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Chasing Venus: Observing the Transits of Venus 1631-2004
Introduction
What is a Transit of Venus?
Discovering the Transits: The 1631 and 1639 Transits
Measuring the Universe: The 1761 and 1769 Transits
New Possibilities: The 1874 and 1882 Transits
The Transits of 2004 and 2012
Credits and Financial Support
Education and Events
Resources and Links
~ Return to Exhibition
Chasing Venus: Observing the Transits of Venus, 1631-2004

John Philip Sousa and the Transit of Venus


John Philip Sousa in uniform as the leader of the U.S. Marine Band
c. 1892.
Courtesy of "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band, Washington, DC

John Philip Sousa in uniform as the leader of the U.S. Marine Band



John Philip Sousa and the Transit of Venus


Joseph Henry statue in front of Smithsonian "Castle"

Smithsonian Institution

Joseph Henry statue in front of Smithsonian

As a memorial to Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a statue in his honor (which now stands in front of the Smithsonian “Castle”) was unveiled on April 19, 1883, shortly after the 1882 transit. The music you hear was composed for the ceremony by the legendary U.S. Marine Corps bandmaster John Philip Sousa. This march is called “The Transit of Venus,” in honor of Henry’s service on the original U.S. Commission on the Transit of Venus.

John Philip Sousa and the Transit of Venus

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)
Transit of Venus March
Washington, D.C.:
Courtesy of Collections of Music Division, Library of Congress

Transit of Venus March

As a memorial to Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a statue in his honor (which now stands in front of the Smithsonian “Castle”) was unveiled on April 19, 1883, shortly after the 1882 transit. The music you hear was composed for the ceremony by the legendary U.S. Marine Corps bandmaster John Philip Sousa. This march is called “The Transit of Venus,” in honor of Henry’s service on the original U.S. Commission on the Transit of Venus.

Recording of “The Transit of Venus” march arranged and conducted by Loras John Schissel and performed by the Virginia Grand Military Band on September 13, 2003, courtesy of Raytheon ITSS
Listen to the Music (mp3 format)


John Philip Sousa and the Transit of Venus

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)
transit of Venus
Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, [1920].
Courtesy of George Washington University, Special Collections Department, Gelman Library

transit of Venus

In addition to being a composer and bandmaster, Sousa was also an author, writing three novels including this, his longest work. The transit of Venus plays only a small role in the book; the publishers wanted to title it The Alimony Club, to no avail. The plot centers around a young man vacationing on a yacht chartered by a group of misogynists (the Alimony Club). They are off to see the transit of Venus, but to their horror they find that the expedition leader is a “vivacious” female scientist, and hilarity ensues. The novel culminates with a performance of Aida at the Cairo Opera House. The book was not a bestseller.

New Possibilities: 1874 and 1882


Observations of the transit of Venus, 9 December, 1874 : made at stations in New South Wales
Sydney: C. Potter, 1892.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Observations of the transit of Venus, 9 December, 1874 : made at stations in New South Wales

Australia was well situated for observing the 1874 transit. There were eight local observers in the colony of New South Wales, and H.C. Russell, the director of the Sydney Observatory, brought together their work in this beautiful book. It was not published until 1892 because Russell had difficulties organizing the work of the eight independent people involved.

When Venus is near the inner edge of the Sun’s disk, its edge appears to smear and make a hazy connection with the solar disk. This makes Venus look like a black drop dripping off the edge of the Sun. This smearing prevented astronomers from timing accurately the moment when Venus made “contact” with the edge of the Sun, dooming any chance of obtaining an accurate measure of the Earth-Sun distance.


New Possibilities: 1874 and 1882


"The transit of Venus". Scientific American, Volume XXXI, no. 8, August 22,
New York: Munn & Co., 1874.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Scientific American, Volume XXXI, no. 8, August 22,

This article reflected American popular scientific interest in the transit of 1874. Besides discussing details of the transit, it also boasted of the American effort: “It is generally admitted that the United States has shouldered the most difficult share of the work, not only in appropriating the largest sum, but in accepting the most difficult [observing] stations.”

New Possibilities: 1874 and 1882

George Forbes (1849-1936)
transit of Venus
London, New York: Macmillan and Co., 1874.
Smithsonian Institution Libraries

transit of Venus

Forbes’s treatise was one of many to bring the transit of Venus to popular attention. It consisted of a history of the observations, a discussion of how to find the Earth-Sun distance from a transit, and plans for the 1874 transit. He placed great emphasis on the British expeditions to Egypt, Hawai’i, Rodrigues Island, Kerguelen Island, and New Zealand, but discussed the German, Russian, French, American, Dutch, and Italian expeditions as well.

New Possibilities: 1874 and 1882

U.S. Commission on the Transit of Venus
Instructions for observing the transit of Venus
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Instructions for observing the transit of Venus

To ensure the success of the American transit expeditions, it was important that the observers have their equipment set up identically and that the observations be performed in exactly the same way. To that end, the Navy published these detailed instructions covering everything from how to record observations to which way to turn the screws attaching the equipment.

New Possibilities: 1874 and 1882

U.S. Commission on the Transit of Venus
Atlas to part II of the papers relating to the transit of Venus in 1874
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1873.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Archives

Atlas to part II of the papers relating to the transit of Venus in 1874

The U.S. Commission prepared these maps detailing places on Earth from which observers could see the 1874 transit. This map shows who would see the critical moment when Venus’s image would be totally on the Sun’s disk. The blue and red lines helped astronomers know when the event could be observed and where on the Sun Venus would appear to make contact.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Boxes containing records of the 1874 U.S. Naval Observatory transit-of-Venus expeditions
1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Boxes containing records of the 1874 U.S. Naval Observatory transit-of-Venus expeditions

The United States sent eight expeditions around the world to observe the 1874 transit of Venus. These boxes were constructed to house the observation record books. The various logs and data books include details of each photograph taken at each visual observation of the transit, latitude and longitude measurements, and other pertinent observational data.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Glass-plate negative photographs of the 1882 transit of Venus taken by one of the U.S. Naval Observatory expeditions

Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Glass-plate negative photographs of the 1882 transit of Venus taken by one of the U.S. Naval Observatory expeditions

These eleven plates are the only surviving original photographs of the 1,700 taken by the 1882 U.S. expeditions. None of the 350 plates from the 1874 expeditions has survived.

These are negative images, so Venus appears as a large white dot on the black solar disk. Because measurements would be taken directly from the photographic plate, it was important to ensure that the image was not distorted in any way. A rectangular grid placed in front of the plate was photographed as a check to make sure the image did not shrink or warp. A second vertical line in the center is an image of a wire on a plumb bob used as a reference point for measurements.


Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


U.S. Naval Observatory observing station in Nagasaki, Japan, 1874
1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

U.S. Naval Observatory observing station in Nagasaki, Japan, 1874

Many of the objects in this exhibit are representative of those used at this observation station. A Stackpole transit instrument was housed in the shed at the left foreground. A 5-inch telescope like the one at the gallery’s entrance was stored in the center shed. The camera used to produce glass-negative photographs was in the shed at right.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


U.S. Naval Observatory staff at the observing station on Kerguelen Island, 1874
1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

U.S. Naval Observatory staff at the observing station on Kerguelen Island, 1874

Prior to the transit of Venus, observatory staff performed trial runs with the photoheliograph (far right), the instrument used to photograph the Sun. During the transit it directed the Sun's image through a lens and onto a photographic plate in a dark shed about 40 feet away. The photoheliograph produced the glass-plate photographs on display in this exhibition gallery

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Observation station at the 1876 Centennial Exposition
1876.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Observation station at the 1876 Centennial Exposition

The U.S. Naval Observatory recreated the experience of observing the 1874 transit of Venus for the American public by setting up one of its eight observation stations at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pa.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Testing the equipment at the 1874 American transit-of-Venus observation station on Kerguelen Island
1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Testing the equipment at the 1874 American transit-of-Venus observation station on Kerguelen Island



Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Members of the U.S. transit-of-Venus expedition at the site of Kerguelen Island putting up the water casks at the photography building
1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Members of the U.S. transit-of-Venus expedition at the site of Kerguelen Island putting up the water casks at the photography building



Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Recueil de mémoires, rapports et documents relatifs à l'observation du passage de Vénus sur le soleil (Collection of memoirs, reports, and documents relating to the obsrvations of the transit of Venus, volum III, part II, atlas of plates)
Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1885.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Recueil de mémoires, rapports et documents relatifs à l'observation du passage de Vénus sur le soleil

The French government sent major expeditions to Yokohama, Beijing, St. Paul’s Island, and Campbell Island in 1874. After their recent defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, this effort no doubt helped boost national morale. Besides observing the transit, the French also studied the zoology and geology of their observation sites. This volume is open to cross-sections of rocks found on Campbell Island, 400 miles south of New Zealand.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century


Glass-plate negative boxes used during the 1882 transit of Venus expeditions by the U.S. Naval Observatory

Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Glass-plate negative boxes used during the 1882 transit of Venus expeditions by the U.S. Naval Observatory

Boxes used to house glass-plate negatives taken by the 1882 U.S. expeditions.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

George Biddell Airy, editor (1801-1892)
Account of observations of the transit of Venus, 1874, December 8
London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1881.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Account of observations of the transit of Venus, 1874, December 8

Airy, the British Astronomer Royal, collected the results of the British observations of the transit into this volume. The British used a different photographic method than the Americans, and it failed spectacularly. The British and Germans were so disappointed that they resolved not to use photography for the 1882 transit. This book illustrates that these observations were also plagued by the infamous black drop effect.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

Alvan Clark & Sons
Refracting telescope with 5-inch objective lens
Boston: 1874.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory

Refracting telescope with 5-inch objective lens

Invented in the early 1600s, telescopes enabled astronomers to see the transits of Venus, which are nearly impossible to see with the unaided eye.

This telescope is one of eight identical models built expressly for the U.S. Naval Observatory’s expeditions to observe transits of Venus in the 19th century.


Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

Franscisco Díaz Covarrubias (1833-1889)
Viaje de la Comision Astronómica Mexicana al Japon : para observar el tránsito del planeta Vénus… (Voyage of the Mexican Astronomical Commission to Japan to observe the transit of Venus)
Mexico City: C. Ramiro y Ponce de Leon, 1876.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Viaje de la Comision Astronómica Mexicana al Japon : para observar el tránsito del planeta Vénus…

The Mexican republic had been restored in 1867 when Benito Juárez deposed the French interlopers. After Juárez’s death in 1872, the new president, Lerdo de Tejada, devoted himself to rebuilding the country’s international reputation. This effort included sending a Mexican expedition to Yokohama to observe the 1874 transit and strengthen Mexican ties with Japan. Diaz Covarrubias’s report helped acquaint Mexicans with Japanese history, culture, and customs.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

E. Howard Clock Company
Mercury pendulum clock
Boston: 1874.
Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Mercury pendulum clock

This is one of eight identical clocks ordered by the US Naval Observatory for the 1874 transit-of-Venus expeditions. Designed to withstand the rigors of a long voyage, they cost $275 each. The Campbell Town, Tasmania, observers used this one. With this clock and the Stackpole transit instrument, they could determine the precise latitude and longitude of the observing site, critical for an accurate transit-of-Venus observation.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

Stackpole & Brothers
Broken-tube transit instrument
New York: 1874.
Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Broken-tube transit instrument

This is one of eight transit instruments ordered by the US Naval Observatory for the 1874 expeditions to determine their exact positions. Observers would look in the eyepiece and measure the exact time when a star would cross a fine wire in the field of view. A prism at the base of the main tube redirects, or “breaks,” the starlight so that it can be observed from the side of the instrument, hence the name.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

Pietro Tacchini (1838-1905)
passaggio di Venere sul sole dell'8-9 dicembre 1874 (The transit of Venus on 8-9 December 1874)
Palermo: Lao, 1875.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

passaggio di Venere sul sole dell'8-9 dicembre 1874

Tacchini, the energetic director of the Palermo Observatory in Sicily, organized an Italian expedition to observe the 1874 transit. Italy had just become a unified country in 1870, so the government was willing to support matters that would add to the new nation’s international standing. The Italians traveled to India and observed at a site near Calcutta.

Transit Expeditions in the 19th Century

U.S. Naval Observatory
Observations of the transit of Venus…, part II, sections 1-4 [page proofs]
Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1881.
Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Observations of the transit of Venus…, part II, sections 1-4 [page proofs]

After the 1874 transit, the U.S. Naval Observatory staff began analyzing the results. Because of funding and staffing problems, they decided to delay publication until the 1882 transit observations were analyzed. On display are page proofs of the 1874 observations. The U.S. results were disappointing and they were never published, due to lack of funding and other bureaucratic difficulties.