William Brydone Jack Observatory

William Brydone Jack Observatory UNB Fredericton

William Brydone Jack Observatory

The William Brydone Jack Observatory, sitting on the University of New Brunswick‘s Fredericton campus, is a quaint and historical astronomical observatory. Opened in 1851, it’s notable as the first observatory in British North America. In 1954, it earned the title of a National Historic Site of Canada, cementing its historical importance.

The observatory’s namesake, William Brydone Jack, who was initially called Bryden and often went by Brydone-Jack, was a jack-of-all-trades in academia – a mathematician, astronomer, natural scientist, and teacher. He was born on November 23, 1817, in Trailflatt, Tinwald, Scotland, and later passed away in Fredericton in November 1886.

Dr. William Brydone Jack
Dr. William Brydone Jack

Jack’s early education unfolded in local schools and at Hutton Hall Academy, near Dumfries. In 1835, he joined the University of St. Andrews in Fife, graduating in 1840. His study menu was diverse, featuring Latin, Greek, math, physics, and philosophy. Jack wasn’t just a student; he was a star, bagging several scholarships in both the humanities and his major areas – math and natural sciences. A major influence was Sir David Brewster, a top-notch mathematician and head honcho of United College at St. Andrews. Brewster played a key role in Jack’s career, pushing him towards a teaching gig in math and natural philosophy at King’s College, Fredericton, in 1840. He saw it as a short-term experience gig.

King’s College has a rich history, tracing back to a royal charter in December 1828. It was originally an offshoot of an academy started by loyalist backers in 1787, which morphed into the College of New Brunswick in 1800. The college started dishing out university-level education in the 1820s under Principal James Somerville. Post-1829, under Principal Edwin Jacob, it took a page from Oxford’s book, focusing on math, classical languages, and philosophy. Even with just a handful of students, the college got flak for seeming too elite and narrow in its educational scope.

Rooted in the Scottish approach that mixed hands-on and empirical learning with classic studies, Jack aimed to update the college curriculum to meet contemporary needs, focusing on observation and experimentation. He struck up a solid and lasting bond with his fellow Scot, Dr. James Robb, the pioneer chemistry and natural history professor at King’s College from 1837. In 1847, Jack and Robb suggested to the college council a £1,000 budget for new scientific gear to boost their teaching methods. The council agreed to £550, reserving £300 for a top-notch seven-foot achromatic telescope. Despite some grumbles over the price tag, Jack managed to snag the telescope he wanted. He then convinced the council to build a separate observatory for it. His tenacity paid off with the creation of the first astronomical observatory in British North America in Fredericton in 1851.


Jack wasn’t just teaming up with Robb on scientific and academic projects. He also worked closely with Dr. J.B. Toldervy, a local doctor and private observatory owner. It’s likely they were all members of the Fredericton Athenæum, a club started by Robb for promoting literary and scientific research. In 1855, Jack and Toldervy pinpointed Fredericton’s exact longitude in relation to Boston through telegraph signals exchanged with the Harvard College Observatory. This groundbreaking achievement in 19th-century astronomy was helped by Toldervy’s observatory being near the telegraph office. Riding this wave of innovation, they figured out the longitudes of other spots in the province relative to Fredericton and shared this info with the famous Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy. Interestingly, their findings for Grand Falls and Little Falls matched the American, not the British, measurements from 1842, causing a rift with Airy and abruptly ending their letters. Yet, Jack kept getting important publications from Airy’s work in Greenwich, which fueled his scientific pursuits in Fredericton. The new civil engineering course at King’s College in 1854 owes much to Jack’s practical surveying interests and knowledge of precision triangulation methods from the British Isles under Airy.

In the 1850s, King’s College faced growing criticism, notably from Albert James Smith, over its elite image and Principal Jacob’s disdain for “practical education.” There were loud calls for its transformation into an agricultural school or to cut its public funding. To save the college, Lieutenant Governor Sir Edmund Walker Head set up a committee of notable North American educators to propose ways the college could better serve New Brunswick. Following their report, the college became the secular University of New Brunswick in 1859, dropping religious requirements for students and professors. The lieutenant governor and Professor Jack worked closely to shift this traditional, classically-focused institution into a university teaching practical sciences and arts.

Dr. Joseph R. Hea was named the first president of this new university in 1860, but Jack took over after just a year. As president, Jack understood the need to boost the university’s reputation. So, he spent summers touring the province, spreading the word about what the university could offer their sons and its role in regional growth. The loss of James Robb in 1861 was a big blow for the new president, as Robb would have been key in this outreach effort.


In the 1860s, Jack worked tirelessly to build a talented faculty at the University of New Brunswick. He brought in George Montgomery Campbell, a Cambridge grad, for classics; Loring Woart Bailey from Harvard covered chemistry, physics, geology, and more in natural sciences; Joseph Marshall d’Avray, with a history at King’s College and a stint as chief superintendent of education, took on English and French language and literature; and Jack himself taught math, natural philosophy, and astronomy. Students faced three 40-week sessions to get their bachelor’s degree, diving into a broad range of subjects. The whole deal, including tuition and a place to stay, cost $160 per session. Still, the number of students enrolling wasn’t quite what Jack had in mind.

Jack did make some headway in making the university more popular, but old biases stuck around, and denominational colleges in New Brunswick kept attracting students and funding. The limited funds from the legislature also cramped his dream of building a “truly provincial university with every opportunity for expansion and fruitful service.” Plus, the boost in prosperity, population, and resource development that people thought would come with the 1867 confederation didn’t really happen. Even though Jack had big plans to add navigation, law, medicine, engineering, and agriculture to the university’s offerings, it was almost five years after he stepped down in 1885 before any new departments popped up.

Despite these hurdles, the University of New Brunswick under Jack’s leadership churned out some notable grads. In the 1860s, this group included 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 those who studied there.

Back in the 1840s and 1850s, Jack had the time to focus on teaching math, physics, and astronomy, along with his own scientific research. But when he became president in 1861, his admin duties and teaching gigs left little room for research. However, in the 1870s, he did manage to help the province’s surveyor general improve surveying standards.

Jack is celebrated as Canada’s first astronomer, marking his place in history with four major achievements: he built and outfitted British North America’s inaugural astronomical observatory; he pioneered the use of “galvanism” or the electric telegraph for measuring longitude; he was the first to give public astronomy lectures in Canada; and he innovated methods for standardizing surveyors’ chains and fine-tuning magnetic compasses. These scientific strides cement his role as a key figure in the rise of Canadian astronomy.

Old Arts Building of the University UNB
The Old Arts Building of the University of New Brunswick, before 1876. The William Brydone-Jack Astronomical Observatory is at the left of the picture. Credit: University of New Brunswick Archives.

Telescope at the William Brydone Jack Observatory

William Brydone Jack Observatory

Telescope at the William Brydone Jack Observatory

William Brydone Jack Observatory UNB Fredericton
William Brydone Jack Observatory UNB Fredericton

Over a span of more than four decades, William Brydone Jack left a lasting impact on New Brunswick’s education, including his involvement with the provincial board of education from 1872 until 1885. He enriched the university and the province’s intellectual scene, weaving in the best of his Scottish heritage and academic background. When he retired in 1885, the university senate honoured his commitment by granting him a pension and naming him as a senate member, a fitting tribute to his service. Sadly, his death a year later meant the university lost his continued guidance and wisdom.

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One thought on “William Brydone Jack Observatory

  1. Excellent story for all people young and old to enjoy. There should be a small documentary aired for this to show everyone the importance of our history right here in Fredericton NB. As it was stated here in article, students walk by this everyday and have no idea the history behind it. Great job to UNB and staff to recognize this.

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