Making the first observation of
the transit of Venus in 1639
Lower Lodge, Otterspool,
Toxteth Park, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
|Died||3 January 1641 (aged 22)
Toxteth Park, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
|Alma mater||University of Cambridge|
|Known for||Transit of Venus
Jeremiah Horrocks (1618 – 3 January 1641), sometimes given as Jeremiah Horrox (the Latinised version that he used on the Emmanuel College register and in his Latin manuscripts), was an English astronomer. He was the first person to demonstrate that the Moon moved around the Earth in an elliptical orbit; and he was the only person to predict the transit of Venus of 1639, an event which he and his friend William Crabtree were the only two people to observe and record.
His early death and the chaos of the English Civil War nearly resulted in the loss to science of his treatise on the transit, Venus in sole visa; but for this and his other work he is acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of British astronomy.
Early life and education
Jeremiah Horrocks was born at Lower Lodge Farm in Toxteth Park, a former royal deer park near Liverpool, Lancashire. His father James had moved to Toxteth Park to be apprenticed to Thomas Aspinwall, a watchmaker, and subsequently married his master's daughter Mary. Both families were well educated Puritans; the Horrocks' sent their younger sons to the University of Cambridge and the Aspinwalls favoured Oxford. For their unorthodox beliefs the Puritans were excluded from public office, which tended to push them towards other callings; by 1600 the Aspinwalls had become a successful family of watchmakers. Jeremiah was introduced early to astronomy; his boyhood chores included measuring the local noon used to set local clocks, and his Puritan upbringing instilled an enduring suspicion of astrology, witchcraft and magic.
In 1632 Horrocks matriculated at Emmanuel College and the University of Cambridge as a sizar. At Cambridge he associated with the mathematician John Wallis and the platonist John Worthington. At that time he was one of only a few at Cambridge to accept Copernicus's revolutionary heliocentric theory, and he studied the works of Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and others.
In 1635 for reasons not clear Horrocks left Cambridge without graduating. Marston suggests that he may have needed to defer the extra cost this entailed until he was employed, whilst Aughton speculates that he may have failed his exams due to concentrating too much on his own interests or that he did not want to take Anglican orders and so a degree was of limited use to him.
Now committed to the study of astronomy, Horrocks began to collect astronomical books and equipment; by 1638 he owned the best telescope he could find. Liverpool was a seafaring town so navigational instruments such as the astrolabe and cross staff were easy to find. But there was no market for the very specialised astronomical instruments he needed, so his only option was to make his own. He was well placed to do this; his father and uncles were watchmakers with expertise in creating precise instruments. Apparently he helped with the family business by day and, in return, the watchmakers in his family supported his avocation by assisting in the design and construction of instruments to study the stars at night.
 Horrocks owned a three-foot radius astronomicus — a cross staff with movable sights used to measure the angle between two stars — but by January 1637 he had reached the limitations of this instrument and so built a larger and higher precision version. While a youth he read most of the astronomical treatises of his day and marked their weaknesses, and by age seventeen was suggesting new lines of research.
Tradition has it that after he left home he supported himself by holding a curacy in Much Hoole, near Preston in Lancashire, but there is little evidence for this. According to local tradition in Much Hoole, he lived at Carr House, within the Bank Hall Estate, Bretherton. Carr House was a substantial property owned by the Stones family who were prosperous farmers and merchants, and Horrocks was probably a tutor for the Stones' children.
Horrocks was the first to demonstrate that the Moon moved in an elliptical path around the Earth, and he posited that comets followed elliptical orbits. He supported his theories by analogy to the motions of a conical pendulum, noting that after a plumb bob was drawn back and released it followed an elliptical path, and that its major axis rotated in the direction of revolution as did the apsides of the moon's orbit. He anticipated Isaac Newton in suggesting the influence of the Sun as well as the Earth on the moon's orbit. In the Principia Newton acknowledged Horrocks's work in relation to his theory of lunar motion. In the final months of his life Horrocks made detailed studies of tides in attempting to explain the nature of lunar causation of tidal movements.
Transit of Venus
Horrocks was convinced that Lansberg's tables were inaccurate when Kepler predicted a near-miss of a transit of Venus in 1639. Having made his own observations of Venus for years Horrocks predicted a transit would indeed occur.
Horrocks made a simple helioscope by focusing the image of the Sun through a telescope onto a plane surface, whereby an image of the Sun could be safely observed. From his location in Much Hoole he calculated the transit would begin at approximately 3:00 pm on 24 November 1639, Julian calendar (or 4 December in the Gregorian calendar). The weather was cloudy but he first observed the tiny black shadow of Venus crossing the Sun at about 3:15 pm; and he continued to observe for half an hour until the sun set. The 1639 transit was also observed by his friend and correspondent William Crabtree from his home in Broughton near Manchester.
Horrocks' observations allowed him to make a well-informed guess as to the size of Venus—previously thought to be larger and closer to Earth—and to estimate of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, now known as the astronomical unit (AU). His figure of 95 million kilometres (59 million miles, 0.63 AU) was far from the 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) known today but it was more accurate than any suggested up to that time.
A treatise by Horrocks on the study of the transit, Venus in sole visa (Venus seen on the Sun), was later published by Johannes Hevelius at his own expense; it caused great excitement when revealed to members of the Royal Society in 1662, some 20 years after it was written. It presented Horrocks' enthusiastic and romantic nature, including humorous comments and passages of original poetry. When speaking of the century separating Venusian transits, he rhapsodised:
- " ...Thy return
- Posterity shall witness; years must roll
- Away, but then at length the splendid sight
- Again shall greet our distant children's eyes."
It was a time of great uncertainty in astronomy, when the world's astronomers could not agree amongst themselves and theologians fulminated against claims that contradicted Scripture. Horrocks, although a pious young man, came down firmly on the side of scientific determinism.
It is wrong to hold the most noble Science of the Stars guilty of uncertainty on account of some people's uncertain observations. Through no fault of its own it suffers these complaints which arise from the uncertainty and error not of the celestial motions but of human observations...I do not consider that any imperfections in the motions of the stars have so far been detected, nor do I believe that they are ever to be found. Far be it from me to allow that God has created the heavenly bodies more imperfectly than man has observed them. - Jeremiah Horrocks
Death and remembrance
Horrocks returned to Toxteth Park sometime in mid-1640 and died suddenly from unknown causes on 3 January 1641, at the age of 22. As expressed by Crabtree, "What an incalculable loss!" He has been described as a bridge which connected Newton with Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe and Kepler.
Horrocks is remembered on a plaque in Westminster Abbey and the lunar crater Horrocks is named after him. In 1859 a marble tablet and stained-glass windows commemorating him were installed in the Parish Church of St Michael, Much Hoole.
The 2012 transit of Venus was marked by a celebration held in the church at Much Hoole, which was streamed live worldwide on the NASA website.
Jeremiah Horrocks Institute
The Jeremiah Horrocks Institute for Astrophysics and Supercomputing was established in 1993 at the University of Central Lancashire. In 2012 it was renamed the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute for Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy.
- Marston, Paul (2007). "History of Jeremiah Horrocks". Retrieved 2007-12-08. - See footnote 1
- Aughton 2004, p. 18
- Aughton 2004, p. 13
- Aughton 2004, p. 21
- Aughton 2004, p. 24
- Aughton 2004, p. 3
- "Horrox, Jeremiah (HRS632J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Aughton 2004, p. 43
- Aughton 2004, p. 64,65
- Aughton 2004, p. 66,67
- Anon (June 2004). "Jeremiah Horrocks". Biographies. University of St Andrews. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
- Isaac Newton, 'Principia', Book 3, Proposition 35, Scholium.
- Aughton 2004, p. 150
- Plummer, H.C. (April 1940 – Sep 1941). "Horrocks and his Opera Posthuma". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 3. The Royal Society. pp. 39–52.
- Opera Posthuma of Jeremiah Horrocks, ed. John Wallis, London, 1672.
- Chapman, Allan (1994). "Jeremiah Horrocks: His Origins and Education". Archived from the original on 2007-10-15. Retrieved 2007-11-19.
- Anon. "History". Preston and District Astronomical Society home page. PADAS. Retrieved 19 May 2012.
- "About the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute", University of Central Lancashire
- Aughton, Peter (2004). The Transit of Venus: The Brief, Brilliant Life of Jeremiah Horrocks, Father of British Astronomy. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-84721-X.
- Applebaum, W.; Hatch; Hatch, R. A. (1983). "Boulliau Mercator and Horrocks Venus in Sole Visa - Three Unpublished Letters". Journal for the History of Astronomy 14 (3): 166–179. Bibcode:1983JHA....14..166A.
- Chapman, Allan (1990). "Jeremiah Horrocks, the transit of Venus, and the 'New Astronomy' in early seventeenth-century England". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 31: 333–357. Bibcode:1990QJRAS..31..333C.
- Chapman, Allan (2004). "Transit of Venus: Horrocks, Crabtree and the 1639 transit of Venus". Astronomy & Geophysics 45 (5): 5–31. Bibcode:2004A&G....45e..26C. doi:10.1046/j.1468-4004.2003.45526.x.
- Hughes, David W. (2005). "Horrocks's bogus law". Astronomy & Geophysics 46 (1): 14–16. Bibcode:2005A&G....46a..14H. doi:10.1046/j.1468-4004.2003.46114.x.
- Maor, Eli (2000). Venus in Transit. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11589-3.
- Sheehan, William; Westfall, John (2004). The Transits of Venus. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-59102-175-8.
- Whatton, Arundell Blount (1875). Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Jeremiah Horrox. London: William Hunt and Company.
- Applebaum, Wilbur (2012). Venus Seen on the Sun: The First Observation of a Transit of Venus by Jeremiah Horrocks. Leiden & Boston: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-22193-2.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Jeremiah Horrocks.|
- Chasing Venus, Observing the Transits of Venus Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- BBC report: Celebrating Horrocks' half hour
- Horrocks memorial in Westminster Abbey
- O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Jeremiah Horrocks", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
- Jeremiah Horrocks Institute