Last week when I was searching in the museum basement I came across this strange object:
I had no idea what it was, some sort of microscope maybe? It looked nautical, what with the wheel and gears, so maybe some sort of seafaring device? Perhaps it was used by the man in the crows nest, spotting land through the scope and shouting excitedly, “Land HO!” These were just my musings though, I wanted to know exactly what it was. Being obsessed with all things gold and steampunk, I knew I would not be able to get a good nights sleep until I discovered this strange object’s function.
Here is what our files told me: “transit has large central compass with attached leveling instrument. Adjustable telescope sits above with 2 additional levels; instrument is attached to square wooden base with front indention for ease in pulling”. This was somewhat unhelpful at first, seeing as I had the object in front of me and could see clearly all the parts, but what I really wanted to know was what all these parts were for. Once I researched the term “transit” I began to unravel the mystery. A ‘transit’ is a type of surveying and engineering device, used in the early 1900s to help measure the parameters of a land area. Some transits also measured the distance of heavenly bodies, but I believe this particular type of transit to be a land surveying device, not an astrological one.
Transit Land surveying devices were used to determine the relative position of prominent points and other objects on the surface of the ground. They were used to make maps and were used on industrial projects such as the building of canals, roads and railroads. The Great Trigonometric Survey was done in 1851 and was one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs. It was the first successful plotting of an arc of longitude and it measured and mapped Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks. I flipped through the pages of the dense “1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue” and found an ad for an “engineers’ and mining transit” that looked much like the one we have in our museum. This type of transit was used to measure extreme vertical angles.
I looked in our trusty database, Past Perfect as well and learned there was another item that went along with this object, which was a mahogany carrying case.Taped to the inside of the case were pedantic instruction on the use and cleaning of the device.
In the instructions it advises the uninitiated to do no cleaning whatsoever. I wondered what type of cleaning training is required, and what exactly one must do in order to be one of the initiated. Was there some sort of secret society involved, did you have to be part of a strange historical society to be able to handle this device? I fiddled with the microscope a bit and peered through, everything seemed very far away, which makes sense since you’re supposed to do this in an open landscape and not in a small, enclosed room. But I handled the object with care and reverence, and put it back carefully in the basement where it belonged. I was obviously one of the uninitiated and wouldn’t want to be on any secret society bad list.