Preparation for the Transit of Venus in 1882

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012 | Anna Blackman | 3 Comments

The 1882 transit of Venus, attracted widespread interest as it has in 2012. Two official observatories were designated in Otago: at Dunedin (with observers R. Gillies, A. Beverley and Henry Skey), and at Clyde (Dr James Hector, Director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington). We are fortunate that the Hocken Collections include a letter written by Hector about his experiences at Clyde as well as a photograph of his temporary observatory for the transit due on 7 December 1882.

Temporary observatory at Clyde, 1882. From left, unknown, Rev Mr Clinton, James Hector (in observatory. The telescope is a six-inch Cook telescope, on loan from Mr G.V. Shannon of Wellington).
Hocken Collections: S08-223. The photographer is unknown
 A few years earlier there had been another transit of Venus, but observations throughout New Zealand were generally disappointing because of poor weather. Central Otago skies are generally clearer than most other parts of the country, and it seems likely that Hector decided to make the observations there himself, having missed out in 1874 due to cloudy weather in Wellington. He wrote to his wife, Georgiana, a few days before the Transit was due to tell her of the preparations that had been made. His letter (MS-443-3/21) is written, partly in ink and partly in pencil, on the back of telegraph forms:
4 Decr. 1882
My dear Georgie
I am now ready for the Transit having finished the fitting up of the Observatory & nothing remains but to get my chronometer error and to practise with the Telescope & with my assistants so that they may be well drilled in their duties. Whenever I have been able to leave I have been off in various directions to see gold diggings & mines & last night I gave a lecture to an audience of about 200 which is a large number for this place. Some of them drove in 20 or 30 miles to hear it. I had made a lot of diagrams  on blank calico & it went off very well. So you see I have not been idle. There are a few very nice folks here but as a township it has gone back sadly. Indeed the whole of this district has quite a deserted look whereas it was at one time the most bustling part of N.Z. The diggers have all gone to other places but have left lots of good rich deposits quite untouched. The expense of living & of getting water for washing the gold has been the great drawback. If they would only contrive machinery to make the big river lift up part of its water to the level of the Plains there might be abundance of food grown & abundance of gold obtained.
Mr. & Mrs. Walter Johnston with Werry & Blair spent Wednesday night here, which made a pleasant change. They were such a mess of dust after coming thro’ the gorge but seemed to have enjoyed their trip up Lake Wakatipu. They were also at the Wanaka Lake. I was there last Sunday & found it lovely. I had not seen it for 18 years! & found very little change – except a few houses & farms, very little planting of trees, but a great destruction of native vegetation of all kinds by fires & rabbits. The borders of the lake & the little Islets all look quite bare. In the forenoon I basked in the sun in a beautiful garden that belongs to the hotel by the side of the Lake. It reminded me of Lucerne somewhat. In the afternoon I drove to see the Govt nursery garden where they raise trees for distribution in the district & in the evening went for a sail on the Lake in the Moonlight with a lot of children. I must take you to see the Wanaka some day. In the course of six months they will have a fine steamer on it.
I rode over to Galloway one day with Mr Clinton the clergyman to call on the Rees family who used to live in the Wakatipu Lake in olden days. One of the girls is going to be married to a young Clinton in a few days (a lawyer here). They have made Galloway such a pretty place – but he has only been managing for Robt Campbell & he has suddenly got notice to leave which is very hard on him. Another day I rode south to Alexandra & —— the river to examine  some new reefs near to where Frasers station is. He is down in Dunedin at present so I have not seen him.
I have a little sitting room & bed room at a queer tumble down Inn, kept by Mrs ?George, a fat old lady who makes us very comfortable. Ashcroft sleeps in the Observatory hut but has his meals with us. The Observatory is just out of the town on the edge of a plain that extends about 7 miles before it reaches the hills on the other side of the valley. I have taken possession of an empty old Iron house of four rooms & have fitted up all the topographic fixings & led in wires from the Telegraphic office in the Town so that we send messages direct. In front of the hut I have put up a canvas tent —— for observing from with the big telescope. I have lots of visitors on fine nights to see the stars thru it. We have had many dull days since I came up but the nights are generally fine. Last night we had hard rain for the first time (Sunday).
I hear the coach coming past the obs. so must run over with this. I will start back on Friday & hope to get home about Wednesday week.
With much love to all
Your J. Hector
Transit day was fine over most of New Zealand, and the Evening Post (7 December 1882) reported an almost unqualified success for the New Zealand observations. “The only failure among the more important observations was that of Dr Hector, at Clyde, whose view was vexatiously intercepted by a dense cloud almost at the very instant of contact. There are, however, amply sufficient complete onservations for all the purposes aimed at, and the 7th December 1882 will long stand as a red letter day in the annals of astronomy”
Blog post very kindly prepared by regular Hocken researcher, Simon Nathan.