Sunday, April 09, 2006

Lovecraft, Winslow Upton & Ladd Observatory


Does the ghost of Lovecraft haunt the observatory? Still in existence, still deeply loved and cherished, the Ladd Observatory was built the year after Lovecraft was born - constructed in 1891.

In a recent article [2] some interesting information has been related.

"Ladd was built to educate Brown students, to perform research and to serve the community. (The building was Providence's official time-keeping facility for years.) The observatory's first director, Prof. Winslow Upton, joined Brown University's faculty in 1884, on the condition that an observatory be built as soon as the funds could be raised. When the money had still not materialized five years later, Upton threatened he would go elsewhere unless immediate progress was made. Luckily for Brown, Herbert W. Ladd, then-governor of Rhode Island, offered to pay to build and equip the building that now bears his name. Because light and air pollution around the growing city of Providence {a top 10 city in those days - CP} soon made real discoveries impossible, Ladd remains a living museum of 19th century astronomy practices, complete with creaking staircases and a pleasantly musty attic smell." [2]

"Some of those rooms, like the one that houses the old transit telescopes, haven't been fully renovated. As the door creaks open, visitors are greeted by a blast of cold air. The lights don't work, but Targan shows groups around anyway, with the aid of a flashlight, pointing out how the telescopes were used to keep time by tracing the stars along the sky's meridian. In the dark, with various strange-looking contraptions covered in dark sheets, the building has a certain haunted house-quality, and indeed, Ladd is said to be haunted by at least one ghost -- that of noted Providence fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. "Did he ever come here?" a visitor asks. "Are you kidding?" Jackson says. "He had a key to the place." As a teenager, Lovecraft displayed a keen interest in the skies, even writing regular articles about astronomy for Providence newspapers. And he enjoyed the run of the observatory, thanks to then-director Winslow Upton, a friend of the Lovecraft family." [2]

"Ladd has its original copper-plated dome, which turns through a system of hand-cranked ropes and pulleys, and the original 15-foot refracting telescope that is controlled by a set of weights and gears, wound up like an grandfather clock. ... Ladd's first floor is an equally interesting and eccentric combination of attic and antique. Gas lamps still sit above the fireplace in the lecture room, where the shelves hold a variety of astronomical ephemera -- scientific journals dated from the 1970s, a globe or two, a Parade Magazine from last summer featuring Mars on the cover, an Edmund Scientific Star and Planet Locator. {as of 2004 -CP}" [2]

So, we're sure HPL haunts the observatory, but why would a professor let a boy have keys to a valuable observatory? After all, at only 15 years old, it was quite a valuable piece of real estate.

Chrispy has wondered for years, and been frustrated at the lack of information on Upton. However, certain anecdotes [3] survive and show the character of Upton. He was not the purely cynical scientist and had an altruistic spirit.

"Winslow Upton (1853-1914), professor of astronomy, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on October 12, 1853. His father was a musician and young Winslow sang and took music lessons. After his graduation from the Phillips School in 1869 at an age his father considered too young for college, he continued his study of music and other academic subjects in Boston for two years before entering Brown in 1871. There he indulged his musical bent by setting the class roll call to music and composing a setting for Chaucer’s Prologue to be sung at the junior burial of books. [3]

"He shared his education with his sister Lucy {women had not yet been accepted to go to college and Brown was on the cutting edge of letting women go to college in the late 1890's - CP} by providing her with the books and outlines of the lectures for Professor Diman’s history course, which he then discussed with her in his letters. At Commencement in 1875 he delivered the valedictory address, Sympathy Essential to True Criticism. [3]

"He was employed for a short time at the Harvard College Observatory, going from there to the observatory of the University of Cincinnati {not far from Chrispy!}, and earning a master’s degree in 1877. From May 1878 to September 1879 he was a member of the staff of the Harvard Observatory, which experience was the inspiration for a skit, The Observatory Pinafore, (obviously a parody on a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta), which included such lines as:

I’m called an astronomer, skillful astronomer,
Though I could never tell why;
But yet an astronomer, happy astronomer,
Modest astronomer, I.
I read the thermometers, break the photometers,
Mend them with paper and wax;
I often lament that so seldom is spent
A fair evening on star parallax.
" [3]

"After a short stint in Detroit with the Army Engineer Corps’ Lake Survey, Upton became a computer {a person who does copious quantities of math - CP} at the Naval Observatory in Washington in 1880. He worked with the United States Signal Office from 1881 to 1883. In
May of 1883 he accompanied a group of scientists to Carolina Island in the Pacific to view a solar eclipse, an event which resulted in his writing The Carolina Island Opera. In September of the same year he came to Brown, having been encouraged by President Robinson’s assurance of an
observatory in the near future, to take a position which included teaching mathematics and logic. A few years later he was inclined to leave when the promised observatory had not materialized {see above notes, [2] - CP}" [3]
"Upton took a leave of absence in the academic year 1886-87, during which he spent six months in Germany, two months in England, and visited leading European observatories. He observed
the total solar eclipse of August 19, 1887 from the interior of Russia. He was away again in 1896-97 at the southern station of the Harvard College Observatory in Arequipa, Peru. During this time he conducted a special series of observations from Arica, Chile, and made four ascents of the volcano El Misti, which was the site of recording instruments maintained by Harvard and the highest meteorological station in the world." [3]

"He was appointed the first dean of the University in 1900, but resigned that position a year later. President Faunce, speaking of this time, said, 'For one year he was Dean, and I was brought into contact with him more than ever. But his nervous system was too delicately organized for the position and at the end of the year he wished to give it up. The burden of
every man was his burden, the disappointments of others were his disappointments. The tenderness of his heart was something which only those who came into close touch with him can know.' [3]
"In December 1913, after directing the Christmas music performed by his church choir, he
became ill with pneumonia and died on January 8, 1914." [3]
I think what is telling is the passion that Upton had for people. In 1900, Lovecraft was 10. As Dean he would have had to solicit money - a usual prerequisite to fund projects - and no doubt aquainted himself at least by then with one of the richest men in Providence - Lovecraft's grandfather. Imagine the stories HPL heard from Upton.
A household filled with women, a veritable matriarchy at the time, Upton would have been sympathetic to the precocious child who was already translating Latin, knew the classics, read Scientific American with a passion, and had the financing to be anything he wished. HPL would ahve been into the violin by then, another (musical) touchstone. By winter 1902, all young Howard could think about was astronomy. [4]
I believe we can make some assumptions. Upton was compassionate, gregarious, and perhaps saw a kindred soul in a precocious child. Himself a prodigy, held off from attending college, dominated by a strong male figure, how could Upton miss the cues?
One thing I've learned about HPL is that he was a cautious, deliberate spin doctor when he wrote letters and stories., revelaing only what he wished to reveal. The reality is that Howard was a typical geeky child who worshiped the then-in-vogue Scientist-Explorers. In his house, a living breathing Victorian Adventurer appeared and Howard fell deeply into idolatry - at least until the chemist Appleton appeared in the midst.
Still, it was astronomy that was a passion, and Upton left his greatest legacy embedded into the bosom of H. P. Lovecraft.

1 Chrispy now owns this eldritch postcard. Complete with a 1 cent stamp :) it is dated July 9, 1909 when Lovecraft would have neared his nineteenth birthday and was deep in the realization that he would never be a true astronomer. Between 1908 and 1914, HPL discontinued writing his astronomy columns and most writing of any kind. He wrote one letter to the Providence Sunday Journal on a minor stir he noted. Some pasers-by began to idly speculate that an "aeroplane" was on the horizon. HPL, flabbergasted, lectured the crows that it was merely the planet Venus. So appalled, he wrote the newspaper and lamblasted the ignorance of the public. Collected Essays, Vol. 3, Science, Joshi, 2005, Hippocampus, pp. 99,100

2 Article on the web. physics/ newspages/ Projo-Ladd-Article.html
3 The above quotes appear in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright ©1993 by the Brown University Library and are used only to elucidate the scholarly thesis I present.
4 A Dreamer and a Visionary, Joshi, p. 44


John Rowlands said...


Chris Perridas said...

Always good to see you, John!

Michelle said...

If I'm not mistaken, this is the observatory used as a model for the Miskatonic University observatory in the short story Sothis Radiant by Will Murray. Read very recently in the Miskatonic University anthology, which was really an interesting mix of tales altogether well worth reading.

Delicious. Thanks for sharing. Finding myself drawn to Providence for a field trip sometime... as though by many tentacles.

cheesemeister said...

Wouldn't that be the ultimate, to go to a cool old observatory like that and then have a visitation from HPL on top of it?? Damn, I could die happy!


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