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Jeremiah Horrocks

Jeremiah HorrocksBorn: 1619
Birthplace: Toxteth Park, Merseyside, England
Died: 3-Jan-1641
Location of death: Toxteth Park, Merseyside, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Anglican/Episcopalian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Astronomer

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Observed transit of Venus

English astronomer, born in 1619 at Toxteth Park, near Liverpool. His family was poor, and the register of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, testifies to his entry as sizar on the 18th of May 1632. Isolated in his scientific tastes, and painfully straitened in means, he pursued amid innumerable difficulties his purpose of self-education. His university career lasted three years, and on its termination he became a tutor at Toxteth, devoting to astronomical observations his brief intervals of leisure. In 1636 he met with a congenial spirit in William Crabtree, a draper of Broughton, near Manchester; and encouraged by his advice he exchanged the guidance of Philipp von Lansberg, a pretentious but inaccurate Belgian astronomer, for that of Johannes Kepler. He now set himself to the revision of the Rudolphine Tables (published by Kepler in 1627), and in the progress of his task became convinced that a transit of Venus overlooked by Kepler would nevertheless occur on the 24th of November (Old Style) 1639. He was at this time curate of Hoole, near Preston, having recently taken orders in the Church of England, although, according to the received accounts, he had not attained the canonical age. The 24th of November falling on a Sunday, his clerical duties threatened fatally to clash with his astronomical observations; he was, however, released just in time to witness the punctual verification of his forecast, and carefully noted the progress of the phenomenon during half an hour before sunset (3.15 to 3.45). This transit of Venus is remarkable as the first ever observed, that of 1631 predicted by Kepler having been invisible in western Europe. Notwithstanding the rude character of the apparatus at his disposal, Horrocks was enabled by his observation of it to introduce some important corrections into the elements of the planets orbit, and to reduce to its exact value the received estimate of its apparent diameter.

After a year spent at Hoole, he returned to Toxteth, and there, on the eve of a long-promised visit to his friend Crabtree, he died, on the 3rd of January 1641, when only in his twenty-second year. To the inventive activity of the discoverer he had already united the patient skill of the observer and the practical sagacity of the experimentalist. Before he was twenty he had afforded a specimen of his powers by an important contribution to the lunar theory. He first brought the revolutions of our satellite within the domain of Kepler's laws, pointing out that her apparent irregularities could be completely accounted for by supposing her to move in an ellipse with a variable eccentricity and directly rotatory major axis, of which the earth occupied one focus. These precise conditions were afterwards demonstrated by Isaac Newton to follow necessarily from the law of gravitation.

In his speculations as to the physical cause of the celestial motions, his mind, though not wholly emancipated from the tyranny of gratuitous assumptions, was working steadily towards the light. He clearly perceived the significant analogy between terrestrial gravity and the force exerted in the solar system, and by the ingenious device of a circular pendulum illustrated the composite character of the planetary movements. He also reduced the solar parallax to 14" (less than a quarter of Kepler's estimate), corrected the sun's semi-diameter to 15' 45", recommended decimal notation, and was the first to make tidal observations.

Only a remnant of the papers left by Horrocks was preserved by the care of William Crabtree. After his death (which occurred soon after that of his friend) these were purchased by Dr. Worthington, of Cambridge; and from his hands the treatise Venus in sole visa passed into those of Johannes Hevelius, and was published by him in 1662 with his own observations on a transit of Mercury. The remaining fragments were, under the directions of the Royal Society, reduced by Dr. Wallis to a compact form, with the heading Astronomia Kepleriana defensa et promota, and published with numerous extracts from the letters of Horrocks to Crabtree, and a sketch of the author's life, in a volume entitled Jeremiae Horroccii opera posthuma (London, 1672). A memoir of his life by the Rev. Arundell Blount Whatton, prefixed to a translation of the Venus in sole visa, appeared at London in 1859.

    University: Emmanuel College, Cambridge University (dropped out in 1635)

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