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James Cook's 1769 transit of Venus expedition to Tahiti

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 May 2005

Wayne Orchiston
Anglo-Australian Observatory & Australia Telescope National Facility, PO Box 296, Epping, NSW 2121,
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After the failure of the 1761 transit to provide a reliable value for the astronomical unit, the focus shifted to the 1769 event, and Britain mounted an ambitious program, with overseas observing parties dispatched to North Cape (Norway), Hudson Bay (Canada) and newly-discovered Tahiti in the Pacific. Lieutenant James Cook was in charge of the Tahitian expedition, ably assisted by fellow-astronomer, Charles Green, and they were supplied by the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich with telescopes and other scientific instruments. The main observing site was set up at Fort Venus, and supplementary transit stations were established on Irioa Island (Moorea) and Taaupiri Island (off the east coast of Tahiti). June 3 was warm and clear, and all observers successfully recorded the transit, but on the journey home ‘the curse of the transit’ prevailed and more than half of them fell ill and died. Back in England, Cook wrote up the transit observations for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, but for some inexplicable reason only used data obtained at Fort Venus. It was left to Oxford astronomer, Professor Thomas Hornsby, to derive a meaningful figure for the solar parallax, and he utilized the Tahitian data and observations made at four other sites to arrive at a figure of 8$\rlap . ^{\prime\prime}$78. But discordant results obtained by other researchers fuelled controversy over the effectiveness of transits of Venus as a valid means of determining the astronomical unit. In fact, the solar parallax obtained by Hornsby was remarkably similar to the currently-accepted value of 8$\rlap . ^{\prime\prime}$794148, thereby discrediting Beaglehole's oft-quoted claim that the Tahitian observations were a failure. Although more than a dozen men were involved in the Tahitian transit program, most of their records have been lost, and remarkably few of the instruments they employed can now be identified. Yet for those of us with Pacific affiliations, Cook's first voyage to the South Seas occupies a special place in transit of Venus history.To search for other articles by the author(s) go to:

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© 2004 International Astronomical Union