Observation of Transit of Venus in Nelson NZ on 7 December 1882
Everyone now knows that a rare astronomical event occurred on 8 June when the planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun. This “Transit of Venus” occurs roughly every 120 years, so before the 8th, no human being now alive had witnessed such an event.
However, it is less known that the previous time that Venus passed across the Sun’s face - in 1882 - it was observed in Nelson New Zealand by a local astronomer, Arthur Samuel Atkinson, on behalf of the Royal Society.
The importance of observing such an apparently obscure event is that it enables the distance between the Earth and the Sun to be calculated accurately, and the scale of the Solar System determined. Indeed, this was considered so important in the eighteenth century that the Royal Society sponsored Captain James Cook’s first expedition to the Pacific to observe the transit of 3 June 1769.
After this, the next transit was in the late 19th century, when the Royal Society asked “several colonial observers” to observe the event and report back to the Society. Arthur Atkinson was one of these astronomers, and he successfully made his observations on 7 December 1882, using photographic techniques. This was done from a small hut near his house in Nelson. A photograph of Atkinson with his telescope, and two friends who assisted him (including Maurice Richmond on his right), is given here. The handwritten caption reads: “After the Transit”. Arthur’s house was called Fairfield, and was at one time used as Fell House of Nelson College. The event was described in a book Born to New Zealand, a biography of Jane Maria Atkinson [Arthur’s wife] by Frances Porter (Allen & Unwin 1989). There it is reported that “A little electric house of zinc has been put up on the knoll & telegraph lines connect it to the telegraph office - so that the chronometers of all the observers may be exactly together at the critical moment.”
Arthur Atkinson, an amateur astronomer and scientist, practiced law in Nelson where he was also the local MP. Atkinson had previously lived in New Plymouth, where he had set up a newspaper. Arthur (my great uncle) was a brother of Harry Albert Atkinson who was Prime Minister of NZ several times at the end of the 19th century.
Arthur’s telescope is still in Nelson, but now operated by the Nelson Science Society for the City Council, at the Atkinson Observatory on the Port Hills.
H H Atkinson, 8 June 2004