The Transit of Venus: From archive to wall in 25 steps

In 2012, I observed the Transit of Venus at the American Philosophical Society (APS) in Philadelphia. The APS was around for an earlier Transit, specifically the one in 1769, when they set up three temporary viewing sites and formed a committee, headed by astronomer, clockmaker, and craftsman, David Rittenhouse, to record this significant event. Those scientific observations, including an incredibly beautiful scientific drawing, were published in APS’s first volume: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. Happily, you can find that volume in its entirety here:

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You can NOT, however, see the image I remembered and wanted- if you scroll down to just below page 27 in the Google scan, you can see a tiny fragment of the corner, some lines, and just make out “Reduced to this Scale by” … that’s it. The paper was folded- it fits into the volume folded up, and then the reader is supposed to unfold it to see the full image. Scanners aren’t good at unfolding.

Fragment of the Transit of Venus document from 1769 showing that the drawing is folded up and not completely scanned
Well that’s… part of it. Source:
Fragment of the Transit of Venus document from 1769
1/36 of the whole thing or so. Source:

So, I like Philadelphia, I had good memories of observing the Transit in 2012, and I wanted a copy of the drawing on my wall. I knew the document existed, but how to get a good copy of it? The best version I could find was on the New York Time’s website, here.

Scan of the Transit of Venus, 1769, badly creased

But it’s a small image that doesn’t scale well, and the folds are very obvious.

The good news is I could go to the source. The APS continues to thrive and is “open to all researchers who demonstrate a need to use the unique resources under its care.” (APS)

So, here we go! Here’s how I was able to obtain a massive, couch-sized print of the Transit of Venus, as observed by David Rittenhouse and other members of the American Philosophical Society in 1769, in 25 steps:

  1. Decide you want this
  2. Contact the American Philosophical Society using the information available here:
  3. Wait
  4. Contact APS again, politely
  5. Live your life
  6. Hear from the APS hooray! and find out from intrepid Reference Archivist, Earle E. Spamer, that they don’t exactly have a high-density digital image- the New York Times image came from a digitized 4X5 transparency, and the plate they have is both too big and too delicate to scan. The good news is they can re-scan the 4X5, would that work?
  7. Email back, yes, definitely! Register online to use the American Philosophical Society Library (i.e. pay for the requested document copy) and send APS confirmation that it’s done, thank them and say something like “Please let me know if you need any additional information and/or what my next steps should be.”
  8. Wait. Live your life.
  9. Success! You now have the digital file through Aeon, and thanks to your (stubbornness) patience, they are waiving the cost.
  10. Exult in the beauty of scientific inquiry and observation. Feel grateful for the people who are curious, who share, and who like to preserve things.
  11. Speaking of which, make a backup. Make two.
  12. Meet up with your incredibly talented conservation photographer friend who is available for interesting work.
  13. Hours of editing (thank you Mae Belle) result in an edited TIFF and two JPEGs with the layers flattened.
  14. Make backups of the edited files.
  15. Go to Staples to use their large format printer: oops your gigantic file crashes their computer.
  16. Back to your computer, reload the USB stick with only the JPEG, not the TIFF
  17. Back to Staples, print file on Paper/HP Universal Bond Paper 20lb 36×48 / Standard / Large Format Print (Precut Size) / Color / Simplex
  18. Home, center couch against far wall of apartment
  19. Find center of the couch, line up with the center of the print
  20. Find height you want
  21. Find two binder clips and two thumbtacks
  22. Put thumbtacks in
  23. Attach binder clips
  24. Hang
  25. Ah 🙂

Earle E. Spamer was an enormous help throughout this process- being a reference archivist is not an easy job, and this request in particular had some unexpected twists and turns-

I’m especially grateful for his willingness to scan the document at an incredibly high resolution- large scans like this take time and might not even work, so it’s much appreciated.

Laura Webb holding the final print of the enlarged Transit of Venus scan from 1769

Authors have written about recipes connecting generations- making something your grandmother has made, for example. I feel the same way about observing scientific phenomena- the transit of Venus, the Perseids, Leonids, Geminids; it means something to observe a phenomenon that has caught the attention of people hundreds of years ago and will go on for thousands more. By taking time and observing it, you’re immediately connected with a world-wide community of curious adventurers- past and present.

And there can be surprises along the way! Reading through the digitized Transactions, I noticed that their (men-only, sadly) members are listed alphabetically- is there a Webb among them? Yes 🙂 And he’s from Lancaster- the same city my grandparents are from….

Page from the Transactions first Volume, showing a James Webb as member

Persistence, curiosity, and stars- some of my favorite things-