The Capital District’s Dudley Observatory is considered “the oldest non-academic institution of astronomical research in America.” Originally, it was located north-east of downtown Albany, NY.
Construction there began in 1852 and the facility was dedicated in 1857. Albany’s Congressman Erastus Corning, the founder and first president of the New York Central Railroad, was instrumental in donating a high quality telescope and time-keeping system at the new Dudley Observatory in Albany.
Each morning a worker started up a dynamo (generator) at the observatory and at exactly 12 noon he turned on an electrical switch that ran a wire to an electromagnet on top of a pole mounted on the roof of the Capitol Building in Albany. The energized electromagnet pulled up the metal ball. Every night at exactly midnight, the worker turned off the switch which caused the ball to drop.
One of these “time balls,” also controlled by the Dudley Observatory, was also mounted on the New York Central’s train station in the city of New York. It was important to the railroads that New York and Albany were on exactly the same time so that trains could run accurately.
Since few people at that time had watches and the pocket watches that existed usually showed a variety of times, it became traditional in both New York and Albany for partiers to go downtown on New Years Eve “to watch the ball drop.”
Ironically, it was the vibrations from train traffic that made the Albany location untenable and a new building was built in Schenectady. In 2019, the Observatory moved to Siena College in Loudonville, NY.
The same system was used to announce the arrival of Abe Lincoln at Albany on his way to be inaugurated in 1860, you can read more about that here.
Photo: Dudley Observatory’s first building in Albany ca 1880.
PHILIP CHRISTO says
YOU STATE THE DUDLEY WAS IN THE NORTH EAST OF DOWNTOWN. HOW MUCH EAST OF DOWNTOWN CAN YOU GO IN ALBANY BEFORE THE RIVER? WASN’T THE DUDLEY REBUILT ON S. LAKE NEAR NEW SCOTLAND? I USE TO GO THERE WHEN I WAS YOUNG DURING THE SUMMER AND SHOW YOU THE PLANETS.
Charles Bowman says
Fascinating story. One blip: the “new” Dudley Observatory was built on South Lake Ave in Albany in the 1890’s, not Schenectady. In the 1950’s, I recall seeing the old Dudley Observatory being used to store park equipment. And yes, the South Lake Ave Dudley Observatory was open once a month (weekly?) on Tuesday evenings for moon/planet viewing through its 12 inch refracting telescope. One rare time when Mars happened to be closest to the Earth, the queue stretched from the Dudley Observatory building to South Lake Ave.