08 December 2005
08 December 2005
Speaker: Sara Schechner (Harvard, History of Science Department)
Title: Politics and the Dimensions of the Solar System:
John Winthrop's Observations of the Transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769
In May 1761, John Winthrop packed up two students, an excellent clock, an octant, and two telescopes, and embarked for Newfoundland to observe the Transit of Venus. Winthrop's departure was hasty. Only days before had the President and Fellows of Harvard College approved Professor Winthrop's request to take the college apparatus behind enemy lines to serve the cause of science, and Winthrop knew he had no time to waste if he were to reach Newfoundland and properly calibrate his equipment before the Transit.
Winthrop's expedition to St. John's, Newfoundland was nothing short of remarkable. His goal was to help determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and he was the only North American astronomer fit for this project. His expedition was financed by the General Court of Massachusetts, which also secured him safe passage across enemy lines during the French and Indian War.
Winthrop's trip to St. John's was a major achievement for colonial astronomy, but he was unhappy with his observations and so looked forward to a second chance to observe a transit in 1769. Benjamin Franklin urged him to go to Lake Superior. Planning for that transit was thwarted, however, by two events: (1) the loss of nearly all of Harvard's apparatus in a fire of 1764; and (2) pre-Revolutionary politics in the American colonies. In the end, Winthrop was forced to content himself with first-class observations with new instruments in Cambridge.
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