Skip to main content

THE 6 DECEMBER, 1882 TRANSIT

The entire transit of 1882 was visible in the central part of Canada and in the Maritimes. The beginning occurred before sunrise to the west of Winnipeg; the end took place after sunset in Newfoundland and Labrador. In December, the Sun was at a low altitude even at noon throughout Canada, and in most of the country weather prospects were not very bright. Nonetheless, the public and scientists alike were determined to see the event. The daily newspapers generally provided commentary on the 6th of December or in some instances on the 5th or 7th. Even a lengthy poem appeared in both The Toronto World and The Evening Telegram, Toronto, on December 6, spoofing the interest of astronomers in the love goddess. A few lines give the flavour:

But ne'er the less she stands to-day the watched of every nation,
Who see her make her little bow in silent admiration.
Methinks I see bald heads, you've seen them at the ballet,
With glasses levelled at the nymphs as forth to dance they sally;
You know how fond they are of that, we'll keep the fact between us,
But lo! this morn they sally forth to have a look at Venus;
For every one of them will feel it is his bounden duty
To have a good square look at her, the highest reigning beauty.

Remarkably similar satyric verse at the expense of astronomers was published at the time of the 18th-century transits. The paltry joke at the heart of it, based on Venus' mythological reputation, was apparently too much for the poetasters to resist. The post World War II withering of widespread familiarity with the western classical tradition, deplorable in other respects, has at least spared 21st-century astronomers from being victimized by such doggerl.

Preliminary Advice

There were some instances of observing advice in the press just prior to the big event, advice which would now be considered highly dubious (professionals and experienced amateurs at the time would likewise have recommended properly smoked glass - in effect a temporary neutral density filter - but are unlikely to have approved of the remaining advice offered by the newspapers):

Ordinary observers will require only a piece of smoken glass, or of colored glass, dark brown or blue. ... They will not be favored with the opportunity of seeing it through the official telescope, as no one will be allowed to approach the vicinity of the observers, as the exceedingly nice observations required demand absolute freedom from interruption. (Manitoba Daily Free Press, Winnipeg, 5 Dec.)

 

A good view of the sun may be had, by anyone who has a common telescope [by fitting] ... a cap of tin over the large end, having previously punched in the centre of this cap a round hole about an eighth of an inch in diameter. The lenses should all be carefully wiped ... with a silk handkerchief. ... "J. Peeper" (The Evening Telegram, Toronto, 5 Dec.)

 


The transit ... will doubtless be viewed by thousands whose sole object will be ... to gratify motives of curiosity. Providing the weather is clear and the sky generally unclouded a view of the transit is within the reach of all. Even spyglasses and binoculars may be dispensed with, and provided with nothing more expensive than a piece of smoked glass the transit of the planet over the surface of the sun may be seen from its first contact to its close. It is even quite possible to see it with the naked eye if the observer's [optics?] are sufficiently powerful to stand the intense light projected upon them from the sun. In the event of the atmosphere being hazy, the likelihood of its being visible to some with the unaided vision will be largely increased. (Globe, Toronto, 6 Dec.)

As it turned out, the advice probably did no harm for Torontonians at least, since they only got a few glimpses through clouds of the planet on the Sun.

Newspaper Accounts

Before considering the scientific observations at Winnipeg, Kingston, Ottawa, and Cobourg and newspaper accounts of them, here are a few excerpts from the press describing what was seen (or not seen) elsewhere.

London: ... Messrs. [William] Saunders and [W. D.] McGloghlan were to assist each other in the work; but unfortunately the sky was ... densely covered with clouds ... Momentary glimpses were secured between 12 and 2 o'clock, sufficient to give an opportunity to those who were fortunate enough to be on the spot to obtain very fair views (The Free Press, London, 7 Dec.)

 

Woodstock: The transit of Venus was visible through light but continuous clouds here to-day. On account of cloudiness no observations of any benefit could be made at the observatory (The Free Press, London, 7 Dec.). [For full information see Mozel (1982)]

 

Toronto: ... Early [in the] morning the gentlemen who had obtained permission to view the transit from the tower of THE MAIL placed their telescopes in position and, hoping against hope, awaited the result. Outside of the Observatory, THE MAIL offered the best position anywhere near the business part of town for observing the phenomenon as it towers far above every other building in the neighbourhood. ...Cold and miserable, the amateur astronomers stuck to the roof of THE MAIL until the transit was over. Then, as they packed their instruments, a gentleman remarked that he hoped they would have better luck on the next occasion. ...At the Observatory, besides the regular staff, two or three gentlemen brought their own instruments to the Observatory, so as to get the correct time should a chance present itself of viewing the transit. One of these, Mr. Roberts, used an eight-inch reflector of his own manufacture and which, by the way, is an excellent instrument. Mr. Miller, secretary to the hospital, was there also with a four-inch refractor, whilst Mr. Menzies was prepared to do his part with an altazimuth transit. All these gentlemen waited patiently until the hour of the last contact had passed. They were rewarded early in the day by a glimpse of the planet on the sun, but only for a few seconds. Mr. Carpmael spent a couple of hours beside the new six-inch equatorial which was recently mounted in the tower, and although he got one or two views of the sun, was unable to get any of the contacts. Mr. G. P. Hector, a gentleman connected with the Meteorological staff, busied himself in timing the period at which the sun was visible ... (The Toronto Mail, 7 Dec.). [For more information on the equatorial, see Beattie (1982).]

 

Whitby: ... The transmission of the time from the Toronto observatory was eagerly waited for at the Great Northwestern Telegraph office in Whitby, while arrangements were being completed at the Ontario Ladies College by Rev. Mr. Hare and Mr. Christopher Johnson for observing the transit. The exact time was received, and a chronometer was carefully set in accordance therewith at the College. A splendid 6-inch object glass, with a focal length of nine feet six inches, had been placed in position. This splendid instrument, with magnifying powers from 60 to 300 diameters, was secured [from Fitz of New York] by Rev. Mr. Hare for the College at an expense of $1,200 ... From 12 o'clock the weather continued cloudy , preventing anything like accurate observation up to 1:50 p.m., when the clouds cleared away and the sun shone out brilliantly. No time was reported by the College authorities, but the following was taken by outside parties: - At 2 hours, 29 minutes, 34 seconds, the point of internal contact at egress was observed; at 2 hours, 46 minutes, 44 seconds, the planet appeared on the edge of the sun like the indentation of the tooth of a saw on its rim, and at 2 hours, 48 minutes, had disappeared. (The Gazette, Montreal, 7 Dec.). [An image of the Whitby Ladies College is a: http://www.castle-ed.com/. The calculated local mean times of third and fourth contact are 14h32m41s and 14h53m18s respectively.]

 

Belleville: M. Shearmen du bureau meteorologique de Toronto a pris ses dernieres dispositions pour observer le passage de Vénus aujourd'hui. Les observateurs seront prises près de l'eglise St. Thomas [Mr. Shearman, of the Toronto Meteorological Office, has made his final arrangements for observing the transit of Venus today. The observers will make their observations near the church of St. Thomas] (Le Monde, Montréal 6 Dec.). Mr Shearmen observed with a 10 cm achromatic telescope (Carpmael et. al. 1883).
 

 

Belleville: The sky was heavily clouded with occasional glimpses up to about 11:35 local time ... after that time the sky became clear and the passage of the planet over the sun's disc was plainly visible. This favourable state continued until the time of the third and fourth contacts, of which good observations were had, although the third or inner contact was much interfered with by the black drop (The Globe, Toronto, 7 Dec)

 

Picton: ... A good sized telescope belonging to Lieut.-Col. Begg showed the transit to advantage, and a large number of persons took the opportunity ... (The Free Press, London, 7 Dec.).

 

 Montréal: ... The citizens of Montreal generally seemed to take a great interest in the event as well, and on most of the streets of the city, during the morning, people were to be seen looking through smoked or colored glass, or anything through which the phenomenon could be seen. ... the sky was completely covered with clouds until ... five minutes past ten, when the sun came out, and Venus was seen well in upon the sun's disc. It was also seen through colored glass at some of the stations, and others saw it – when a slight haze passed over the sun – with the naked eye. A representation of the sun about 4½ inches in diameter was projected on the wall of the observatory by means of the finder telescope, on which the image of Venus was very distinctly marked, its diameter being apparently about one-thirtieth part of the sun's diameter. The clouds came again over the sun about ten minutes past eleven, and continued the rest of the day. ... The snow coming on, the observers put the cap on the telescope, closed the shutter in its roof, and withdrew (The Gazette, Montreal, 7 Dec.). [For information on the McGill Observatory and its equipment see Carpmael et. al. 1883]

 

Les gamins qui se tenaient au coin des rues et vendaient aux passants des morceaux de verre enfumés, n'ont pas fait de brillantes affaires, sans compter qu'il y a beaucoup de mortes saisons dans cette branche d'affaires. Sur la rue St-Louis, le désir de voir Vénus a fait faire des prodiges. Quelqu'un qui n'avait pu trouver un morceau de verre et qui ne voulait pas encourir les frais de casser un carreau, imagina de détacher la fenêtre entière et après avoir enfumé un carreau, il commença ses observations. Beaucoup de personnes ont pu le voir dans sa cour et sur le trottoir portant sa fenêtre à bras tendu au-dessus de sa tête. Mais lui il n'a pas vu Vénus [The street urchins who stationed themselves at street corners and sold to passersby pieces of smoked glass, did not do brisk business without taking into account that there are many "off" seasons in this branch of commerce. On the rue St.-Louis, the wish to view Venus gave birth to wonders. Anybody who had not been able to find a piece of glass and who did not wish to incur the expense of breaking a pane, thought to remove an entire window, and after having smoked a pane, commenced to make his observations. Many persons could see it in their yard and on the pavement carryimg their windows in their arms above their heads. But for that aid none had been able to view Venus. (Le Monde, Montréal, quoted by L'Evenement, Québec, 7 Dec.).

 

Québec: Il parait que nous anticipions hier, en annonçant que le transit de Vénus ne pourrait être observé à Québec, à raison de la neige qui tombait depuis le matin. Les rares personnes qui ont eu le courage de demeurer à l'affût toute la journée, ont eu le bonheur de voir le phenomène, dans une éclaircie qu'il y a eu à 1:30 heure et qui a duré environ minutes. C'était, parait-il, quelque chose de splendide [It appears that we anticipated here, in announcing that the transit of Venus coud not be observed at Quebec, on account of the snow which fell during the morning. The few people who had the courage to remain at their stations throughout the day had the good fortune to see the phenomenon, in a sunny spell which happened at 1:30 and lasted several minutes. It was, when it appeared, something splendid]  (L'Evenement, Québec, 7 Dec.).

 

... great is the disappointment ... among amateur astronomers. When day broke a heavy snow storm was raging, and continued to prevail with more or less violence ... Shortly after one o'clock when for a brief space say from ten to fifteen minutes, the disc of the great luminary became visible. Even then, however, the view was partially obstructed by the light vapoury clouds passing across the face of the orb of day, so that for one who chanced to catch a momentary glimpse of Venus hundreds were disappointed. (The Globe, Toronto, 7 Dec.). [The 20 cm Clark refractor at the Quebec observatory was used by Lieut. Gordon and W. A. Ashe, son of the astronomer Captain E. A. Ashe. In 2004 the telescope was at the Centre muséographique de l'université Laval, Quebec. It's present location is unknown.]

 

Saint John, N.B.: ... The sky was obscured in St. John throughout the day, though about 3 o'clock a break in the clouds afforded occasional glimpses of the transit. The members of the Commons Council armed with opera glasses made several observations from the Court House, and Venus was plainly visible at times to the naked eye, as a small black sphere on the face of the sun (The Daily Sun, Saint John, 7 Dec.).

 

Fredericton, N.B.: The observation of the transit of Venus to-day at the N. B. University Observatory was only a partial success. ... Dr. Jack, the President, and Mr. John Babbitt were there, but the cloudy weather interfered seriously with their vision. The result of the observations, however, were kindly furnished THE SUN'S correspondent by Dr. Jack: "It was cloudy all day till about 3 p.m. when the sun appeared. I had a very distinct view of Venus on the sun's disc. I watched it there for about fifteen minutes or until about five minutes before the calculated time of the last internal contact and was rejoicing over the prospect of getting it, but unfortunately clouds now rendered the sun invisible and I got no view of him till Venus was about one-third across the sun's disc, when I caught a passing glimpse of both. Clouds then covered them both from sight and nothing more was seen." (The Daily Sun, St. John, N.B., 7 Dec.). [For information on W. B. Jack, the observatory and telescope, see Kennedy (1955) and other papers by the same author. The observatory stands on its original site, and since 1985 has been operated as a museum. The original 15 cm f/15, mahogany and brass refractor, by Merz of Munich, is under the octagonal dome]

 

Halifax, N.S.: Very rainy and dark here all day. Astronomers made no observations (The Daily Sun, St. John, N.B., 7 Dec.). [According to Carpmael et. al. 1883, A. Allison had planned to use a 10 cm refracting telescope by Dollond.]

 

Charlottetown: This was a bad day for the transit. We sympathise with Dr. Leeming, Captain Maxwell, Mr. Cundall and others who are deeply interested in the event (The Daily Examiner, Charlottetown, 6 Dec.). [H. J. Cundall had a 10 cm refracting telescope, according to Carpmael et. al. 1883.]

 

In the newspapers, there seem to be only a couple of allusions to students observing the transit. On December 7, the Montreal Gazette reported that "The young ladies of the [Ontario Ladies College at Whitby] crowded out in numbers and had a splendid chance for witnessing it." The Toronto Globe stated that "At the Royal Military College [Kingston] Lieut.-Col. Oliver, Major Kensington, and a number of the cadets obtained a good view of the ingress through a three-inch telescope."The University of Toronto's student newspaper, The Varsity, reviewed a lecture on the subject on the eve of the transit but gave no hint that any readers attempted to see the actual event.