of Senator Kevin Raye
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of Maine State Senator Kevin Raye
Thank you. It is a pleasure to be with you this afternoon for the dedication of the Calais Observatory site
Like many longtime residents of this area, I have passed this location countless times over the years. And like the generations of Calais children who have played here at “The Chimney”, I was unaware of its historical significance
Now, we know that, in 1866, after arrangements had been made with the Headmaster of Calais Academy, an observatory building was built here by the U.S. Coast Survey, and a telegraph wire was run from the Calais Depot to this site.
Known officially as The Calais Observatory, this site was one in a series of observatories located in Ireland, Newfoundland and Maine, all subordinates of the Greenwich Observatory in England, home of the Prime Meridian of longitude.
In the science of determining position, time – relative to Greenwich -- was the essential ingredient. Before the transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, there could be no ‘real time’ communication. Rather, 'time' was transported back and forth across the Atlantic on ships, and the precision clocks in America calibrated from these traveling clocks.
But, with the advent of the telegraph, these observatories were all connected at various times via telegraph land lines or transatlantic telegraph cable in an effort to bring precise longitude to Harvard University and the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. -- and to eventually encircle the world with “telegraphic longitude” determinations.
It was December 1866 when, ironically, a frost heave – something else our area is famous for -- threw the Maine-to-Newfoundland landline into a near perfect working order, and the Calais Observatory became operational.
Harold Nelson has aptly noted that, to the scientific pioneers of the Coast Survey and Naval Observatory, this accomplishment was equivalent to the “Golden Spike” of railroad fame.
The Coast Survey utilized the Calais Observatory until 1895. By 1904, the longitude work of the Coast Survey, European Astronomers and others encircled the entire world, and the results closed within less than one second of an arc.
Telegraphic longitude was determined by timing star passages over the telegraph lines between two or more “meridians”. The men and equipment were all housed in a small “observatory” that resembled a garden shed with an opening in the roof to see stars crossing the meridian.
When the observer saw the selected star cross a wire in his 75 power telescope, he would tap a telegraph key that marked the precise time of star passage across the meridian. By doing this at the various observatory sites, the time difference was in all reality after calculations, a longitude difference.
This was known worldwide as the “American Method” of telegraphic longitude determination.
Over the last century, this site was twice nearly razed for use for other purposes but, thankfully, that did not happen, and while the observatory building itself is long gone, an important and unique piece of our history has nonetheless been preserved.
Today, through the efforts of so many people, we celebrate the preservation of this site. Particular recognition should go to:
Thanks to the efforts of all these people and others, the general public is becoming aware of the significant role the Calais Observatory played in advancing the precision of longitude in North America.
For residents of the area, especially for students -- young and old alike -- this site is a reminder that history is all around us. The observatory makes history – and science -- come alive – right here in our own back yard.
And, for visitors, it can become another attraction to the Calais area – in coordination with the Downeast Heritage Museum.
Today we gather to celebrate the history of this site, and the people who built it and used it, and the contributions they made to advancing science and knowledge in the United States.
I can’t help but think how appropriate it is that we mark this occasion in conjunction with the 4th of July – when we celebrate our nation’s independence.
For, in so many respects, advancements in science and knowledge have been cornerstones of our success as a nation.
One piece of that success occurred right here on this spot and today we pause to say we remember and we honor the contributions that were made here, and we ensure that that heritage will be recognized by generations to come.
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