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The Reminiscences of an Astronomer By Simon Newcomb Characters: 44939

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It was long supposed that transits of Venus over the sun's disk afforded the only accurate method of determining the distance of the sun, one of the fundamental data of astronomy. Unfortunately, these phenomena are of the rarest. They come in pairs, with an interval of eight years between the transits of a pair. A pair occurred in 1761 and 1769, and again in 1874 and 1882. Now the whole of the twentieth century will pass without another recurrence of the phenomenon. Not until the years 2004 and 2012 will our posterity have the opportunity of witnessing it.

Much interesting history is associated with the adventures of the astronomers who took part in the expeditions to observe the transits of 1761 and 1769. In the almost chronic warfare which used to rage between France and England during that period, neither side was willing to regard as neutral even a scientific expedition sent out by the other. The French sent one of their astronomers, Le Gentil, to observe the transit at Pondicherry in the East Indies. As he was nearing his station, the presence of the enemy prevented him from making port, and he was still at sea on the day of the transit. When he at length landed, he determined to remain until the transit of 1769, and observe that. We must not suppose, however, that he was guilty of the eccentricity of doing this with no other object in view than that of making the observation. He found the field open for profitable mercantile enterprise, as well as interesting for scientific observations and inquiries. The eight long years passed away, and the morning of June 4, 1769, found him in readiness for his work. The season had been exceptionally fine. On the morning of the transit the sun shone in a cloudless sky, as it had done for several days previous. But, alas for all human hopes! Just before Venus reached the sun, the clouds gathered, and a storm burst upon the place. It lasted until the transit was over, and then cleared away again as if with the express object of showing the unfortunate astronomer how helpless he was in the hands of the elements.

The Royal Society of England procured a grant of £800 from King George II. for expeditions to observe the transit of 1761. [1] With this grant the Society sent the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne to the island of St. Helena, and, receiving another grant, it was used to dispatch Messrs. Mason and Dixon (those of our celebrated "line") to Bencoolen. The admiralty also supplied a ship for conveying the observers to their respective destinations. Maskelyne, however, would not avail himself of this conveyance, but made his voyage on a private vessel. Cloudy weather prevented his observations of the transit, but this did not prevent his expedition from leaving for posterity an interesting statement of the necessaries of an astronomer of that time. His itemized account of personal expenses was as follows:-

One year's board at St. Helena . . £109 10s. 0d.

Liquors at 5s. per day . . . . 91 5 0

Washing at 9d. per day . . . . 13 13 9

Other expenses . . . . . . 27 7 6

Liquors on board ship for six months 50 0 0

-- -- --

£291 16s. 3d.

Seven hundred dollars was the total cost of liquors during the eighteen months of his absence. Admiral Smyth concludes that Maskelyne "was not quite what is now ycleped a teetotaler." He was subsequently Astronomer Royal of England for nearly half a century, but his published observations give no indication of the cost of the drinks necessary to their production.

Mason and Dixon's expedition met with a mishap at the start. They had only got fairly into the English Channel when their ship fell in with a French frigate of superior force. An action ensued in which the English crew lost eleven killed and thirty-eight wounded. The Frenchman was driven off, but the victorious vessel had to return to Plymouth for repairs. This kind of a scientific expedition was more than the astronomers had bargained for, and they wrote from Plymouth to the Royal Society, describing their misfortune and resigning their mission. But the Council of the Society speedily let them know that they were unmoved by the misfortunes of their scientific missionaries, and pointed out to them in caustic terms that, having solemnly undertaken the expedition, and received money on account of it, their failure to proceed on the voyage would be a reproach to the nation in general, and to the Royal Society in particular. It would also bring an indelible scandal upon their character, and probably end in their utter ruin. They were assured that if they persisted in the refusal, they would be treated with the most inflexible resentment, and prosecuted with the utmost severity of the law.

Under such threats the unfortunate men could do nothing but accept the situation and sail again after their frigate had been refitted. When they got as far as the Cape of Good Hope, it was found very doubtful whether they would reach their destination in time for the transit; so, to make sure of some result from their mission, they made their observations at the Cape.

One of the interesting scraps of history connected with the transit of 1769 concerns the observations of Father Maximilian Hell, S. J., the leading astronomer of Vienna. He observed the transit at Wardhus, a point near the northern extremity of Norway, where the sun did not set at the season of the transit. Owing to the peculiar circumstances under which the transit was observed,-the ingress of the planet occurring two or three hours before the sun approached the northern horizon, and the end of the transit about as long afterward,-this station was the most favorable one on the globe. Hell, with two or three companions, one of them named Sajnovics, went on his mission to this isolated place under the auspices of the king of Denmark. The day was cloudless and the observations were made with entire success. He returned to Copenhagen, where he passed several months in preparing for the press a complete account of his expedition and the astronomical observations made at the station.

Astronomers were impatient to have the results for the distance of the sun worked out as soon as possible. Owing to the importance of Hell's observations, they were eagerly looked for. But he at first refused to make them known, on the ground that, having been made under the auspices of the king of Denmark, they ought not to be made known in advance of their official publication by the Danish Academy of Sciences. This reason, however, did not commend itself to the impatient astronomers; and suspicions were aroused that something besides official formalities was behind the delay. It was hinted that Hell was waiting for the observations made at other stations in order that he might so manipulate his own that they would fit in with those made elsewhere. Reports were even circulated that he had not seen the transit at all, owing to cloudy weather, and that he was manufacturing observations in Copenhagen. The book was, however, sent to the printer quite promptly, and the insinuations against its author remained a mere suspicion for more than sixty years. Then, about 1833, a little book was published on the subject by Littrow, Director of the Vienna Observatory, which excited much attention. Father Hell's original journal had been conveyed to Vienna on his return, and was still on deposit at the Austrian National Observatory. Littrow examined it and found, as he supposed, that the suspicions of alterations in observations were well founded; more especially that the originals of the all-important figures which recorded the critical moment of "contact" had been scraped out of the paper, and new ones inserted in their places. The same was said to be the case with many other important observations in the journal, and the conclusion to which his seemingly careful examination led was that no reliance could be placed on the genuineness of Hell's work. The doubts thus raised were not dispelled until another half-century had elapsed.

In 1883 I paid a visit to Vienna for the purpose of examining the great telescope which had just been mounted in the observatory there by Grubb, of Dublin. The weather was so unfavorable that it was necessary to remain two weeks, waiting for an opportunity to see the stars. One evening I visited the theatre to see Edwin Booth, in his celebrated tour over the Continent, play King Lear to the applauding Viennese. But evening amusements cannot be utilized to kill time during the day. Among the tasks I had projected was that of rediscussing all the observations made on the transits of Venus which had occurred in 1761 and 1769, by the light of modern science. As I have already remarked, Hell's observations were among the most important made, if they were only genuine. So, during my almost daily visits to the observatory, I asked permission of Director Weiss to study Hell's manuscript.

At first the task of discovering anything which would lead to a positive decision on one side or the other seemed hopeless. To a cursory glance, the descriptions given by Littrow seemed to cover the ground so completely that no future student could turn his doubt into certainty. But when one looks leisurely at an interesting object, day after day, he continually sees more and more. Thus it was in the present case. One of the first things to strike me as curious was that many of the alleged alterations had been made before the ink got dry. When the writer made a mistake, he had rubbed it out with his finger, and made a new entry.

The all-important point was a certain suspicious record which Littrow affirmed had been scraped out so that the new insertion could be made. As I studied these doubtful figures, day by day, light continually increased. Evidently the heavily written figures, which were legible, had been written over some other figures which were concealed beneath them, and were, of course, completely illegible, though portions of them protruded here and there outside of the heavy figures. Then I began to doubt whether the paper had been scraped at all. To settle the question, I found a darkened room, into which the sun's rays could be admitted through an opening in the shutter, and held the paper in the sunlight in such a way that the only light which fell on it barely grazed the surface of the paper. Examining the sheet with a magnifying glass, I was able to see the original texture of the surface with all its hills and hollows. A single glance sufficed to show conclusively that no eraser had ever passed over the surface, which had remained untouched.

The true state of the case seemed to me almost beyond doubt. It frequently happened that the ink did not run freely from the pen, so that the words had sometimes to be written over again. When Hell first wrote down the little figures on which, as he might well suppose, future generations would have to base a very important astronomical element, he saw that they were not written with a distinctness corresponding to their importance. So he wrote them over again with the hand, and in the spirit of a man who was determined to leave no doubt on the subject, little weening that the act would give rise to a doubt which would endure for a century.

This, although the most important case of supposed alteration, was by no means the only one. Yet, to my eyes, all the seeming corrections in the journal were of the most innocent and commonplace kind,-such as any one may make in writing.

Then I began to compare the manuscript, page after page, with Littrow's printed description. It struck me as very curious that where the manuscript had been merely retouched with ink which was obviously the same as that used in the original writing, but looked a little darker than the original, Littrow described the ink as of a different color. In contrast with this, there was an important interlineation, which was evidently made with a different kind of ink, one that had almost a blue tinge by comparison; but in the description he makes no mention of this plain difference. I thought this so curious that I wrote in my notes as follows:-

"That Littrow, in arraying his proofs of Hell's forgery, should have failed to dwell upon the obvious difference between this ink and that with which the alterations were made leads me to suspect a defect in his sense of color."

Then it occurred to me to inquire whether, perhaps, such could have been the case. So I asked Director Weiss whether anything was known as to the normal character of Littrow's power of distinguishing colors. His answer was prompt and decisive. "Oh, yes, Littrow was color blind to red. He could not distinguish between the color of Aldebaran and that of the whitest star." No further research was necessary. For half a century the astronomical world had based an impression on the innocent but mistaken evidence of a color-blind man respecting the tints of ink in a manuscript.

About the middle of the nineteenth century other methods of measuring the sun's distance began to be developed which, it was quite possible, might prove as good as the observation in question. But the relative value of these methods and of transits of Venus was a subject on which little light could be thrown; and the rarity of the latter phenomena naturally excited universal interest, both among the astronomers and among the public. For the purpose in question it was necessary to send expeditions to different and distant parts of the globe, because the result had to depend upon the times of the phases, as seen from widely separated stations.

In 1869 the question what stations should be occupied and what observations should be made was becoming the subject of discussion in Europe, and especially in England. But our country was still silent on the subject. The result of continued silence was not hard to foresee. Congress would, at the last moment, make a munificent appropriation for sending out parties to observe the transit. The plans and instruments would be made in a hurry, and the parties packed off without any well-considered ideas of what they were to do; and the whole thing would end in failure so far as results of any great scientific value were concerned.

I commenced the discussion by a little paper on the subject in the "American Journal of Science," but there was no one to follow it up. So, at the spring meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1870, I introduced a resolution for the appointment of a committee to consider the subject and report upon the observations which should be made. This resolution was adopted, and a few days afterward Professor Henry invited me to call at his office in the evening to discuss with himself and Professor Peirce, then superintendent of the Coast Survey, the composition of the committee.

At the conference I began by suggesting Professor Peirce himself for chairman. Naturally this met with no opposition; then I waited for the others to go on. But they seemed determined to throw the whole onus of the matter on me. This was the more embarrassing, because I believe that, in parliamentary law and custom, the mover of a resolution of this sort has a prescribed right to be chairman of the committee which he proposes shall be appointed. If not chairman, it would seem that he ought at any rate to be a member. But I was determined not to suggest myself in any way, so I went on and suggested Admiral Davis. This nomination was, of course, accepted without hesitation. Then I remarked that the statutes of the academy permitted of persons who were not members being invited to serve on a committee, and as the Naval Observatory would naturally take a leading part in such observations as were to be made, I suggested that its superintendent, Admiral Sands, should be invited to serve as a member of the committee. "There," said Peirce, "we now have three names. Committees of three are always the most efficient. Why go farther?"

I suggested that the committee should have on it some one practiced in astronomical observation, but he deemed this entirely unnecessary, and so the committee of three was formed. I did not deem it advisable to make any opposition at the time, because it was easy to foresee what the result would be.

During the summer nothing was heard of the committee, and in the autumn I made my first trip to Europe. On my return, in May, 1871, I found that the committee had never even held a meeting, and that it had been enlarged by the addition of a number of astronomers, among them myself. But, before it went seriously to work, it was superseded by another organization, to be described presently.

At that time astronomical photography was in its infancy. Enough had been done by Rutherfurd to show that it might be made a valuable adjunct to astronomical investigation. Might we not then photograph Venus on the sun's disk, and by measurements of the plates obtain the desired result, perhaps better than it could be obtained by any kind of eye observation? This question had already suggested itself to Professor Winlock, who, at the Cambridge Observatory, had designed an instrument for taking the photographs. It consisted of a fixed horizontal telescope, into which the rays of the sun were to be thrown by a reflector. This kind of an instrument had its origin in France, but it was first practically applied to photographing the sun in this country. As whatever observations were to be made would have to be done at governmental expense, an appropriation of two thousand dollars was obtained from Congress for the expense of some preliminary instruments and investigations.

Admiral Sands, superintendent of the observatory, now took an active part in the official preparations. It was suggested to him, on the part of the academy committee, that it would be well to join hands with other organizations, so as to have the whole affair carried on with unity and harmony. To this he assented. The result was a provision that these and all other preparations for observing the transit of Venus should be made under the direction of a commission to be composed of the superintendent of the Naval Observatory, the superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, and two professors of mathematics attached to the Naval Observatory. Under this provision the commission was constituted as follows: Commodore B. F. Sands, U. S. N., Professor Benjamin Peirce, Professor Joseph Henry, Professor Simon Newcomb, Professor William Harkness.

The academy committee now surrendered its functions to the commission, and the preparations were left entirely in the hands of the latter.

So far as scientific operations were concerned, the views of the commission were harmonious through the whole of their deliberations. It was agreed from the beginning that the photographic method offered the greatest promise of success. But how, with what sort of instruments, and on what plan, must the photographs be taken? Europeans had already begun to consider this question, and for the most part had decided on using photographic telescopes having no distinctive feature specially designed for the transit. In fact, one might almost say that the usual observations with the eye were to be made on the photograph instead of on the actual sun. The American commissioners were of opinion that this would lead to nothing but failure, and that some new system must be devised.

The result was a series of experiments and trials with Professor Winlock's instrument at the Cambridge Observatory. The outcome of the matter was the adoption of his plan, with three most important additions, which I shall mention, because they may possibly yet be adopted with success in other branches of exact astronomy if this telescope is used, as it seems likely it may be.

The first feature was that the photographic telescope should be mounted exactly in the meridian, and that its direction should be tested by having the transit instrument mounted in front of it, in the same line with it. In this way the axis of the telescope was a horizontal north and south line.

The next feature was that, immediately in front of the photographic plate, in fact as nearly in contact with it as possible without touching it, a plumb line of which the thread was a very fine silver wire should be suspended, the bob of which passed down below, and was immersed in a vessel of water to prevent vibration. In this way the direction of the north and south line on the plate admitted of being calculated with the greatest exactness, and the plumb line being photographed across the disk of the sun, the position angle could be measured with the same precision that any other measure could be made.

The third feature was that the distance between the photographic plate and the object glass of the telescope should be measured by a long iron rod which was kept in position above the line of sight of the telescope itself. This afforded the means of determining to what angle a given measure on the plate would correspond. The whole arrangement would enable the position of the centre of Venus with respect to the centre of the sun to be determined by purely geometric methods. One reason for relying entirely on this was that the diameter of the sun, as photographed, would be greater the greater the intensity of the photographic impression, so that no reliance could be placed upon its uniformity.

Ours were the only parties whose photographic apparatus was fitted up in this way. The French used a similar system, but without the essentials of the plumb line and the measurement of the length of the telescope. The English and Germans used ordinary telescopes for the purpose.

One of the earliest works of the commission was the preparation and publication of several papers, which were published under the general title, "Papers relating to the Transit of Venus in 1874." The first of these papers was a discussion of our proposed plan of photographing, in which the difficulties of the problem, and the best way of surmounting them, were set forth. The next, called Part II., related to the circumstances of the transit, and was therefore entirely technical. Part III. related to the corrections of Hansen's table of the moon, and was published as a paper relating to the transit of Venus, because these corrections were essent

ial in determining the longitudes of the stations by observations of the moon.

In England the preparations were left mostly in the hands of Professor Airy, Astronomer Royal, and, I believe, Captain Tupman, who at least took a leading part in the observations and their subsequent reduction. In France, Germany, and Russia, commissions were appointed to take charge of the work and plan the observations.

As co?peration among the parties from different countries would be generally helpful, I accepted an invitation to attend a meeting of the German commission, to be held at Hanover in August, 1873. Hansen was president of the commission, while Auwers was its executive officer. One of my main objects was to point out the impossibility of obtaining any valuable result by the system of photographing which had been proposed, but I was informed, in reply, that the preparations had advanced too far to admit of starting on a new plan and putting it in operation.

From the beginning of our preparations it began to be a question of getting from Congress the large appropriations necessary for sending out the expeditions and fitting them up with instruments. The sum of $50,000 was wanted for instruments and outfit. Hon. James A. Garfield was then chairman of the committee on appropriations. His principles and methods of arranging appropriations for the government were, in some features, so different from those generally in vogue that it will be of interest to describe them.

First of all, Garfield was rigidly economical in grants of money. This characteristic of a chairman of a committee on appropriations was almost a necessary one. But he possessed it in a different way from any other chairman before or since. The method of the "watch dogs of the treasury" who sometimes held this position was to grant most of the objects asked for, but to cut down the estimated amounts by one fourth or one third. This was a very easy method, and one well fitted to impress the public, but it was one that the executive officers of the government found no difficulty in evading, by the very simple process of increasing their estimate so as to allow for the prospective reduction. [2]

Garfield compared this system to ordering cloth for a coat, but economizing by reducing the quantity put into it. If a new proposition came before him, the question was whether it was advisable for the government to entertain it at all. He had to be thoroughly convinced before this would be done. If the question was decided favorably all the funds necessary for the project were voted.

When the proposition for the transit of Venus came before him, he proceeded in a manner which I never heard of the chairman of an appropriation committee adopting before or since. Instead of calling upon those who made the proposition to appear formally before the committee, he asked me to dinner with his family, where we could talk the matter over. One other guest was present, Judge Black of Pennsylvania. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, wielding as caustic a pen as was ever dipped into ink, but was, withal, a firm personal friend and admirer of Garfield. As may readily be supposed, the transit of Venus did not occupy much time at the table. I should not have been an enthusiastic advocate of the case against opposition, in any case, because my hopes of measuring the sun's distance satisfactorily by that method were not at all sanguine. My main interest lay in the fact that, apart from this, the transit would afford valuable astronomical data for the life work which I had mainly in view. So the main basis of my argument was that other nations were going to send out parties; that we should undoubtedly do the same, and that they must be equipped and organized in the best way.

It appears that Judge Black was an absent-minded man, as any man engaged in thought on very great subjects, whether of science, jurisprudence, or politics, has the right to be. Garfield asked him whether it was true that, on one occasion, when preparing an argument, and walking up and down the room, his hat chanced to drop on the floor at one end of the room, and was persistently used as a cuspidor until the argument was completed. Mr. Black neither affirmed nor denied the story, but told another which he said was true. While on his circuit as judge he had, on one occasion, tried a case of theft in which the principal evidence against the accused was the finding of the stolen article in his possession. He charged the jury that this fact was prima facie evidence that the man was actually the thief. When through his business and about to leave for home, he went into a jeweler's shop to purchase some little trinket for his wife. The jeweler showed him a number of little articles, but finding none to suit him, he stepped into his carriage and drove off. In the course of the day he called on a street urchin to water his horse. Reaching into his pocket for a reward, the first thing he got hold of was a diamond ring which must have been taken from the shop of the jeweler when he left that morning. "I wondered," said the judge, "how I should have come out had I been tried under my own law."

The outcome of the matter was that the appropriations were duly made; first, in 1872, $50,000 for instruments, then, the year following, $100,000 for the expeditions. In 1874, $25,000 more was appropriated to complete the work and return the parties to their homes.

The date of the great event was December 8-9, 1874. To have the parties thoroughly drilled in their work, they were brought together at Washington in the preceding spring for practice and rehearsal. In order that the observations to be made by the eye should not be wholly new, an apparatus representing the transit was mounted on the top of Winder's building, near the War Department, about two thirds of a mile from the observatory. When this was observed through the telescope from the roof of the observatory, an artificial black Venus was seen impinging upon an artificial sun, and entering upon its disk in the same way that the actual Venus would be seen. This was observed over and over until, as was supposed, the observers had gotten into good practice.

In order to insure the full understanding of the photographic apparatus, the instruments were mounted and the parties practiced setting them up and going through the processes of photographing the sun. To carry out this arrangement with success, it was advisable to have an expert in astronomical photography to take charge of the work. Dr. Henry Draper of New York was invited for this purpose, and gave his services to the commission for several weeks.

This transit was not visible in the United States. It did not begin until after the sun had set in San Francisco, and it was over before the rising sun next morning had reached western Europe. All the parties had therefore to be sent to the other side of the globe. Three northern stations were occupied,-in China, Japan, and Siberia; and five southern ones, at various points on the islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans. This unequal division was suggested by the fact that the chances of fair weather were much less in the southern hemisphere than in the northern.

The southern parties were taken to their destinations in the U. S. S. Swatara, Captain Ralph Chandler, U. S. N., commanding. In astronomical observations all work is at the mercy of the elements. Clear weather was, of course, a necessity to success at any station. In the present case the weather was on the whole unpropitious. While there was not a complete failure at any one station, the number or value of the observations was more or less impaired at all. Where the sky was nearly cloudless, the air was thick and hazy. This was especially the case at Nagasaki and Pekin, where from meteorological observations which the commission had collected through our consuls, the best of weather was confidently expected. What made this result more tantalizing was that the very pains we had taken to collect the data proved, by chance, to have made the choice worse. For some time it was deliberated whether the Japanese station should be in Nagasaki or Yokohama. Consultation with the best authorities and a study of the records showed that, while Yokohama was a favorable spot, the chances were somewhat better at Nagasaki. So to Nagasaki the party was sent. But when the transit came, while the sky was of the best at Yokohama, it was far from being so at Nagasaki.

Something of the same sort occurred at the most stormy of all the southern stations, that at Kerguelen Island. The British expeditions had, in the beginning, selected a station on this island known as Christmas Harbor. We learned that a firm of New London, Conn., had a whaling station on the island. It was therefore applied to to know what the weather chances were at various points in the island. Information was obtained from their men, and it was thus found that Molloy Point, bad though the weather there was, afforded better chances than Christmas Harbor; so it was chosen. But this was not all; the British parties, either in consequence of the information we had acquired, or through what was learned from the voyage of the Challenger, established their principal station near ours. But it happened that the day at Christmas Harbor was excellent, while the observations were greatly interfered with by passing clouds at Molloy Point.

After the return of the parties sent out by the various nations, it did not take long for the astronomers to find that the result was disappointing, so far, at least, as the determination of the sun's distance was concerned. It became quite clear that this important element could be better measured by determining the velocity of light and the time which it took to reach us from the sun than it could by any transit of Venus. It was therefore a question whether parties should be sent out to observe the transit of 1882. On this subject the astronomers of the country at large were consulted. As might have been expected, there was a large majority in favor of the proposition. The negative voices were only two in number, those of Pickering and myself. I took the ground that we should make ample provisions for observing it at various stations in our own country, where it would now be visible, but that, in view of the certain failure to get a valuable result for the distance of the sun by this method, it was not worth while for us to send parties to distant parts of the world. I supposed the committee on appropriations might make careful inquiry into the subject before making the appropriation, but a representation of the case was all they asked for, and $10,000 was voted for improving the instruments and $75,000 for sending out parties.

Expeditions being thus decided upon, I volunteered to take charge of that to the Cape of Good Hope. The scientific personnel of my party comprised an officer of the army engineers, one of the navy, and a photographer. The former were Lieutenant Thomas L. Casey, Jr., Corps of Engineers, U. S. A., and Lieutenant J. H. L. Holcombe, U. S. N. We took a Cunard steamer for Liverpool about the middle of September, 1882, and transported our instruments by rail to Southampton, there to have them put on the Cape steamship. At Liverpool I was guilty of a remissness which might have caused much trouble. Our apparatus and supplies, in a large number of boxes, were all gathered and piled in one place. I sent one of my assistants to the point to see that it was so collected that there should be no possibility of mistake in getting it into the freight car designed to carry it to Southampton, but did not require him to stay there and see that all was put on board. When the cases reached Southampton it was found that one was missing. It was one of the heaviest of the lot, containing the cast-iron pier on which the photoheliograph was to be mounted. While it was possible to replace this by something else, such a course would have been inconvenient and perhaps prejudicial. The steamer was about to sail, but would touch at Plymouth next day. Only one resource was possible. I telegraphed the mistake to Liverpool and asked that the missing box be sent immediately by express to Plymouth. We had the satisfaction of seeing it come on board with the mail just as the steamer was about to set sail.

We touched first at Madeira, and then at Ascension Island, the latter during the night. One of the odd things in nomenclature is that this island, a British naval station, was not called such officially, but was a "tender to Her Majesty's ship Flora," I believe. It had become astronomically famous a few years before by Gill's observations of the position of Mars to determine the solar parallax.

We touched six hours at St. Helena, enough to see the place, but scarcely enough to make a visit to the residence of Napoleon, even had we desired to see it. The little town is beautifully situated, and the rocks around are very imposing. My most vivid recollection is, however, of running down from the top of a rock some six hundred or eight hundred feet high, by a steep flight of steps, without stopping, or rather of the consequences of this imprudent gymnastic performance. I could scarcely move for the next three days.

Cape Town was then suffering from an epidemic of smallpox, mostly confined to the Malay population, but causing some disagreeable results to travelers. Our line of ships did not terminate their voyage at the Cape, but proceeded thence to other African ports east of the Cape. Here a rigid quarantine had been established, and it was necessary that the ships touching at the Cape of Good Hope should have had no communication with the shore. Thus it happened that we found, lying in the harbor, the ship of our line which had preceded us, waiting to get supplies from us, in order that it might proceed on its voyage. Looking at a row-boat after we had cast anchor, we were delighted to see two faces which I well knew: those of David Gill, astronomer of the Cape Observatory, and Dr. W. L. Elkin, now director of the Yale Observatory. The latter had gone to the Cape as a volunteer observer with Gill, their work being directed mostly to parallaxes of stars too far south to be well observed in our latitude. Our friends were not, however, even allowed to approach the ship, for fear of the smallpox, the idea appearing to be that the latter might be communicated by a sort of electric conduction, if the boat and the ship were allowed to come into contact, so we had to be put ashore without their aid.

We selected as our station the little town of Wellington, some forty miles northeast of Cape Town. The weather chances were excellent anywhere, but here they were even better than at the Cape. The most interesting feature of the place was what we might call an American young ladies' school. The Dutch inhabitants of South Africa are imbued with admiration of our institutions, and one of their dreams is said to be a United States of South Africa modeled after our own republic. Desiring to give their daughters the best education possible, they secured the services of Miss Ferguson, a well-known New England teacher, to found a school on the American model. We established our station in the grounds of this school.

The sky on the day of the transit was simply perfect. Notwithstanding the intensity of the sun's rays, the atmosphere was so steady that I have never seen the sun to better advantage. So all our observations were successful.

On our departure we left two iron pillars, on which our apparatus for photographing the sun was mounted, firmly imbedded in the ground, as we had used them. Whether they will remain there until the transit of 2004, I do not know, but cannot help entertaining a sentimental wish that, when the time of that transit arrives, the phenomenon will be observed from the same station, and the pillars be found in such a condition that they can again be used.

All the governments, except our own, which observed the two transits of Venus on a large scale long ago completed the work of reduction, and published the observations in full. On our own part we have published a preliminary discussion of some observations of the transit of 1874. Of that of 1882 nothing has, I believe, been published except some brief statements of results of the photographs, which appeared in an annual report of the Naval Observatory. Having need in my tables of the planets of the best value of the solar parallax that could be obtained by every method, I worked up all the observations of contacts made by the parties of every country, but, of course, did not publish our own observations. Up to the present time, twenty-eight years after the first of the transits, and twenty years after the second, our observations have never been officially published except to the extent I have stated. The importance of the matter may be judged by the fact that the government expended $375,000 on these observations, not counting the salaries of its officers engaged in the work, or the cost of sailing a naval ship. As I was a member of the commission charged with the work, and must therefore bear my full share of the responsibility for this failure, I think it proper to state briefly how it happened, hoping thereby to enforce the urgent need of a better organization of some of our scientific work.

The work of reducing such observations, editing and preparing them for the press, involved much computation to be done by assistants, and I, being secretary of the commission, was charged with the execution of this part of the work. The appropriations made by Congress for the observations were considered available for the reduction also. There was a small balance left over, and I estimated that $3000 more would suffice to complete the work. This was obtained from Congress in the winter of 1875.

About the end of 1876 I was surprised to receive from the Treasury Department a notification that the appropriation for the transit of Venus was almost exhausted, when according to my accounts, more than $3000 still remained. On inquiry it was found that the sum appropriated about two years before had never been placed to the credit of the transit of Venus commission, having been, in fact, inserted in a different appropriation bill from that which contained the former grant.

I, as secretary of the commission, made an application to the Treasury Department to have the sum, late though it was, placed to our credit. But the money had been expended and nothing could be now done in the matter. [3] The computers had therefore to be discharged and the work stopped until a new appropriation could be obtained from Congress.

During the session of 1876-77, $5000 was therefore asked for for the reduction of the observations. It was refused by the House committee on appropriations. I explained the matter to Mr. Julius H. Seelye, formerly president of Amherst College, who was serving a term in Congress. He took much interest in the subject, and moved the insertion of the item when the appropriation bill came up before the House. Mr. Atkins, chairman of the appropriations committee, opposed the motion, maintaining that the Navy Department had under its orders plenty of officers who could do the work, so there was no need of employing the help of computers. But the House took a different view, and inserted the item over the heads of the appropriations committee.

Now difficulties incident to the divided responsibility of the commission were met with. During the interim between the death of Admiral Davis, in February, 1877, and the coming of Admiral John Rodgers as his successor, a legal question arose as to the power of the commission over its members. The work had to stop until it was settled, and I had to discharge my computers a second time. After it was again started I discovered that I did not have complete control of the funds appropriated for reducing the observations. The result was that the computers had to be discharged and the work stopped for the third time. This occurred not long before I started out to observe the transit in 1882. For me the third hair was the one that broke the camel's back. I turned the papers and work over to Professor Harkness, by whom the subject was continued until he was made astronomical director of the Naval Observatory in 1894.

I do not know that the commission was ever formally dissolved. Practically, however, its functions may be said to have terminated in the year 1886, when a provision of law was enacted by which all its property was turned over to the Secretary of the Navy.

What the present condition of the work may be, and how much of it is ready for the press, I cannot say. My impression is that it is in that condition known in household language as "all done but finishing." Whether it will ever appear is a question for the future. All the men who took part in it or who understood its details are either dead or on the retired list, and it is difficult for one not familiar with it from the beginning to carry it to completion.

[1] For the incidents connected with the English observations of this transit, the author is indebted to Vice-Admiral W. H. Smyth's curious and rare book, Speculum Hartwellianum, London, 1860. It and other works of the same author may be described as queer and interesting jumbles of astronomical and other information, thrown into an interesting form; and, in the case of the present work, spread through a finely illustrated quarto volume of nearly five hundred pages.

[2] "The War Department got ahead of us in the matter of furniture," said an officer of the Navy Department to me long afterwards, when the furniture for the new department building was being obtained. "They knew enough to ask for a third more than they wanted; we reduced our estimate to the lowest point. Both estimates were reduced one third by the Appropriations Committee. The result is that they have all the furniture they want, while we are greatly pinched."

[3] As this result would not be possible under our present system, which was introduced by the first Cleveland administration, I might remark that it resulted from a practice on the part of the Treasury of lumping appropriations on its books in order to simplify the keeping of the accounts.

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