before his death in 1937, Lovecraft had his own key to the Ladd, coming and going as he pleased. He spent many nights there reading, writing and looking at the stars.

Targan says the Ladd staff has found library books that Lovecraft had taken out collecting dust in the observatory’s attic. Those and other Lovecraft memorabilia now reside in Brown’s John Hay Library. And the Ladd remains a destination for Lovecraft fans the world over.

“We still give special tours for Lovecraft conventions that are held in Providence,” Targan said.

Ladd Observatory exterior
The Ladd as it is today. Credit: Robert Horton

Lovecraft was just one of thousands of Rhode Island astronomy buffs who have flocked to the Ladd over the years. Public viewing nights, now held every Tuesday night, continue to draw large crowds. For Targan, the Ladd represents a return to the very roots of astronomy. In an era when people have access to high-resolution photographs of all manner of celestial objects via the internet, there’s still something ineffable about viewing the cosmos directly, Targan says.

“I think our viewing nights offer a visceral experience of looking at the stars that people have had since the dawn of humanity,” he said. “The Ladd is a reminder that this is how the study of astronomy got started.”

In 2000, the Ladd earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2010, the Ladd staff completed a series of renovations to facility. That work included the restoration of the transit room, which contains instruments that were used to keep the official time for Rhode Islanders for decades.

Their work helps to assure that the Ladd will be there for generations of stargazers to come.

Schedule of Events

Monday, October 17
6:00 pm
“A Career of Exploration: My Backyard and Beyond”
Lecture by Prof. Peter Shultz, Brown University
Smith-Buananno 106

Tuesday, October 18
7:00 -9:00 pm
Ladd Observatory Public Viewing
Ladd Observatory, 210 Doyle Avenue, Providence

Wednesday, October 19
3pm & 8pm
"The Center for Backyard Astrophysics"
Lecture by Professor Joseph Patterson, Columbia University
Barus & Holley 723 (3pm) Ladd Observatory (8pm)

"The Night Sky as Inspiration: Sources of Inspiration to Pursue Astronomy and Other Sciences"
Dessert Reception and Panel
MacMillan 117, Starr Auditorium

Friday, October 21
“From Star to Clock: Timekeeping at Ladd Observatory."
Public Lecture by Michael Umbricht, Observatory Curator
Salomon Center Room 001

8:30 pm
Ladd 125th Birthday Cake Ceremony
Ladd Observatory