In 1639 at 15:15 on Sunday the 24th of November (4th of December according to the modern, Gregorian calendar) a Toxteth man by the name of Jeremiah Horrocks was one of only two people on the surface of this Earth to witness and understand the transit of Venus across the sun’s surface.
Horrocks’ observations allowed him to make a well-informed guess as to the size of Venus, as well as to make an estimate of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. While not perfect, Horrocks’ figures proved to be by far the most accurate up to that date. Horrocks was the first to demonstrate that the Moon moved in an elliptical path around the Earth. He wrote a treatise on Keplerian astronomy and studied the properties of the force that became known as gravity; Isaac Newton in the Principia acknowledged Horrocks’ work in relation to his theory of the Moon.
At the intersection of Island Road and Horrocks Avenue in Garston, Liverpool stands a monument to Horrocks – a mosaic artwork entitled “His Mortal Eyes to Scan the Furthest Heavens” – named after a line from one of the astronomer’s own poems.
Heading northwards one finds oneself on Mather Avenue – a thoroughfare named after Horrocks’ old puritan schoolmaster, Richard Mather. Mather was the first minister of Toxteth Unitarian Chapel, erected in 1618 by the local puritans and still standing today on the corner of Park Road and Dingle Lane. Mather eventually emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in North America. Mather’s son Increase Mather and grandson Cotton Mather later became known for their involvement in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s.
Horrox’s body was laid to rest in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth in 1641; he died in his native Toxteth having returned to the area only one year previously. A plaque dedicated to his memory hangs on the chapel wall, each of its four corners decorated with a five pointed star.
This evening at 22:09 UTC (GMT) Venus will once again pass before the sun and will not do so again until December 2117. You should use all the wonderful 21st century tools you have at your disposal, and take for granted every day, to witness it.
“Thy return Posterity shall witness. Years must roll away, but then at length the splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes”
- Jeremiah Horrocks