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5 Things We Learned About The Eclipse Of 1878

Former NPR Science Journalist David Baron

Former NPR Science Journalist David Baron

Cathy Koczela/WW Norton

In August, Oregon will be the first state in the continental U.S. in the path of a total solar eclipse. The rare celestial event is attracting crowds of first-time eclipse viewers as well as seasoned eclipse-chasers, also called “umbraphiles.”

David Baron, a former science correspondent for NPR and a former science editor for PRI’s “The World,” became an umbraphile after seeing his first total solar eclipse in 1998. He wrote “American Eclipse,” a book about the total solar eclipse that caught the nation’s scientific attention in 1878. Here’s five things we learned from Baron during his “Think Out Loud” interview:

1. For Americans, the eclipse of 1878 was a chance to prove to the world that they could be serious about science.

David Baron: “Back in the 1800s … there were folks who thought we would never be able to take on the world in science because we were this egalitarian democracy. And if you have a country that’s run by the general riff-raff, they’re not going to care about science … and that was the view that Europe had of the United States. Sure we were becoming an industrial power but we were never going to take them on in science, and there was a small group of committed scientists in the United States who wanted to show that that was not true. And the eclipse of 1878 was their opportunity to show what we could do with science and to rally the entire country around this scientific effort.”

2. It was also a chance for female scientists like Maria Mitchell, an astronomy teacher at Vassar College, to demonstrate their skills. Mitchell led an all-female expedition to Denver to study the eclipse.

Baron: “A book came out in 1873 written by a Harvard doctor that claimed that higher education could actually ruin a girl’s health. … This was taken very seriously, and Maria Mitchell, up against that, wanted to show that women could be smart and educated and healthy and feminine. So her eclipse expedition to the West wasn’t just a scientific expedition, it was kind of political theater, to show that Dr. Clark’s book was ridiculous. … This was a time when women who stepped out of the bounds of what was supposed to be womanly were often harshly ridiculed by the press and that didn’t happen with Maria Mitchell and her team.”

3. Thomas Edison, who had already gained fame for inventing the phonograph, wanted to establish his own reputation as a scientist.

Baron: “He came out west to join a group of scientists to study the eclipse of the sun. He created a device, something called a tasimeter, which was an extremely sensitive heat detector … Later on, Edison was adamant that he was not a scientist … but that’s not true of the young Thomas Edison. He wanted the respect of scientists. This was his attempt to show he wasn’t just an inventor but he was a scientist … He had his tasimeter hooked up to a telescope … it was not an easy time for him. He never expressed any sense of awe at what he saw, he was so busy working with his equipment.”

4. Meanwhile, “planet-hunter” James Greg Watson, who had discovered many asteroids, was looking for a planet called “Vulcan.”

Baron: “It was a hypothetical planet that astronomers believed existed between Mercury and the sun because Mercury’s orbit didn’t make sense otherwise. … They called the planet Vulcan. No one had ever reliably seen it, which made sense. It’s so close to the sun it would be lost in the sun’s glare. However, during a total eclipse when the moon blocks the bright sun, you might spot it. And so James Greg Watson, in 1878, headed to Wyoming for those three minutes of darkness … he found Vulcan … and we know with the benefit of hindsight that James Greg Watson was wrong. … Almost certainly he saw a star, but he had three minutes to find this thing and it seems he wasn’t quite sure where he was in the sky.”

5. Another umbraphile nearly died of altitude sickness chasing the eclipse. Cleveland Abbe, known as the Father of the National Weather Service, tried to see the eclipse from Pikes Peak, Colorado.

Baron: “Being up at 14,000 feet, he was battling snowstorms in July and had very serious altitude sickness. … The night before the eclipse he was unable to get up. He was suffering from cerebral edema, his brain was swelling up against the skull. He was thrown on a stretcher and carried halfway down the mountain to 10,000 feet … The next morning and early afternoon for the eclipse, he was laid out on his back on the slope to watch the eclipse. He still couldn’t get up, and he didn’t have his good glasses with him, but he was able to see it nonetheless.”

Like these historic figures, Baron said eclipse-watchers next August will be awed by what they see. He said instead of worrying about taking photos and getting caught up in electronic equipment like Edison did, watchers should set up a camera to record their own reactions to the eclipse.  

“It is so precious and so brief, you really don’t want to spoil it,” he said. “You’ll be excited and flabbergasted. Well-composed people just fall apart and become babbling idiots.”

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