J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 01, 2012

Observing Instruments at Harvard

After I wrote about 1760s astronomy earlier this week, I heard from Sara Schechner, the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University.

She alerted me that that collection is available for online viewing through the Waywiser webpage. It includes many instruments that Profs. John Winthrop and Samuel Williams used to observe the transits of Venus in the 1760s and (in Williams’s case) the eclipse of the Sun in 1780. Folks can also visit the “Time, Life, & Matter: Science in Cambridge” exhibit in person in the Putnam Gallery, Science Center 136, One Oxford Street in Cambridge.

When John Singleton Copley painted Winthrop in 1773, he included a telescope made by James Short of London in the background. That same instrument is on display at that gallery now. (I wonder if people could pose for pictures in front of it in the same way.) In all, the Harvard collection contains ten items made by Short: five reflecting telescopes, one optical telescope, and four spare parts.

The instrument above is an “astronomical quadrant with achromatic sights” made by Jeremiah Sisson of London in 1765 and used by both Winthrop and Williams in the following decades.

On Saturday, 21 July, Dr. Schechner will speak about “Politics and the Dimensions of the Solar System: Colonial American Observations of the Transits of Venus” at the Astronomer's Conjunction in Northfield, Massachusetts. That talk will focus on Winthrop and the affairs of Boston.

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