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Did you know? Alfred shares its latitude with Madrid, Rome, and Beijing!
7/02/14

Just “Where in the World is Alfred, New York?” Alumnus Alan Littell, AU Class of 1953, recently wrote a piece for the Alfred Sun in which he details some of the ways to pinpoint the answer to that very question. Alan offered to share the article with E-News readers. Take a look and enjoy the read:                    

The late John Stull once told me that the latitude and longitude of Alfred University’s main administrative headquarters, Carnegie Hall—built as a library in 1912—had been inscribed on one of the building’s cornerstones.   

If any one person knew the specifics of Alfred’s planetary whereabouts, that person was John Stull. He taught physics at the university and was also director of the school’s astronomical observatory, located on a knoll at the southeast corner of the campus. Calculating our geographic coordinates would have been, for him, a major ingredient of unraveling the far more demanding issue of fixing the celestial positions of stars and galaxies.

I didn’t think too much about what John had said until a few months ago, when Carnegie Hall’s foundation had been laid bare as part of drainage overhaul. I decided to walk around the base in search of those identifying marks.  I could not find them. Still, what I did find was just as intriguing: a round bronze plaque affixed to the base of an exterior wall.

Placed there in 1923 by the country’s chief mapping agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, it revealed that Carnegie Hall and the central part of the village of Alfred stand at an elevation of 1,760 feet above sea level. An accompanying government survey report of latitude and longitude, on file in the university’s archives, matches Stull’s later findings. In round numbers, village latitude is 42 degrees north—that’s nearly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, on a scale of zero to 90 degrees. The longitude is 77-plus degrees west of the internationally agreed-upon starting, or reference, point, an astronomical observatory a few miles from London, England.

If you trace an imaginary line parallel to the Equator and due east from Alfred around a classroom globe of the world, you’ll find that we share pretty much the same latitude with the larger settlements of Madrid, Rome and Beijing.

Moving north, on the other hand, along our 77th “meridian,” or north-south-running line, of longitude—meridians straddle the globe from pole to pole like the veins of a peeled orange—will bring you in more-or-less neighborly fashion to the outskirts of Ottawa, the Canadian capital.  Stretch a string or finger south from Alfred, and you strike the Panama Canal.

Longitude! This was the conundrum that had bedeviled Alfredians from the time of the village’s founding, in 1807, through the second half of the 19th century. In an effort finally to solve the riddle, one of the great scientists, perhaps the greatest, ever associated with Alfred University conducted what to modern minds, steeped in the magic of satellite positioning systems, would seem a quaint experiment. 

Shortly after the Civil War, William Augustus Rogers, a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, had built on the site of what is now Howell Hall the university’s first astronomical observatory. Like all professional sky watchers, Rogers obviously understood that longitude is simply another way of reckoning time. The Earth rotates on its axis through one complete turn, or 360 degrees, in 24 hours. In other words, it spins at the rate of 15 degrees an hour, which means that sunrise at one place is noon or night, or any other time, at another.   

Thus, for example, when the sun stands directly overhead, at noon, in London, the time in Alfred is about seven in the morning.  Five hours and a few minutes later, when the sun now passes overhead at Alfred in its apparent progress from east to west—the sun being fixed in space, it’s the Earth of course that does the turning—Londoners will see the hour hand of their city’s giant Parliament clock, Big Ben, touch on five in the afternoon. That five-hours-and-a-bit time difference translates nowadays into our approximate tabulation at Alfred of 77 degrees of longitude west from the London-area’s “prime,” or zero, meridian.

But in 1869, Alfred University’s Rogers was uncertain about the true extent of time disparities separating one locale from another. So he decided to work through the problem using the only means at his disposal. They were, however, two of the chief technical advances of his day—a pair of meticulously crafted mechanical watches. Thanks to the researches of Laurie McFadden, Alfred University archivist, we have a written record of exactly what he did.

“In the month of September 1869," Rogers wrote, "an opportunity occurred of making a new determination [of longitude] with a most excellent chronometer-watch owned by Aug. McConnel, formerly Assistant at Cambridge Observatory….

Upon the arrival of Mr. McConnel at Alfred [from Elmira], a railway journey occupying about five hours' Rogers compared McConnel’s watch, set to Elmira time, with his own watch, set to the local time of the Alfred observatory.

It is worth noting that in the mid 19th-century, before the railroads divided the country, in 1883, into four standard time-zones—each displaying an artificially uniform clock time—every village, town and city along the way set its clocks and watches to the time the sun or stars passed over a local meridian.  No two times were alike. Chaos reigned. Travelers riding the old Erie Railroad along New York’s Southern Tier were likely to mutter oaths of exasperation as they set and reset their timepieces to the unsynchronized station clocks of Elmira, Corning, Hornell, Alfred Station and Wellsville. Today in our daily lives, we set our watches to a single zone-time, unvarying across a quarter of a continent.

But I digress. Let’s return to Professor Rogers and his friend McConnel as they peered at the hands of their respective timepieces.  Here is what they found: the time in Alfred registered 3 minutes 53 seconds earlier than that of Elmira. In other words, when it was noon in Elmira, it was about four minutes to noon in Alfred.  Measured in time, Alfred lay west of Elmira. And since it was also known that Elmira lay 58 seconds of time east of Washington, D.C., Alfred therefore was located west of Washington by 2 minutes 55 seconds of time, or close to one degree of longitude. The English starting point for world longitudes had yet to be formally recognized, and the Washington of 1869 was commonly employed by American mapmakers as the zero meridian.

In today’s terms, Rogers’s experiment would have put him within a mile of our 2lst-century longitude of slightly more than 77 degrees west of London.  Not bad for a scientist using a pair of windup watches. Rogers had already worked out the far simpler problem of latitude, a measurement unrelated to time. It tallied with the modern determination of a fraction more than 42 degrees north of the Equator. 

For the record, the computer power of current satellite technology gives Alfred’s precise geographic footprint as latitude 42.25 degrees north; longitude 77.79 degrees west.

There is a curious sequel to the story.  It has to do with Rogers’s method of calculating time. The watch with which he compared Alfred time to Elmira time had been regulated by a master observatory chronometer, a precision timekeeper manufactured in 1840 by the New York nautical-instrument firm of Bliss & Creighton. The chronometer was one of two instruments used by Rogers to time the passage of stars across our local meridian. 

The second device is now on permanent display on the main floor of Alfred University’s Herrick Library. It was, and is, known simply as a transit, a cannon-shaped brass telescope whose gunsight crosshairs can be trained on the pinpoints of stellar light.

In Rogers’s era, stars of known location, the sky-map equivalent of terrestrial latitude and longitude, provided the sole means of checking the accuracy of mechanical timekeepers. In his vigils of surveying the nighttime backdrop of what in effect was a vast celestial clock, Rogers was able to calibrate the Bliss & Creighton and by extension all other observatory timepieces to within a second of the correct time.

The master chronometer was housed in a handsome mahogany box.  Its face bore the number 533.  After Rogers’s death, in 1898, it was relegated to storage in the village of Alfred and at Alfred University for the better part of four decades.  Then suddenly, in 1945, it dropped from sight—until, that is, four years ago, when it surfaced again, by chance, as an item in an auctioneer’s sales report. The listing showed that the Bliss & Creighton had been sold, in 1990, by the New York branch of Christie’s for $2,420.

Rogers’s master chronometer was a marvel of its age and a wonder to behold.  How it got from the Alfred campus of 1945 to a 1990 auction salesroom remains a tantalizing mystery. The only clue the university has had to the instrument’s fate is that the purchaser was an unnamed “gentleman from Asia.”  Yet despite representations to the buyer on behalf of Alfred University by Christie’s Hong Kong office, all attempts to repatriate the historic timekeeper to its rightful American home have so far been unavailing.