Sleuthing Yields Possible Site of 1882 Observation

08.18.11

posted by: bueter

In the Watertown Republican, Notre Dame astronomy instructor Brother Peter (John Fitzpatrick) described the value of the 19th century transits of Venus as the 1874 event approached:

Wonderful as are the discoveries that have been made in the science of astronomy within the present century, it is confidently believed by those who are capable of forming a judgment on the subject that if the operations to be carried out on the 8th of December next are successful it will be an event of greater importance to the science of astronomy than any that has ever taken place.
The interest taken by the learned of all nations – the talent, influence and wealth now being employed, exceeds that brought to bear upon any other scientific subject ever before sought after.

Unfortunately, the 1874 transit was not visible from Notre Dame.

To witness the phenomenon from campus, observers had to wait until December 6, 1882.  While astronomers deemed the transit method less essential by then, a transit of Venus could still draw an intrigued crowd.  Expectant observers gathered on campus in 1882, but clouds obscured the opening moments when Venus entered upon the sun.  Eventually the weather improved and all eyes viewed the celestial apparition and made their respective judgments on its significance.  The South Bend Tribune later reported:

Towards ten-o’clock the clouds cleared away, as if in answer to the prayers offered up all over the country last Sunday, and the sun came out bright as a day in June. Smoked glasses, opera glasses, blue and green spectacles, telescopes and spy glasses were leveled at the “orb of day” and there was for everybody a good view of the transit.

As the 2012 alignment approaches, the Transit of Venus Project is coordinating efforts to mark historical sites where transits of Venus have been witnessed in past centuries.  In his article detailing Notre Dame’s role in past transits of Venus, Robert Havlik, Notre Dame Librarian Emeritus, uncovered the approximate location from which the campus astronomy club anticipated seeing the transit.  In early December, 1882, the self-titled student group Bureau of Astronomy made the following announcement:

Bureau of Astronomy,
Notre Dame University, Dec.1, 1882.
At Notre Dame, Lat. 41d 42′ 12.” 7, Long. W. from Greenwich 86d 14′ 19″.3,
the transit of Venus across the solar disk will appear as follows:

DEC. 6TH, CIVIL TIME:

“First contact at 19 minutes past 8 a.m.
Internal contact at ingress at 20 minutes to 9 a.m.
Internal contact at egress at 2 2/3 min. past 2 p.m.
Last contact at 23 2/3 minutes past 2 p.m.

If their value is reliable, therein is the latitude and longitude at which crowds may have gathered to see the 1882 transit.  So where is the site, at Lat. 41d 42′ 12.” 7, Long. W. from Greenwich 86d 14′ 19″.3?

Possible 1882 Observation Site

Answer:  Just northeast of the Golden Dome, near St. Edward’s Hall.

The original portion of St. Edward’s Hall would have just opened earlier that year, 1882, as noted in the St. Edward’s Hall sign.

The 2012 transit of Venus creates an opportunity for University of Notre Dame to commemorate its participation in the 1882 transit of Venus.  The sleuthing of Robert Havlik suggests one possible site.

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One Response to “Sleuthing Yields Possible Site of 1882 Observation”

  1. pmooney Says:

    Chuck, Thanks for sharing this history of the transit of Venus and Notre Dame’s past observation of it. Pat