At his urging, the Royal Society agreed to engage a reliable figure to tour the British Isles to see if such a mountain could be found. Maskelyne knew just such a person—the astronomer and surveyor Charles Mason. Maskelyne and Mason had become friends eleven years earlier while engaged in a project to measure an astronomical event of great importance: the passage of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun. The tireless Edmond Halley had suggested years before that if you measured one of these passages from selected points on the Earth, you could use the principles of triangulation to work out the distance to the Sun, and from that calibrate the distances to all the other bodies in the solar system.
Unfortunately, transits of Venus, as they are known, are an irregular occurrence. They come in pairs eight years apart, but then are absent for a century or more, and there were none in Halley's lifetime. The next transit will be on June 8, 2004, with a second in 2012. There were none in the twentieth century. But the idea simmered and when the next transit came due in 1761, nearly two decades after Halley's death, the scientific world was ready—indeed, more ready than it had been for an astronomical event before.
With the instinct for ordeal that characterized the age, scientists set off for more than a hundred locations around the globe—to Siberia, China, South Africa, Indonesia, and the woods of Wisconsin, among many others. France dispatched thirty-two observers, Britain eighteen more, and still others set out from Sweden, Russia, Italy, Germany, Ireland, and elsewhere.