The Total Solar Eclipse of 1878: Lighting the Path for Science in America

david baron
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How do you get 100 history and astronomy students in the same room on a Thursday afternoon? You give them a lecture by awarded journalist David Baron on “Edison and the Eclipse that Enlightened America.” Baron, a science and environmental journalist and recent Charles Redd Center guest lecturer, saw an eclipse in Aruba in 1998 and has since dedicated his time and research to exploring and experiencing these astronomical phenomena and telling the stories behind them.

Eclipse Chasing Now

While there was lots of commotion about the recent 2017 total solar eclipse, a total solar eclipse passes over earth’s surface every 18 months. The path of totality, when the sun is completely covered by the moon, is only 100 miles wide, making the viewing of a total eclipse a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many individuals. In the day and age of cars and airplanes, eclipse chasing is relatively easy with the internet, a pair of glasses from Amazon, and a car ride. In the late 1800’s, however, eclipse chasing was quite the ordeal, and it was primarily this that Baron discussed at the lecture.

Eclipse Chasing 1878

14760792356_1c969e822b_zThe year was 1878. Manifest Destiny was the United States’ call to action, the transcontinental railroad was moving people across the plains, and America was striving to carve out a unique spot in the landscape of worldwide scientific discovery. Solar eclipses were critical to physical and astronomical discoveries at the time, and Europeans were monopolizing these scientific experiences and discoveries. That is, until a total solar eclipse was forecast to cross the American West in 1878.

This was an opportunity for Americans to show that they could compete intellectually with the rest of the world. The government recruited scientists, astronomers, and everyday citizens alike to “crowd source” information on the sun and its corona. Everyone in the western United States would have less than three minutes to make the most important astronomical observations of their lifetime.

Notable Participants

Three individuals in particular stood out among the group of government-recruited scholars:

  1. James Craig Watson of the University of Michigan’s Detroit Observatory was one of the most recognized “planet hunters” of his age. He discovered a number of asteroids and sought to discover a new asteroid planet during the eclipse.
  2. Maria Mitchell was the most famous female scientist and astronomer of the 1800’s and was a teacher at Vassar College in New York when news of the eclipse rang out. Mitchell organized a group of women to go west to study the eclipse and show society that women can be smart, educated, healthy, and feminine to boot.
  3. 5565714066_b7cb709e97_z
    Courtesy of cea+

    Thomas Edison had just been dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park” for his invention of the phonograph and was anxious to test his new invention, the tasimeter, to detect changes of heat during the eclipse. This was Edison’s chance to prove that he was not only an inventor but a serious scientist as well.

Not to be Left in the Shadows

At the end of the three minutes of darkness and scientific enlightenment, according to Baron, Edison was inspired to look into light and power (a possible influence on his future invention of the light bulb), the tasimeter was claimed as a success, Mitchell successfully advocated female higher education, Watson claimed to find the asteroid planet Vulcan (which was later proved unreal, but would give Watson something to defend for the rest of his life), and the American public came together to make what newspapers called the “most important observations ever made.”

“Eclipses inevitably reveal much about ourselves,” said Baron in American Eclipse, a book he wrote about the 1878 eclipse. “What we see in them reflects our own longings and fears.” Baron’s descriptions of America’s reaction to the 1878 eclipse, in his book and his lecture here on campus, capture a nation longing for success. The book was published earlier this year with the support of the Charles Redd Center. During his research for the book, Baron was able to visit many of the sites connected to the 1878 eclipse and see the collections of drawings and observations of the eclipse that were collected from American citizens and are now housed in the Library of Congress.

Follow the Redd Center for more events concerning the history of the American West.

How have your eclipse experiences impacted your own life?






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