Here is my blog post from the Transit of Venus blog.
As we’re enjoying the summer, I’ve been reading about the transit astronomers who went to the north in order to observe the Transit of Venus there in 1769. It’s amazing what they had to endure. Take British astronomer William Wales and his assistant James Dymond, for example. They were send to the Prince of Wales in Fort Hudson Bay (today’s Churchill) but had to arrive there in the summer BEFORE the transit because it was ice-bound most of the time (they arrived on 10 August 1768).
Only a month after their arrival it first snowed. In October the liquid which held the plumb-line of the quadrant froze, in November the clock stopped because temperatures dropped to minus 30 degrees, and then in December to minus 41 degrees. By the end of January it was so cold that within two minutes the brandy in a half-pint tumbler became thick as treacle, turning into solid ice within five. During the nights they were woken by loud bangs – like gunshots fired from the ceiling. It was so cold that the frost cracked the beams of the little hut. Adding to the disconcerting bangs above their heads, every night rocks exploded with such a power that Wales thought it was equal to that of ‘many heavy artillery fired together’. And although they kept a large fire in the tiny three-by-three-metre cabin, the two astronomers couldn’t keep warm. Every morning their bedding was frozen stiff against the headboards of their beds – the headboards themselves covered with ‘ice almost half as thick as themselves.’
Wales, in particular, must have suffered because he hated the cold. In a strange twist, the Royal Society had dispatched the one man who had emphasised that he was ‘preferring a Voyage to a warm climate’. We can only imagine how Wales maybe wished himself to the balmy beaches of the South Sea islands where his brother-in-law Charles Green had been sent on the Endeavour with Captain Cook.