Mexico’s international scientific expedition to observe the 1874 transit of Venus

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Sep 182010

In an earlier post, Novelist who loved geography set a story in Mexico, which his publisher labeled South America, we referred to Mexico’s first international scientific expedition in 1874.

This is the expedition that social historian William H. Beezley says was linked by many Mexican writers to Jules Verne’s fictional epic, Around the World in 80 Days, published the year before. (Mexican National Identity: memory, innuendo and popular culture).

Beezley’s account has one significant error; he mistakenly writes that the international expedition was to observe an eclipse of the sun, when in fact its purpose was to make measurements during a transit of Venus across the Sun. Venus only transits the sun infrequently, but then usually does so twice in eight years.

Mexico is not commonly associated with astronomy, despite the fact that archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have worked out that several indigenous groups including the Zapotec, Aztec and Maya all constructed astronomical observatories and were able to predict eclipses and other events in the skies with incredible precision. Perhaps even more remarkably, an international astronomical congress appears to have been held in Xochicalco in the 8th century BC.

We can not be certain how much the ancients knew about astronomy, but by the 18th century, British astronomer Edward Halley had worked out that if only the transit of Venus could be observed from several different places, the differences in timing could be used to calculate the precise distance of the Earth from the Sun, a distance known as the astronomical unit. Unfortunately Halley died in 1742, before he had the chance to observe the next transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769. [The most recent transit of Venus across the Sun occurred on 8 June 2004; the next is expected on 6 June 2012.]

Obtaining an accurate figure for the astronomical constant was one of the greatest challenges for astronomers of the time. In 1760, a French astronomer set out for India (for the 1761 transit) but failed to arrive in time! Undeterred, he remained in India, waiting patiently for 1769. Alas, on that occasion it was too cloudy to make any worthwhile observations.

Mexico's first international scientific expedition team

Left to right: Jiménez, Barroso, Díaz Covarrubias, Fernández Leal, Bulnes (Photo reproduced in Odisea 1874)

Mexico’s connection to the astronomical constant began at this time. For the 1769 transit, Spain had granted permission to another French astronomer to join a party of Spanish astronomers setting up a temporary observatory near San José del Cabo on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. A short distance away, a creole astronomer Joaquín Velázquez de León had traveled from Mexico City to make independent observations. Only days after the transit, three members of the Franco-Spanish party, including the two principal astronomers, died of yellow fever.

By the time of the next transit in 1874, large scientific teams had been assembled by several countries including France, Russia, Germany and the USA to collect better data for a more accurate calculation of the astronomical constant.

Mexico had a fledgling astronomy community, but decided it must send a team to Yokohama, Japan. The team consisted of:

  • Francisco Díaz Covarrubias (the expedition’s leader) who had written various books and had installed the first post-Independence astronomy observatory in Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City, in 1863.
  • Francisco Jiménez – whose offical qualification was as a “geographic engineer”. He had fought in defense of Chapultepec Castle when the USA invaded in 1847, written about the 1769 transit, and been a key member of the Mexican Border Commission which fixed the definitive Mexico-USA boundary in 1856. He helped coordinate research for the great map of Mexico produced by Antonio García Cubas. Jiménez was the first person to use telegraph signals to determine longitudes in Mexico with precision.
  • Francisco Bulnes was the expedition’s chronicler and the youngest member of the team.
  • Agustín Barroso had wide interests in natural science and engineering, and became an early enthusiast of photogaphy and its applications to astronomy. He was responsible for the outstanding sequence of photos of the transit of Venus taken as part of the Mexican scientific expedition’s work.
  • Manuel Fernández Leal was an expert surveyor and educator who had also participated on the Mexican Border Commission.

The team traveled to Japan and were able to make valuable measurements. Commendably, they published their first results very much more quickly than did the astronomers from all other countries.

Mexico’s scientific community has continued to play an active part in major international research ever since. See for example, our earlier post about Mexicans involved in the work of the Inter Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Scientific globalization was under way…

Source: Odisea 1874 o el primer viaje internacional de científicos mexicanos by Marco Arturo Moreno Corral (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986)

Los Mochis and Topolobampo are two examples of “new towns” in Mexico

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Apr 262010

In north-western Mexico, two towns in close proximity—Los Mochis and Topolobampo—are both examples of “new towns”. Many Mexican towns and cities are more than 500 years old; relatively few major settlements in the country are less than 150 years old. How did it come about then that these two “new towns” in the state of Sinaloa were founded so close to one another?

Topolobampo dates back only as far as 1872, when a US engineer, Albert Kimsey Owen (1847-1916) arrived. Owen envisaged the city as a U.S. colony centered on sugar-cane production in this previously unsettled area and as the terminus for a railway across the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Owen had been raised in New Harmony, the city founded by Robert Owen (no relation) and decided to try and found a similar “ideal socialist” city somewhere in Mexico. In 1871-1872 he visited Chihuahua and Sinaloa and decided that the site of present day Topolobampo was ideal for his purposes. Owen founded the Texas, Topolobampo and Pacific Railroad and Telegraph Company (later the American and Mexican Pacific Railroad) and in 1881 was granted the concession for the settlement of a town.

Settlement began in October 1886. Two and a half years later, in April 1889, the first large group of colonists—300-strong—set sail from New York, arriving in Sinaloa in July, only to find a deserted beach and no Owen. Owen had returned to the USA but finally arrived the following year with another 30 colonists. During 1891, 70 more settlers arrived. They founded several additional settlements including Vegatown (Estación Vega), La Logia, El Público and El Platt. They also dug an irrigation canal, 12 kilometers long, to divert water from the Fuerte River across their lands. Despite their heroic efforts, the farming project was eventually abandoned, though the town of Topolobampo struggled on.

The Henry Madden Library of the California State University, Fresno, houses this amazing visual record of those early years, based on photos dating back to 1889-90 taken by Ira Kneeland, one of the first settlers.

Meanwhile, in 1893, another American, Benjamin Francis Johnston (1865-1937) founded the Eagle Sugar Co. (Compañia Azucarera Aguila S.A.) and constructed a factory, church, airport, dam, and the Memory Hill lighthouse. Ten years later, in 1903, Johnston officially founded Los Mochis. Johnston came to own more than 200,000 hectares. He built a veritable palace of a residence, including an indoor pool and even an elevator, one of the first in the country. The mansion’s garden, full of exotic plants, is now the city’s botanical gardens, Parque Sinaloa. The mansion itself was later torn down for a shopping plaza.

Historians and geographers have long questioned the precise motives of both Owen and Johnston, whose efforts have been described as more akin to capitalist expansion and neo-imperialism than any form of socialism. If they had come to fruition, Owen’s projects could have resulted in the annexation of a million square kilometers to a USA which had ambitious ideas of expansion at the time. Owen has been labeled variously a visionary, a madman or a conman and fraudster. Similarly, Johnston has also been regarded by some as a stooge for grandiose US expansionist plans.

Whatever the motives of their founders, both Topolobampo and Los Mochis had their start and have rarely looked back. Los Mochis gained importance as a major commercial center, marketing much of the produce grown on the enormous El Fuerte irrigation scheme. A large proportion of this produce is exported to the U.S. via the famous Copper Canyon railway. Los Mochis is the passenger terminus at the western end of the  line. For freight, the line continues to Topolobampo, “the lion’s watering place” or “tiger’s water”. The port, with its shrimp-packing plant, is at the head of one of Mexico’s finest natural harbors, the head of a drowned river valley or ria, which affords an unusually high degree of security in the event of hurricanes.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect. Click here for the original article

Urban settlements in Mexico are discussed in chapters 21 and 22 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, with urban issues being the focus of chapter 23.

Mar 292010

To whom do we owe the birth of modern geography in Mexico? To Alexander von Humboldt, the brilliant early-19th century explorer. His visit to the country in 1803-4 helped him amass sufficient data and ideas to publish works which would prove to be a secure foundation for the development, in particular, of physical geography and meteorology.

It is impossible to do justice in these few lines to the brilliance of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, aptly described by Charles Darwin as “the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived”. He was born in Berlin, Prussia, in 1769 to a very well-connected family.

He studied political economy before turning to science at the University of Göttingen in 1789. One of his friends there, Georg Forster, had been scientific illustrator on Captain James Cook’s second voyage. This friendship undoubtedly reinforced Humboldt’s determination to undertake his own long distance travels. Humboldt systematically prepared himself for a life as a scientific explorer, first studying commerce and foreign languages at Hamburg, then geology and mining at Freiberg, followed by anatomy at Jena, as well as astronomy and the use of scientific instruments.

Detail from Humboldt's 1811 Map.

Humboldt spent five years in the New World, from 1799 to 1804. His visit to Mexico began in Acapulco on March 22, 1803, and lasted until he set sail from Veracruz for the United States on March 7, 1804. In the intervening months, Humboldt measured, recorded, observed and wrote about anything and everything, with remarkable industry and accuracy. He climbed mountains, burned his boots on active volcanoes, descended into mines, recorded geographical coordinates, and collected specimens and antiquities. He also drew a large number of maps, drawings and sketches. Humboldt’s Political essay on the kingdom of New Spain was the first systematic scientific description of the New World. It appeared in 1811, and marked the birth of modern geography in Mexico. His figures and ideas were used and quoted by writers for many many years.

On his return to Europe, he spent more than twenty years, mainly in Paris, writing and publishing his results. The crowning glory of Humboldt’s career was his five-volume Kosmos. Begun at age 76, it turned out to be a masterpiece, proposing conceptual generalizations, supported by the observations of the physical world he had made decades earlier.

Humboldt’s work was the foundation for the subsequent development of physical geography and meteorology. Developing the concept of isotherms allowed climatic comparisons to be made. He recognized that altitudinal differences in climate echoed latitudinal differences. His essay on the geography of plants related the distribution of plant forms to varying physical conditions. Finding that volcanoes fell naturally into linear groups, Humboldt argued that these presumably corresponded with vast subterranean fissures. In addition, he demonstrated the igneous origin of volcanic rocks for the first time.

Humboldt’s work awakened considerable European interest in the Americas and caused many later artists to travel to Mexico to draw and paint.

Humboldt died, at the age of 89, on May 6, 1859. His travels, experiments, and knowledge had transformed western science in the 19th century. Humanist, naturalist, botanist, geographer, geologist: Humboldt was all of these, and more.

A brief extract from Humboldt’s “Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain” is included in Tony Burton’s “Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales” (Sombrero Books 2008).  This book has extracts from more than 50 original sources covering the period 1530-1910, together with short biographies of the writers, and an informative commentary setting the extracts in their historical context.

A brief history of geography in Mexico

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Feb 192010

Mexico has a long tradition of geography. Modern geography was given a jump-start in the country by the brilliant Prussian traveler Alexander von Humboldt, who explored Mexico for twelve months in 1803–04.

The Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics was founded in 1833, only three years after the UK’s Royal Geographical Society and fully 55 years before the National Geographic Society. Geography remains a popular and respected subject in Mexican high schools and universities.

Even prior to Humboldt, many authors had made valuable descriptions of many aspects of Mexico’s geography. Writing in the mid-17th century, but looking back to a century earlier, Father Antonio Tello, in describing the province of Xalisco (Jalisco) offers lots of information about plants, animals, natural hazards, rivers and natural hot springs, while speculating about whether underwater springs fed Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake.

Though many volumes have been lost, the surviving parts of the Geographic Accounts written at the end of the 16th century are a veritable “Domesday Book” of information.

After Humboldt, however, geography set off on a much more scientific, analytical path, one which has continued to the present day and which has now resulted in Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton’s Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

One of Mexico’s earliest geographers

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Feb 142010

José Antonio Villa-Señor y Sanchez, born in Mexico in about 1700, is one of the earliest Mexican geographers. He studied at the College of San Idelfonso in Mexico City, and was later employed in the collection of taxes, becoming comptroller of revenue from mercury (a chemical essential to the refining of silver ores).

He was subsequently appointed cosmographer of New Spain. In this capacity in 1742, he was commissioned by the Viceroy, Pedro de Cebrián y Agustín, Count of Fuenclara, to write a descriptive history and geography to comply with a royal edict from King Philip V of Spain. His works included Teatro Mexicano; Descripción general de los Reinos y Provincias de la Nueva España (1746), Observación del Cometa, que apareció en el hemisferio de México en Febrero y Marzo (1742) and several maps, including one of the Jesuit province of New Spain, from Honduras to California (1754). He died in about 1760.

More than 200 years later, the planners of Ciudad Satélite, an urban development in the northern part of Mexico City, named a street in the Circuito Geógrafos area after him.

Villa-Señor’s descriptions help to paint a wonderful picture of what New Spain was like in the middle of the 18th century. For instance, he describes the city of Guadalajara as having eight plazas; fourteen churches, monasteries and convents; two colleges and a university; two hospitals and a dozen government buildings or public facilities, making it a fine, surprisingly spacious and prosperous city.

Villa-Señor y Sanchez provides us with our earliest description of the marshy areas at the south-east corner of Lake Chapala, which at that time had several small islands. This is the area that was deliberately drained in the early years of the 20th century. The former islands are now visible only as small hills protruding above flat, intensively cultivated farmland.

[This post is an edited extract from Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of traveller’s tales]

Lake Chapala’s remaining wetlands were recently (4 February 2009) granted Ramsar Protection Status.

To read more about the issues facing Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake, see chapters 6, 7 and 19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

For more background to Lake Chapala’s issues, read Tony Burton’s series on MexConnect or use that site’s search function.

Canadian Club of Ajijic listens to Geo-Mexico co-author

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Jan 152010

More than 300 people packed the grounds of La Nueva Posada hotel in Ajijic, Mexico, to hear Geo-Mexico co-author Tony Burton talk about the significance of 2010 in Mexico. Burton took an historical approach, exploring both the history of geography and the geography of history while comparing many aspects of Mexico in 1810 (Independence), 1910 (Revolution) and 2010. His entertaining and informative talk, which was largely based on material in Geo-Mexico, was well received.
At the end of his talk, Burton highlighted the fact that Mexico’s population projections for 2050 suggest that the country will have moved from a predominately young to an elderly population in only one or two generations.

History of geography in Mexico

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Dec 292009

Probably the earliest (and to date one of the very few) books about the history of geography in Mexico :

Title: Apuntes para la historia de la geografía en México.
Author: Orozco y Berra, Manuel (1816-1881)
Publisher: Imprenta de Francisco Diaz de Leon, Mexico City.
Date of publication: 1881.