On 11 March 1769 Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter from London to his friend John Winthrop at Harvard University, announcing that he was finally dispatching a telescope that Winthrop had ordered a year earlier. Winthrop who had observed the first transit in Newfoundland was planning to view the second transit from Cambridge, Massachusetts but after a devastating fire at Harvard University had destroyed the telescopes there, he had asked Franklin to purchase a new one in London from instrument-maker James Short.
‘At length after much Delay and Difficulty I have been able to obtain your Telescope that was made by Mr. Short before his Death’, Franklin wrote. When Short had died in June 1768, Winthrop’s telescope got stuck in the complicated probate of Short’s estate. Not only that Winthrop’s order for equal altitude and transit instruments from instrument-maker John Bird had also been delayed. There was such a ‘great and hasty demand on him from France and Russia, and our society’, Franklin had reported in July 1768, that Bird had not even started to work on the American’s order. But with the instruments for the European expeditions dispatched, Bird had promised to finish Winthrop’s by the end of following week. ‘Possibly he may keep his word’, Franklin wrote, but also warned, ‘we are not to wonder if he does not’ – instruments-makers in London were working around the clock. Bird’s instruments were sent in September but Winthrop was still waiting for his telescope.
‘I hope every thing will be found right’, Franklin wrote to Winthrop, because with the transit only three months away ‘I have no time left to get any philosophical or astronomical Friends to examine it as I intended, the Ship being on the Point of sailing, and a future Opportunity uncertain.’ There was not much time left.