University News

Ladd Observatory celebrates 125 years

Ladd preserved as museum including functioning telescopes, engages with public

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Ladd Observatory, opened in 1891, showcases the 19th-century equipment it employed in its founding days for public education purposes.

The Ladd Observatory — a Providence landmark for both Rhode Island locals and students alike — celebrated its 125th anniversary this month. The Ladd staff celebrated the anniversary with a series of lectures and viewings over the weekend. 

The Ladd opened Oct. 21, 1891 and now offers both weekly public viewings and student research opportunities. It allows the University to engage with the public and an array of campus community members, said Michael Umbricht, observatory curator.

“Almost every time I work there, there will be someone new visiting and discovering this is here,” said Joseph Fischera ’17, who works at the Ladd.

The Ladd is operated as a working museum to preserve its long history. The observatory is “one of the few in the world” that still looks like it did in the 1890s, said Robert Horton, the manager of the Ladd and other astronomical laboratories. The Ladd “is more of a time capsule, so people can experience for themselves how astronomers worked and operated 100 years ago.”

“It is essentially exactly how it was built; it has a historical teaching role that will carry on for centuries. The lenses are just as good as they were in the 1890s, so the views are still the same, and it’s still a fantastic place,” said Ian Dell’Antonio, professor of physics.

The Ladd has multiple telescopes: a general one from the 1890s, one for timekeeping and new portable telescopes. The main telescope is still made completely from its original parts, including a 12-inch lens refracting telescope.

“Rather than electric motors, we have a weight-driven drive. We actually wind it up,” Dell’Antonio said. “Once you point it at the sky, the telescope will track the object.”

Originally, the Ladd was built as the “official timekeeping station for the city of Providence,” Horton said.

“We would make observations of the stars and then make sure the pendulum clocks would synchronize. … Then we had telegram letters that ran from that to other parts of the city that would cause their clocks to be synchronized to ours,” Umbricht said.

In the future, the Ladd will aim to continue attracting both students and locals.

“We are sort of the face of the University to the community where we are teaching science and history, and we are going to continue doing that,” Umbricht said. “We are looking to branch out into more than just the sciences.”

“We will continue to operate it as a very unique museum. We have a wonderful array of exhibits, and we will continue to restore our equipment over the years and preserve it for generations to come. It’s fascinating to think about how many generations have come to visit the place all this time,” Horton said. 

— Additional reporting by Fidelity Ballmer

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