In the 19th century the United States was not yet a nation of scientists. But when a total solar eclipse swept the western frontier in 1878, astronomers rushed to prove they could make a mark on the world with new inventions and startling discoveries. Eclipse chaser and former NPR correspondent David Baron tells that story in his latest book American Eclipse. He spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny.
So this book American Eclipse, is specifically about the 1878 eclipse and the expeditions that went to go see it. Why that eclipse?
Back in the 19th century total eclipses were a very big deal as they are today but not just in terms of public excitement, but they were a big deal in terms of science…. because that was the time when scientists were just starting to unravel the mysteries of the sun. You can imagine, back then they didn’t know what the sun was made of, where did all that power and heat come from? There were certain studies that could only be done during a total solar eclipse, which occurs somewhere on earth every 18 months and last 2 or 3 minutes…. 1878 really excited me because it passed over the western United States, the Wild West, at a time with the U.S. was just trying to prove the to the world it could be a scientific power, and it was a really important event in inspiring the United States to become the scientific power it eventually would become.
So in a lot of ways this story is a coming of age story for America.
That’s right. It works on that larger level… but it also was just a darn good tale of really interesting people….. By the far the most famous person to have witnessed the 1878 eclipse was Thomas Edison. He was in his early 30s, had just become a celebrity because of his invention of the phonograph. He went to Wyoming to observe the eclipse. But there were dozens of important astronomers and other scientists who came out to the Wild West to study the eclipse.
Yeah, Maria Mitchell was a fascinating character. Tell me about her.
I just adore Maria Mitchell. Back in the 19th century she was the most famous female scientist in America. She taught astronomy at Vassar College, which was a new all-female college at a time when female higher education was still kind of an experiment….. And so in 1878 she on her own put together an all-female expedition to Denver, which was both a scientific expedition and also a bit of political theater to show the American public that women could be scientists.
So one of things that interested me about this book is how much you write about failure. Quite a few of the experiments you discuss including Thomas Edison’s were really failures in the end.
Yeah at that was one of the challenges I had in writing the book. As I said I just loved the story of the 1878 eclipse…. but ultimately in terms of the science that was done, you have to say they were failures. … So the science didn’t pan out. But the cultural change did. So it was a success in that regard. But also I came to embrace the fact, that my book is a story of scientific failure, because you know what, most science is failure. That doesn’t get written about very much in books.
In the book when you describe the total solar eclipse of 1878, there’s a line, I want to read it, you said “It’s like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit unrecognizable reality.” That sounds like you wrote that from personal experience.
Absolutely…. And the reason I got around the world, for something that lasts 2-3 minutes… it’s because it’s the most spiritually moving experience I’ve ever had. As soon as the moon completely covers in the sun I feel like I’ve stepped through a door into some alternative reality. Like I’m on some other planet….. But the interesting thing is reading the letters and diaries of the scientists in 1878, their language may have been different but they’re describing the same thing. They too found the experience of total solar eclipse not just scientifically fascinating but really spiritually moving.
David, thank you for joining me today.
David Baron will speak about his book American Eclipse tonight at Lowell Observatory at 7pm.