Astronomy was among the earliest subjects taught. In 1768 Morgan Edwards, who was collecting subscriptions in England, was instructed to purchase a telescope. There is no record that he did so, but the College later received from Joseph Brown a Gregorian reflecting telescope of 4-inch aperture and 24-inch focal length, made by Watkins and Smith of London, and purchased by him for $500 for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. This he did in the company of Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins, Moses Brown, Jabez Bowen, Joseph Nash, and John Burroughs. A pamphlet on the observation was written by Benjamin West, and the two streets in Providence were named Transit Street and Planet Street in honor of this event. “Ferguson’s Astronomy” is mentioned as a study of the third year in the curriculum outlined in the Laws of 1783. In July 1782 Joseph Brown wrote to David Howell of “the Ingury our Tellescope has receved in attempting to have the tarnish or rust taken off the metal speculums.#8221; In 1800 funds from Samuel Elam paid for the repair of the telescope and also for an orrery. Joseph Brown was professor of natural history in 1784-85. Benjamin West was appointed professor of mathematics and astronomy in 1786, but did not begin to teach until 1788.
Astronomy, which may have been taught in the course in natural philosophy, appears in the 1827-28 annual catalogue as a separate subject. Alexis Caswell joined the faculty as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in 1828, and from 1850 to 1863 was professor of mathematics and astronomy. The textbooks used were the works of John Gummere and Sir John F. W. Herschel, and after 1840 William Augustus Norton’s treatise on astronomy. When Foucault performed his famous pendulum experiment in Paris in 1851 to prove the rotation of the earth, there was skepticism in Rhode Island and letters to the editor of the Providence Journal, expressing disbelief. Caswell’s letters in reply explaining the theory did not satisfy, so he and William A. Norton (the author of the textbook in use, who was appointed professor of natural philosophy and civil engineering in 1850) repeated the experiment by hanging a cannonball at the end of a wire 97 feet long in the tower of the Providence railroad station. Their experiment was reported by Norton to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was published in the Proceedings of the Association. Some time later the shortened pendulum was hung in the building which was the college library and is now Robinson Hall. Through the years the experiment has been recreated for the benefit of students. Professor Charles Smiley finally decided to film the experiment to save the bother of recreating it each year, but when the first showing brought forth the suggestion that the movie might have been faked, he returned to live performances of the experiment.
In 1864 Samuel Stillman Greene was appointed professor of natural history and philosophy. In his report for 1869 he mentioned the use of Loomis’ new textbook on astronomy for the first time and the use of the black globe and Vail’s Terrestrial and Celestial Sphere. Greene’s reports continually mentioned the short time devoted to the course in astronomy, which took place in one term of junior year. In 1878 he wrote, “From the necessary brevity of the course, their attention was confined chiefly to Spherical Astronomy. The distances, magnitudes, appearances and motions of the heavenly bodies, with here and there a reference to the great mechanical forces which propel them through their wonted courses, were sufficiently discussed to prepare the way for an intelligent study of Astronomy hereafter. ... More than this the time allotted to astronomy will not allow.” After the death of Professor Greene, Winslow Upton was appointed professor of astronomy. In his first report in 1884, he noted that the textbook in use was Newcomb’s and Holden’s Astronomy. Many of the class that year volunteered to prepare papers on subjects of Descriptive Astronomy, and meteorological studies were introduced into the course by a copy of the Daily Weather Map posted in the class room. In addition, “a few evenings were given to studying the constellations, and to observations with the telescope, but cloudy weather interfered materially with this portion of the work.” The new professor of astronomy also had the teaching of logic included in his department.
Upton had been hired with the understanding that there would soon be an observatory. In 1888 he had, in addition to the students in the required course in the fundamental conception of astronomy, one student in his elective course in applied astronomy. At this time he acknowledged his obligation to “Mr. Frank E. Seagrave, of this city, for placing the facilities of his observatory at our disposal, and to Prof. E. C. Pickering, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, for allowing us to visit that observatory.” In 1891 the observatory, a gift of Governor Ladd, was a reality. Frank W. Very was professor pro tempore of astronomy and director of Ladd Observatory in 1896-97, while Upton was in Peru working for the Harvard College Observatory. Frederick Slocum 1895 received the first Ph.D. in astronomy at Brown in 1898 and served as assistant professor of astronomy from 1899 to 1909. When Upton was on leave of absence in 1910-11, his place was filled by acting assistant professor Robert H. Baker from the University of Pittsburgh. A new course introduced in 1902 covered the principles of navigation using sextant, compass, and chart. After Upton’s death in 1914, the Department of Astronomy was merged with the Department of Mathematics. Professor Roland G. D. Richardson was made acting director of Ladd Observatory and Professor Clinton H. Currier was put in charge of the astronomy courses. During World War I, Frederick Slocum was called back to take charge of the new Department of Nautical Science, which included the teaching of navigation.
Charles H. Smiley came to Brown in 1930 as assistant professor of mathematics. He was asked to assist Professor Currier in the teaching of astronomy, and, when Currier became Dean, Smiley was put in charge of astronomy. In 1938 astronomy was reestablished as a separate department with Smiley as chairman. On May 5, 1932, a group of amateur astronomers met at Ladd Observatory and formed an organization which took the name, “The Skyscrapers’ Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island.” The society, with Smiley and Brown librarian Harry Lyman Koopman as active members, used the facilities of Ladd Observatory until 1936, when, newly incorporated as “Skyscrapers Inc.,” it purchased the observatory formerly owned by Frank E. Seagrave in North Scituate, Rhode Island. Over the years the Skyscrapers cooperated in sponsoring a number of solar eclipse expeditions led by Smiley, and assisted in the construction of a Schmidt camera, f/1 of four inches aperture, from the mathematical design by Smiley for use in photographing the 1937 eclipse in Peru. In 1939-40 the group aided in building a Schwarzchild camera, f/3.5 of twelve inches aperture, the second of its kind in the country, which was used at the total solar of eclipse of October 1, 1940. Smiley taught astronomy enthusiastically until 1970, and probably led more eclipse expeditions than anyone. After his retirement, astronomy reverted to the care of the Physics Department. There is now no standard concentration program in astronomy. Introductory courses in astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology are available in the Department of Physics, and the history of astronomy is taught in the History of Mathematics Department.