Telescope stories: impolite astronomy

While researching a book I've been writing on the history of the telescope, I've come across a number of humorous prints like this one, Robert Sayer's Viewing the Transit of Venus of 1793.

Viewing the Transit of Venus

It is one of the many satirical prints produced in England in the 18th century and seems to show a well-heeled couple observing Venus as it passes between the Earth and the Sun. So at first glance this appears to be just the sort of message that science's supporters were putting out - that science was worthy of study by the more learned and 'polite' members of English society.

But if we look closer, something rather different is going on. The scene isn't topical at all - the most recent transit of Venus had taken place over twenty years earlier in 1769. And the statue of the satyr on the right hints at rather more sexual interests, emphasised by the way in which the man lightly fingers the telescope, suggesting that it is akin to what contemporaries called the 'staff of life'. Perhaps he is hoping for a more bodily transit of Venus, recalling stories of the amorous encounters of the Greek goddess of love. This telescope, then, has become a most impolite instrument.

Keep coming back for more Telescopes stories throughout the International Year of Astronomy 2009.