University of Hawaii Instutute for Astronomy
Origins of Astronomy in Hawai`i  

Maintained by W-W

Post-Captain Cook

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The transit of Venus of 1874. The British expedition waiting for contact on Punchbowl Street in Honolulu with Diamond Head in the background.


he first record of scientific astronomical observations being made from Hawai`i appears to be that of a British expedition on 8 December 1874. Captain G. L. Tupman of the HBM Scout observed a transit of Venus from a site on Punchbowl Street (5).  Observations of this transit were also made from Waimea, Kaua`i and Kailua-Kona, Hawai`i Island.. 

David Kalakaua reigned over the Kingdom of Hawai`i from 1874 to 189l. King Kalakaua was a worldly and progressive monarch, especially considering how recently his people had been exposed to the society and culture of the “civilized” Western world. It was his ambition, as King of Hawai`i, to travel far and wide to learn the ways of the outside world. Even before his voyage, which took place in 1881 (6), Kalakaua had shown an interest in astronomy, and in a letter to Captain R. S. Floyd on November 22, 1880, had expressed a desire to see an observatory established in Hawai`i. His voyage began with a visit to San Francisco, where he visited Lick Observatory in nearby San Jose. Mr. French of Lick Observatory evidently was the King's guide at the observatory. In his journal Mr. French noted how interested and enthusiastic the King had been and how he had expressed a desire to bring such a telescope to Hawai`i.

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Letter from King Kalakaua 

It was not long after this that King Kalakaua expressed his interest in having an observatory in Hawai`i. Perhaps as a result of the King's interest a telescope was purchased from England in 1883 for Punahou School, a private school established by early missionaries to Hawai`i. In 1884 the five-inch refractor was installed in a dome constructed above Pauahi Hall on the school's campus. Unfortunately, it was not a stable, solid mounting, and the telescope was not useable. Nevertheless, it was the first permanent telescope in Hawai`i and did prove itself useful later on, as we shall see. In 1956 this telescope was installed in Punahou's newly completed MacNeil Observatory and Science Center. Sometime since then it was replaced and has disappeared, sad to relate.

It appears that the first scientific astronomical and geophysical studies made on Mauna Kea were those conducted in 1892 by Mr. E. D. Preston, astronomer, of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey as part of an extensive survey of the island of Hawai`i. Together with his assistant, Mr. W. E. Wall, and surveyor Prof. W. D. Alexander, the team set up near Lake Waiau a meridian telescope for determining latitude, as well as a gravimeter, a magnetometer, and a barometer to determine altitude. This expedition contributed the first accurate base-line geophysical data for the island.


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