What did the 1882 Transit of Venus look like?

By Phil Plait | June 4, 2012 6:47 am

The Transit of Venus occurring Tuesday is the last one we’ll see for 105 years, but it’s not the first one we’ve seen! I saw the 2004 transit literally with my own eyes (wearing safe eclipse glasses – and which I plan to use to watch this one as well), and there were several witnessed before that. The last one before 2004 was in 1882, recent enough that photography was being used in astronomy. And it so happens that astronomers at Mt. Hamilton in California were able to take a series of 147 (!) images of the transit, 140 of which were used to make this amazing video:

That. Is. So. Cool! Not too often you see a movie made in 1882!

And the story behind these photos is interesting, too: they were made on glass plates, which, until the recent invention of electronic detectors were the go-to astronomical detectors. I’ve taken images on glass plates myself, and it’s a major pain in the neck. It’s incredible they got that many shots of the transit! The plates themselves languished, forgotten, until 2003, when they were re-discovered by astronomer Bill Sheehan, and eventually scanned and made into the above movie. Read that link for the details.

Here’s one of the plates for your perusal:

More of them can be found at the Naval Observatory site.

I expect we’ll be seeing far, far more than just a single video from the upcoming transit. If you get unusual or really interesting shots — especially video — please let me know! I’m hoping to put together a gallery of the best ones I’ve seen. Send me a tweet or email me at the bad astronomer at gmail dot com.

And remember, we’re doing a live Transit of Venus video star party tomorrow! I’ll have details coming soon.

Tip o’ the pinhole projector to David Griff.

Related Posts:

Everything you need to know about next week’s Transit of Venus
Eclipse followup part 2: tons o’ links on how to safely watch
Your last chance to see Venus for the next few weeks
Venus rounds the corner

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Piece of mind

Comments (29)

  1. June 5th is my birthday, so I was hoping to take advantage of people humouring me and go check this out. Sadly, there is a low pressure system parked over New England, so our skies are grey and cloudy. :(

  2. “Transit of Venus” is my new prog-rock band name…

  3. Chris

    So if they had 147 images, which were all in good shape, why only 140 made into the movie?

  4. Jhaelin

    Would an observer be able to use the pin-hole in a paper to see the transit?

  5. Makes me think of the Arthur C. Clarke story, “Transit of Earth”.

  6. Mejilan

    Wow. I’ve never before seen video created from 1882 footage!
    That’s really kind of amazing.

  7. Poul-Henning Kamp

    Hint: The disc from a floppy disk makes an excellent filter for viewing the sun

  8. Lee from NC

    So do you think an alien civilization back in 1882 in THAT (waves vaguely around) direction used their Kepler telescope to figure out that Star 3090234 + 1122 has at least one planet orbiting it? ; )

  9. Scott P.

    “Hint: The disc from a floppy disk makes an excellent filter for viewing the sun

    Now all I need is a time machine to go back in time to 1988…

  10. Chris

    @8 Lee from NC
    First they wouldn’t have seen Venus transit in 1882 since it would take years at least to reach the nearest star. Also the reason we see it so rarely from Earth is because there has to be a crossing of the orbital planes. The further out you go, the better wiggle room on how close they need to be. Venus transits as viewed from Mars occur ~7 times per century and viewed from Jupiter ~14 times per century. If you think about it the planets we observe transiting every orbit, not just once a century.

  11. Chris A.

    @Poul-Henning Kamp (#7):
    “Hint: The disc from a floppy disk makes an excellent filter for viewing the sun”

    Actually, it’s more like “the disc from a floppy disk makes a barely adequate filter for viewing the sun.” Infrared protection is marginally safe, and image quality is atrocious. I’d say “use a floppy disk if you have no other option, and only for short durations.”

  12. Gary

    @8 Lee from NC

    The reason we see the transit is because we are on a line that intersects the Earth, Venus and the Sun. An alien on a planet orbiting some distant star that is able to observe Venus making the transit would also likely see the Earth crossing the Sun’s disc.

  13. Zombie

    I have a technique for predicting the weather in Seattle. If something interesting is happening in astronomy, the weather will be cloudy.

    Also: please don’t look at the sun through anything not designed for looking at the sun with. You just never know what sort of variation will be in one item vs. the next. The floppy that worked for one person might be different than the floppy you have – all it would take is for two manufacturers to use different plastics with different transparencies to UV, and you have a problem.

  14. Crux Australis

    Cloudy in New Zealand >:(

  15. Ben O'Steen

    I’ve ‘scanned’ in an article about the 1882 transit from Science for All, written somewhen around 1886 into the 1890s. Obviously, it cannot compete with an *actual movie* shot at the time, but it’s interesting to see an example of how it was covered in a “popular science” journal for the masses:


    (Off-topic, but interesting: Shortly before that article is one titled “A supposed new planet”, discussing the evidence for a new planet called ‘Vulcan’, sitting between Mercury and the Sun. This was put forward by a mathematician Le Verrier to explain the trivial discrepancies in his calculations for the orbit of Mercury!)

  16. Chip

    Photographs of the Crab Nebula go back to the late 19th Century and lenses in those earlier telescopes were actually very good – it would be interesting to collect images from various observatories, scale and frame them chronologically in a computer and watch the movie.

  17. Hi folks,
    We (the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco) will be doing a live, telescope-only webcast of the Transit of Venus tomorrow, June 5th, at 3pm PDT. If you would like to view, please go to this site:

  18. Menyambal

    Phil, thank you.

    I did gasp in awe.

    Everybody, follow the story link to see the professor’s facial hair. Awesome as well.

  19. Suggestions to accompany the Cytherean transit today – Reading :

    1. ) ‘Transit of Venus – 1631 to the present’ (Powerhouse,2011) by Nick Lomb – great non-fiction, historical and scientific tome on the subject de jour.

    2.) ‘Venus’ by Ben Bova – SF novel part of a great series.

    3.) Pamela Sargent’s science fictional trilogy on the terraforming of Venus – Venus of Dreams, Venus of Shadows and Child of Venus Entertaining with some good science and awesome world building – (semi) literally and metaphorically!

    Hope these are helpful, interesting, enjoyable for y’all. :-)

    PS. Great Aggman UK Youtube clip on Venus linked to my name here.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Musical accompaniment for the transit of Venus – my suggestions :


    Little Black Spot on the Sun today – and its our nearest neighbouring planet! 😉

    Live version by the Police.

    Venus – Gustav Holst’s classical composition :


    Like the start of aanimation for this online version too.

    Staring at the Sun – U2


    (Mild NSFW lang.warning) NOT advice to follow without proper precautions and eye protection.

  21. Matthew

    @Crux Australis
    yep, typical NZ winter weather is currently pouring on my roof. :-(
    I am currently 22 years old, so that would make me 137 years old when the next one happens. Unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

  22. MadScientist

    I’m surprised they only got 147 plates in that time. A long-gone buddy from Harvard would make his students set up, use, and take down all their gear for 1-3 months leading up to an expected solar eclipse expedition. According to his notebooks, his students could get quite a few plates out of a single total eclipse. Maybe they only had 147 because they only had so many plates to use and spaced out their photos (and of course some plates would be spoiled or damaged for various reasons).

  23. Aaron

    Nice clip! I wonder if anyone’s got a slower one, set to Sousa’s “Transit of Venus March”.


  24. Plus a trio more ideas for Cytherean transit soundtracks :


    with some Apollo footage to start off a superluminous and very apt Pink Floyd song. 8)

    Then there’s this rock classic from the 1980’s :


    Or this :


    rather different Kiwi reggae ‘Evening Star’ by 1814.

    Of course there’s Evening(Morning too) Star /Venus / Sun songs in almost all genre’s from Kenny Roger’s Western “Evening Star’ to Atrwen’s Evening star in LotR and the chorl religious-y but good classical How brightly Shines theMorning Star’ findable online also to suit all tastes. :-)

  25. Sadly the entire state of Washington seem to have time travelled to November. Even my back up site east of here is cloudy. They are threatening us with sun breaks in the afternoon so maybe I will get lucky and see some of it. Got the eclipse glasses, the pin hole viewer, some welder’s glass set up as a filter for the telescope (didn’t order the baader foil stuff in time unfortunately). A greenish picture is better than nothing I guess.


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