William Brydone Jack:  A man of many talents

Dr. William Brydon Jack, UNB president 1861-1885.  Courtesy of UNB Archives.It’s difficult for us in the 21st century — with our MapQuest, Google Earth, handheld GPS, and smart phones — to appreciate just how problematic and controversial the determination of property lines and international boundaries was in the 19th century.

In fact, when William Brydone Jack arrived at King’s College Fredericton in 1840, there was no accurate map of the province, the exact location of the border between Maine and New Brunswick was still in doubt and litigation over the surveying of land grants was so prevalent the government’s budget was in jeopardy. 

Fresh out of the University of St. Andrews, Dr. Jack was uniquely qualified to tackle the province’s challenges with his background in mathematics and physics and his passion for astronomy.  He was also especially adept at finding ways in which scientific knowledge could be useful to the colonial government, which soon earned him the friendship and respect of people like the provincial Surveyor-General, Thomas Baillie, and Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Edmund Head. 

Perseverance pays off

Though he had not intended to stay at King’s College — having been offered a place at Manchester New College and having found the circumstances in New Brunswick much more difficult and academically impoverished than had been portrayed by his predecessor, David Gray — Dr. Jack persevered.  He developed a rewarding relationship with James Robb, a fellow Scot teaching natural history and chemistry at the college, and, with his support, lobbied the always reluctant and sometimes parsimonious College Council to buy the equipment needed for astronomical observation.  The most expensive of these, a 7.5-foot brass and mahogany achromatic refractor telescope custom made by Merz and Son of Germany, cost more than 500 pounds, a considerable sum at the time.  It arrived in May 1849, at which point Dr. Jack set about persuading the council that a proper observatory was required to house it.

To Dr. Jack, the benefits were obvious: he could provide instruction in astronomy; he could make contributions to science through observations made there; it would be an advantage to the province to have one fixed point from which surveyors and others could take their readings; and it would increase interest among the general population.  Eventually, with prompting from the provincial government, the council acquiesced and construction of the observatory, designed by Dr. Jack himself, began in July 1850.  It was the first in British North America and remained the best appointed for at least the next two decades.

Making the right connections

With the observatory in operation, the 1850s were a busy and productive time for Dr. Jack.  He had formed a close friendship with J.B. Toldervy, a Fredericton physician and amateur astronomer who had a private observatory at his home.  In 1852, Dr. Toldervy visited the observatory at Harvard University, the most sophisticated on the continent, and learned about the use of the telegraph in ascertaining longitude between two observatories.  He introduced the idea to Dr. Jack.

The struggle to determine longitude, the position of an object east or west from a prime meridian (such as Greenwich, England), had been ongoing for centuries.  By the late 1700s, methods had been developed using chronometers or timepieces in conjunction with astronomical readings but very few positions had been calculated with any precision.  The use of telegraphic communication, virtually instantaneous, enabled observatories to compare sightings at exactly the same time and thereby calculate an accurate position in relation to each other.

It just so happened that Dr. Toldervy’s observatory was located beside the telegraph office (in downtown Fredericton, near what is today The Playhouse).  Working with William Cranch Bond, a box chronometer specialist at the Harvard observatory, Dr. Jack and Dr. Toldervy communicated from the doctor’s observatory to measure the longitude difference between the Boston and Fredericton observatories and determined, for the first time, that Fredericton was four hours, 26 minutes and 33.43 seconds west of Greenwich.  This was the first accurate measurement ever made in Canada and the achievement was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in 1855.

Overcoming adversity

Dr. Jack and Dr. Toldervy went on to verify the longitudes of Saint John, St. Andrews, Shediac, Miramichi, Grand Falls and Edmundston.  Their findings contributed to the publication of an accurate provincial map, at long last, in 1859.  Brydone Jack also took up the question of the exact location of the Maine-New Brunswick border as set out in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.  Again he collaborated with Harvard.  But the Astronomer Royal in England, Sir George Biddell Airy, took exception to the use of an American partner in the matter and refused to communicate with Brydone Jack.  This effectively put a stop to the publication of any work of Dr. Jack’s by the RAS.

It is clear that Dr. Jack would have enjoyed the opportunity to undertake more discovery based research.  He felt isolated from the major intellectual centres of the world, was concerned by the contempt in which King’s College was held by the general populace and was constantly battling with the College Council for resources.  Applying his knowledge to practical problems of importance to the province was one way to keep his scientific study supported and accepted.

Continued success

Dr. Jack went on to make many other contributions to the province and the University of New Brunswick, as it ultimately became.  He secured federal funding to establish a meteorological station at Fredericton, gave lectures on astronomy all around New Brunswick for which he created a set of hand-painted magic lantern slides, and advised on legislation to require competency tests for surveyors and verification of the accuracy of their instruments.  He standardized the length of the chain used for surveying measurements and laid down a true meridian line on the campus by which surveyors could set their compasses. 

He was a strong supporter of and proponent for a more practical curriculum and taught the preparatory mathematics course for the engineering program that King’s College instituted in 1854, the first in British North America. 

In 1861, he became president of UNB, which had been constituted only two year earlier.  His aspirations in this role included improving and integrating schools around the province with the university, developing courses in law and medicine, creating denominational colleges and affiliating with a college or academy for the “higher mental training of females.”  (UNB did not admit women until 1886.)  He considered the classics and mathematics the basis of all sound education and he proposed the institution establish an endowment for research.  He never realized his dream of building “a truly provincial university with every opportunity for expansion and fruitful service,” but much of what he worked for is writ large at UNB today.

A vibrant legacy

After Dr. Jack’s death in 1886, the observatory languished.  It was renovated in 1899 by civil engineering professor Stephen Dixon who moved the telescope from its “shaky” wooden tower onto a concrete foundation.  In 1955, through the efforts of physics professor J.E. Kennedy, the observatory was declared the oldest in Canada and designated a National Historic Site.  For a time it was used as an art centre, faculty club and office for The Fiddlehead magazine.  Then in 1984, in celebration of the province’s bicentennial, physics professor Merrill Edwards, inspired by his former professor, J.E. Kennedy, secured a grant to transform and refurbish it as a museum.  Assisted by then students Elizabeth Pugh, Jackie Hatherly and Greg McKeown, Dr. Edwards created a monument to William Brydone Jack for all to enjoy.

But it is not only a building that survives as evidence of Dr. Jack’s influence.  Surveying engineering remained a strong part of the civil engineering program at UNB Fredericton until it became its own department in 1960.  Over the past 50 years, faculty, students and graduates in Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering, as it is now known, have made contributions to space exploration, satellite mapping, global positioning technology, ocean mapping and navigational systems.

In addition, in 2001 UNB established the Planetary and Space Science Centre in the Department of Geology at UNB Fredericton.  The centre works closely with space agencies in the United States, Canada and Europe and is involved in preparing for two missions to Mars.  It houses the Earth Impact Database and the scientists associated with the centre focus on research into the effects of meteors and asteroids on earth and other planets. 

William Brydone Jack would indeed be proud.

See also a brief biography of William Brydone Jack and learn about the asteroid, Brydonejack, named in his honour in 2010.

Read about UNB's 225th anniversary event celebrating Dr. Jack's contributions.