The William Brydone Jack Observatory, located on the University of New Brunswick campus in Fredericton, is a modestly sized astronomical observatory. Established in 1851, it holds the distinction of being the first of its kind in British North America. In recognition of its historical significance, it was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1954.
William Brydone Jack, who was originally named Bryden and often referred to as Brydone-Jack, was a mathematician, astronomer, natural scientist, and educator. Born on November 23, 1817, in Trailflatt, in the parish of Tinwald, Scotland, he passed away in Fredericton in November 1886.
Jack’s early education took place in parish schools and at Hutton Hall Academy, near Dumfries. He enrolled at the University of St. Andrews in Fife in 1835, graduating in 1840. His undergraduate curriculum included Latin, Greek, mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He excelled academically, earning numerous scholarships in the humanities as well as in his primary fields of study – mathematics and natural sciences. Among several influential professors, Sir David Brewster, a renowned mathematician and principal of United College at St. Andrews, served as his mentor. Under Brewster’s recommendation, Jack accepted a professorship in mathematics and natural philosophy at King’s College, Fredericton, in September 1840, with the intention of gaining a few years of teaching experience.
Established via a royal charter in December 1828, King’s College was the successor to an academy created by loyalist petitioners in 1787, which later became the College of New Brunswick in 1800. The institution began offering university-level education in the early 1820s under Principal James Somerville. After the 1829 reorganization under Principal Edwin Jacob, the college followed the Oxford model, focusing on mathematics, classical languages, and philosophy. Despite its small average enrollment of around a dozen students, the college faced criticism for its perceived elitism and its narrow curriculum.
Educated in the Scottish tradition that blended empirical and practical studies with the classics, Jack sought to modify the college curriculum to better suit the needs of the time and place by emphasizing observation and experimentation. He formed a tight-knit and enduring relationship with his fellow Scot, Dr. James Robb, the first professor of chemistry and natural history at King’s College, appointed in 1837. In 1847, they proposed to the college council that a £1,000 fund be allocated for purchasing scientific equipment to enhance their teaching. The council approved £550, with £300 designated for a seven-foot achromatic telescope. Despite some objections from the council regarding the cost, Jack successfully procured the desired telescope. Following this, he persuaded the council to build a separate observatory to accommodate the telescope. Thanks to his perseverance, the first astronomical observatory in British North America was constructed in Fredericton in 1851.
Apart from his professional partnership with James Robb on scientific and educational initiatives, Jack also collaborated closely with Dr. J.B. Toldervy, a Fredericton-based physician and private observatory owner. It is likely that all three men were part of the Fredericton Athenæum, a society established by Robb to foster literary and scientific research. In 1855, Jack and Toldervy successfully calculated Fredericton’s exact longitude relative to Boston by exchanging telegraphic signals with the Harvard College Observatory. This significant mid-19th-century astronomical accomplishment was made possible by Toldervy’s observatory’s proximity to the telegraph office. Encouraged by this innovative approach, Jack and Toldervy determined the longitudes of other provincial locations relative to Fredericton and shared their findings with Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy later that year. Interestingly, their calculated longitudes for Grand Falls and Little Falls matched the American commissioners’ 1842 measurements for the New Brunswick-Maine boundary, rather than the British commissioners’. This led to a disagreement between Jack and Airy, which resulted in a sudden end to their correspondence. However, Jack continued to receive valuable publications on Airy’s work at Greenwich, influencing his scientific endeavors in Fredericton. The introduction of a civil engineering course at King’s College in 1854 can largely be attributed to Jack’s interest in practical surveying and his knowledge of accurate triangulation techniques used in the British Isles under Airy.
During the 1850s, critics of King’s College, including Albert James Smith, intensified their attacks on its elitism and Principal Jacob’s aversion to “practical education.” There were frequent calls for the conversion of the college into an agricultural school or for the withdrawal of its annual public grant. To prevent the demise of the college, Lieutenant Governor Sir Edmund Walker Head commissioned a group of distinguished British North American educators to suggest how the college could better serve New Brunswick. As a result of the commission’s report, the college was transformed into the secular University of New Brunswick in 1859, and all religious tests for students and professors were abolished. The lieutenant governor and Professor Jack collaborated closely to transition the traditionalist, classical institution into a university offering practical training in sciences and arts.
Dr. Joseph R. Hea was appointed the first president of the newly formed university in 1860, but he was replaced by Jack after just one year. As president, Jack understood the university’s image needed enhancement, so he traveled across the province during summers, informing the public about the educational opportunities the university could offer their sons and the role he envisioned for it in provincial development. The death of James Robb in 1861, who would have been instrumental in this public outreach, was a significant loss for the new president.
Throughout the 1860s, Jack put together an accomplished faculty at the university. George Montgomery Campbell, a Cambridge graduate, taught classics; Loring Woart Bailey, a Harvard alum, provided lectures in chemistry, physics, geology, and other natural sciences; Joseph Marshall d’Avray, who had previously taught at King’s College in the 1850s and served as the chief superintendent of education, was the professor of English and French language and literature; Jack himself instructed mathematics, natural philosophy, and astronomy. Students earned a bachelor’s degree after three 40-week sessions, during which they studied a comprehensive range of subjects. The cost of tuition and accommodation was a reasonable $160 per session, yet enrollment growth was slower than Jack had hoped for.
While his efforts to popularize the university saw some measure of success, long-standing prejudices persisted, and denominational colleges in New Brunswick continued to draw students and endowments. The insufficient funding provided by the legislature hampered his aspirations to create a “truly provincial university with every opportunity for expansion and fruitful service.” Furthermore, the expected prosperity, population increase, and resource development that were anticipated with the confederation in 1867 did not come to pass. Despite Jack’s vision to include navigation, law, medicine, engineering, and agriculture in the curriculum, it took nearly five years after his retirement in 1885 before any new departments were established.
However, in spite of these challenges, the University of New Brunswick, during Jack’s presidency, produced an array of distinguished graduates. In the 1860s, this included individuals such as James Mitchell, George Robert Parkin, and George Eulas Foster; in the 1870s, William Odber Raymond, John Douglas Hazen, and Charles George Douglas Roberts; and in the early 1880s, Bliss Carman and Walter Charles Murray were among the students.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Jack was able to focus on teaching mathematics, physics, and astronomy, as well as conducting scientific research within these disciplines. However, after assuming the presidency in 1861, his administrative duties, combined with his teaching, left him with limited time for scientific endeavors. Nevertheless, in the 1870s, he assisted the province’s surveyor general in enhancing the surveying standards.
Jack holds the unique honor of being the first Canadian astronomer, with notable achievements in four areas: constructing and equipping the first astronomical observatory in British North America; utilizing “galvanism” or the electric telegraph in longitude measurement; delivering the first public lectures on astronomy in Canada; and developing methods for standardizing surveyors’ chains and calibrating magnetic compasses. These groundbreaking scientific efforts ensure his place as a foundational figure in the development of Canadian astronomy.
William Brydone Jack’s influence on education in New Brunswick spanned over 45 years, including his tenure on the provincial board of education from 1872 to 1885. He infused the intellectual life of the university and the province with the finest traditions of his heritage and education. Upon his retirement in 1885, the university senate granted him a pension and appointed him as one of its members in a grand tribute to his dedicated service. His death the following year, however, left the university without his continued wise counsel.
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