Humour in immersion

Winthrop at venus Hill, 1761

An undeniable aura of romance halos the heroic achievements of the transit expeditions of the enlightenment, even when one acknowledges the less-than-glorious colonial machinery which enabled the science. Mason & Dixon endured naval hostilities, Rittenhouse fainted at first contact, and Chappe d’Auteroche expired a bare month after successfully observing Venus crossing the Sun. I’ve always found transit accounts an interesting compound of the hard stuff of natural philosophy (numerical data), travelogue, and occasionally, humour.

Much of that humour can only be appreciated retrospectively. We can now afford a sympathetic smile at the contrast between the Royal Society’s unbending insistence that Mason and Dixon follow their instructions to the letter, and their plaints of the impossibility of doing so, and at Rittenhouse’s momentary incapacity at the sublime spectacle of the transit (we smile because to some extent we have all been there). It strikes me as particularly amusing that John Winthrop, Harvard College’s worthy “Hollisian Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy”, suffered no effect worse than insect bites during his transit expedition to Venus Hill in Newfoundland:

“… in order fully to examine and verify the meridian and adjust our clock, we repeated these operations every fair day, and many times in a day; and continued them with an assiduity which the infinite swarms of insects, that were in possession of the hill, were not able to abate, tho’ they persecuted us severely and without intermission, both by day and by night, with their venemous stings.” (RELATION of a VOYAGE from Boston to Newfoundland, for the Observation of The Transit of VENUS, June 6, 1761 [Boston: Edes & Gill, 1761], p.10)

The 18th-century style cartoon is my response to Winthrop. Doubtless he’ll get his revenge when I’m bitten by insects on 2012 June 5!

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