As an amateur aesthete and a history specialist, I tend to take note of the older buildings on campus. I’ve found myself on a number of occasions walking past the Louis B. Stewart Observatory. In some of my less stressed-out journeys across King’s Cross Circle, I’ve wondered about the origins of this little, turreted building, complete with multicoloured dome, sitting in the shadow of University College amidst an otherwise well-trodden, but empty, plot of green grass. As it turns out, the building has a surprisingly rich and colourful history, and now houses the University’s Student Union, UTSU. In learning about the observatory, I’ve finally figured out (a little embarrassing to admit, being a fourth year student) where to go to file all my Green Shield dental and medical claims- a good thing as at this point, they’re really piling up. UTSU also runs a food and clothing bank, a used textbook exchange, and is the place to go to get discounts on monthly public transport passes.
The Observatory is actually the oldest building on campus. Originally constructed in the form of two log cabins in the 1840s, it was upgraded to its current manifestation, which was designed by Frederick Cumberland (who also designed York’s Osgoode Hall, St. James Cathedral, and University College), in the mid-nineteenth century. Since it was built, the Observatory has filled a variety of purposes. Up until 1905, it held the clock that was the official timekeeper for the whole of Canada- a fact that I imagine made it very hard for students to blame their wristwatches for being late for lecture. It has also been a weather station, a police substation, a meteorological station, a telephone switchboard station, and a geodesic surveying station. Although the building’s dome is now unused, it was built originally as part of a global cooperative project (run by the Canadian branch of the Royal Society) that somehow involved the world’s magnetic field. In the 1950s, the Observatory was taken over by SAC (now UTSU), and has remained under the auspices of Student Council ever since.
There are two points of particular interest that I learned while reading about the Observatory that I’d now like to bring to popular attention:
A) Thanks to the tireless work of early meteorologists (who had no internet on which to depend for weather forecasts) I learned that when leaving your Toronto flat in the morning, take note of the direction of the wind. If it’s coming from the east, bring your umbrella. If from the west, wear a pair of shades. This all has something vaguely to do with air pressure, Hadley cells, and some guy called Pascal.
B) I found a funny website, unlike any other I’ve seen produced by U of T. It was made by the Institute of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and showcases U of T’s Museum of Scientific Instruments (UTMSI). UTMSI has created this web page devoted entirely to so-called “Mystery Instruments,” which include a number of archaic scientific instruments found in various places across campus, whose functions can no longer be remembered. Complete with photos of each instrument (some labeled “Identified!”), you can see an Alluard Dew-Point Hygrometer or a Donder’s Phaenophthalmotrop.