What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“AN ACCOUNT OF THE OBSERVATION OF VENUS Upon the SUN.”
Many colonists in Rhode Island and the surrounding provinces likely recognized the name Benjamin West. In 1762, the astronomer and mathematician authored An Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord Christ, 1763 … Calculated for the Meridian of Providence, in New-England. For the next several years he worked with printers in Providence to publish almanacs with calculations for that city. He also supplied printers in other places in New England and Nova Scotia with calculations for their almanacs. Colonists who read these handy reference manuals saw his name on the title page. An even greater number of colonists saw his name in newspaper advertisements and, quite likely, broadsides that promoted these almanacs. In the fall of 1769, advertisements for The New England Almanac, or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Diary, for the Year of Our Lord Christ 1770 ran in the Providence Gazette, first as a full-page advertisement and then repeatedly in a condensed version confined to a single column.
Yet that was not the only time that colonists spotted West’s name among the advertisements in the Providence Gazette. A notice in the November 25, 2019, edition informed prospective customers that in less than a week “AN ACCOUNT OF THE OBSERVATION OF VENUS upon the SUN … With some Account of the Use of such Observations” by Benjamin West would be published and sold at the printing office. The Transit of Venus that occurred on June 3, 1769, had been covered in newspapers throughout the colonies, a rare instance of visual images accompanying news items in eighteenth-century America. According to the John Carter Brown Library, Venus passing between the Earth and the Sun “us one of the rarer astronomical phenomena, and one critical to the first accurate calculations of the distance between planets in our solar system.” Aware of the importance of this event, “astronomical expeditions traveled to the far reaches of the globe to observe the transit and contribute to the calculation effort” in 1769. West led a team in Providence. Their observations supplemented those undertaken in faraway places.
West published An Account of the Observation of Venus upon the Sun as a means of disseminating scientific knowledge, but in so doing he also took advantage of an event that attracted significant attention. Although it did not hit the market until nearly five months after the transit occurred, this volume served as a commemorative item for colonists who had followed news about the rare event in the public prints. As an astronomer, West likely felt a duty to disseminate his scientific observations. John Carter, the printer of West’s almanacs and the Account, however, did not necessarily feel the same obligation. In publishing the Account, Carter and West pursued an enterprise that simultaneously served science and, if they managed to incite sufficient demand, generated revenue that produced profits.
Visit the John Carter Brown Library’s website to view the title page, a woodcut illustrating one aspect of the transit, and the binding.