Joseph Brown

Inducted: 1999
Born: 1733
Died: 1785

Joseph Brown (1733-1785), the son of Captain James Brown and Hope Power, was a noted businessman, scientist, professor, and architect, and one of the famous Brown brothers who dominated civic life in Providence during the second half of the eighteenth century. Although he was a successful merchant and the manager of his family’s spermaceti candle works in Fox Point, his heart and mind were also occupied by more learned enterprises, despite a limited education occasioned by his father’s death when Joseph was only five.

Brown is best known for his role in making observations of the transit of the planet Venus across the sun’s face in 1769, a project in which he collaborated with Benjamin West of Philadelphia and other astronomers around the world. By comparing transit measurements made at different sites, scientists were able to determine the parallax of the sun and, from this, the dimensions of the solar system.

Aside from astronomy, Brown was interested in chemistry, electricity, meteorology, and architecture. In 1772, he supervised the assembly of a new fire engine for Providence, and in 1780, he constructed an improved steam engine to pump water out of the iron ore mines in Cranston that supplied his family’s Hope Furnace in Scituate.

In 1775, Brown helped to erect a high beacon to warn the greater Providence area of the approach of British vessels, and he supervised the casting and boring of Revolutionary War cannons at the Hope Furnace. In 1781, he served in the General Assembly as a deputy from Providence.

Between 1770 and 1785, the versatile Brown designed several of Providence’s most notable buildings, including University Hall ( the “College Ediface”), the First Baptist Meeting House, the Market House, his own mansion at 50 South Main Street, and his brother John’s house on Power Street (the “John Brown House”). John Quincy Adams described the latter structure as the “most magnificent and elegant mansion in America.”

A trustee of Rhode Island College (soon to bear his family’s name) from 1769 until his death, Brown taught students there and conducted experiments for them. In 1784, when the college struggled to resume activities after the war, he volunteered to serve as a professor of experimental philosophy without pay. Death, the result of a stroke, cut short his academic career in 1785. Joseph Brown was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the time of his death, recognized for his work and achievements.

Joseph Brown was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.

For additional reading: Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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