1874 Transit


A lot changed in the century following the transit of 1769. In 1867 Canada became a self-governing colony, and, as the Dominion of Canada, could be expected to co-ordinate observations across its landmass. On the technological front, the invention and spread of telegraphy allowed observers to obtain accurate time signals, a vital aspect of ensuring accuracy in observations. Advancing methods of industrial production may also have made scientific apparatus more readily obtainable. Perhaps most significant as far as the new Dominion was concerned, was the heightened interest of the general public in scientific phenomena such as the transit. This was not just a feature of Canadian society. The apparent increase in prosperity of the middle classes (a mirage or not of Victorian mercantile optimism), together with greater uniformity, affordability, and curricular stability in schools after mid-century, and the well-attested appetite among respectable Victorians for expansive exposition in their periodicals may have played a role. How much of a role is difficult to quantify, however, for while there were more newspapers available in some geographic areas during Victoria's reign, manuscript means of news transmission may have played a larger role in the Georgian era.

A development which was very important to transit studies in the United States, photography, had a lesser impact in Canada. Even though E.D. Ashe had photographed the Sun at the Quebec Observatory in 1868 (photo 1 | photo 2) and had travelled to Iowa to take pictures of the solar eclipse the following year, there are few records of any Canadian attempting to photograph the nineteenth century transits. An album of photographs which once belonged to the pioneering McGill radiologist and medical chemist Dr. Gilbert Prout Girdwood, and now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto (MSS 09289), contains some photographs taken at the 1882 Patagonia Transit station. They show the temporary observatory and landscape, although there are none surviving of the transit itself. If the photographer was part of the science team, it is reasonable to assume that he also photographed the transit proper. The catalogue entry implies that the photographs were taken by Girdwood. That more Canadian observers did not photograph the transit in 1882 may be attributable to the poor results obtained in 1874. The Astronomer Royal, G.B. Airy wrote: "It is decided by almost unanimous consent, that no real assistance can be obtained by application of photography" (1880). Transit photography, however, still had its influential supporters, even in Britain (e.g., R.A Proctor, Airy's nemesis in these matters).


The transit of 1874 was not visible in North America since it occurred between 01:49 and 06:26 UT. Nonetheless the rare event stimulated interest even in Canada. In 1873, the Toronto firm of Rowsell & Hutchison (who later printed early volumes of our Society's Transactions), published a 48-page book by Joseph Morrison, entitled The Computation of the Transits of Venus for the Years 1874 and 1882, and of Mercury for the Year 1878, for the Earth Generally and for Several Places in Canada, with a Popular Discussion of the Sun's Distance from the Earth, and an Appendix Shewing the Method of Computing Solar Eclipses. Morrison computed the times of contact for 1882 for a number of sites including three in Canada – Toronto (about 2 minutes late compared to those derived from the JPL HORIZONS Web-Interface), Bishop's College, (Lennoxville, Quebec) and Acadia College (Wolfville, Nova Scotia). In the preface to the book, the author stated, "This is, I believe, the first work of the kind ever published in Canada, and therefore I hope it will tend to encourage, in this country at least, the study of the grandest and noblest of the Physical Sciences." While his phrase "of the kind" is open to interpretation, there does not seem to be any earlier Canadian example in science of such a mathematical nature. According to American Men of Science (1906, 227), Joseph Morrison was born in Oxford (between Kingston and Ottawa) in 1848, and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1872, the year before he wrote his book on the transits. He may at this time have been a high-school teacher for by 1880 when he wrote a textbook on trigonometry, he was "Principal of the Walkerton High School, and Ex-Principal of the Newmarket High School." He went on to get his M.D. and Ph.D. and to work at the Nautical Almanac Office in Washington, D.C. He later was an Honorary Member of our Society.

The United States sent expeditions abroad to visually observe and photograph the transit, but Canada apparently lacked the ambition and resources to contemplate such an undertaking. Canadian governments may have felt absolved of acting given that the Imperial Govenment through the Astronomer Royal and the Navy were put to the trouble—and expense—of mounting transit expeditions, and what mere colony could match their effort? Nor was there a Canadian Maecenas to underwrite his own grand transit effort comparable to Lord Lindsay's. Pride in the transit expeditions of the mother country, and a feeling that the scientific and technological manifest destiny of the British Empire was being upheld may have assuaged feelings of British North-American transit inadequacy. Canadians had perforce to content themselves with reading articles, which the news sheets were more than happly to supply; transit news from foreign parts was news, and news sold papers. One article noted, "For considerably over a year the papers have been full of her name and her doings and her approaching transit" (The Daily Globe, Toronto, 12 June, 1874). A full page spread in the Canadian Illustrated News for 5 September, 1874 showed observatories set up in Japan for the transit. Some of the illustrations were identical to those published in the Daily Graphic of New York on 9 July, 1874 (unsanctioned "borrowing" of intellectual content was easier then than now). The Canadian Patent Office Record and Mechanics Magazine reported differences of opinion concerning the American and European methods of photographing the transit. It was felt that the method used at the Kew Observatory of enlarging the focal image could introduce errors of scale.

Following the 1874 transit, Alexander Johnson (Carpmael et. al. 1883, sec. III, 83), Professor at McGill College, wrote to the Montréal papers lamenting the poor equipment at his institution and stressing the need for proper instruments at the next transit of 1882. His plea eventually bore fruit, most notably in the donation by E. T. Blackman of a 16 cm equatorially mounted achromat of 213 cm focal length, and other important equipment.

The 1874 transit, while not visible from Canada, probably played a preparatory role in promoting direct Canadian participation in the 1882 transit. Press coverage of the 1874 transit may have generally prepared the ground for the launch of the Canadian transit campaign in 1882, and helped secure public and private funding to make it a reality.


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Sunday, December 19, 2021 - 12:06am