April 28, 2023

FTV: The American Eclipse


     There was a time when Europeans looked down at just about everything that happened in England’s former colony.  Throughout the early decades of the 1800s, the general European view of the young United States was less than flattering – we were considered the rude, crude cousin no one wanted to associate with at a family gathering.  After visiting the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, British naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley summarized European disdain for American science his inaugural address given at the new Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore:  “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such.  Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation.  The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?  What is to be the end to which these are to be the means?”

     In his book American Eclipse (Liverright Publishing, 2017), author David Baron explains how this European snobbery was reflected in the field of science:  “By 1876, a generation of American intellectuals, acutely sensing their own inferiority as they gazed across the Atlantic, had striven to elevate their county to scientific greatness,  They had founded scientific societies and associations, institutes and academies, schools, lyceums, and libraries,  Still, where Europe could boast many scientific luminaries such as Joule and Ampere and Gauss – names so esteemed they would soon be immortalized as units of measurement –  the United States could claim a pittance.” 

      Noted American astronomer Simon Newcomb complained, “The French think we are a meer nation of money bags and insignificant students.”  Asked in early 1876 to summarize American scientific progress over the first hundred years of our existence, Newcomb’s own views were blunt when he stated things were just beginning to turn around.  He pointed to our “period of apparent intellectual darkness” that had only just begun to lift. 

      In the wake of the glorious American advancements in science and technology displayed at the Centennial Exposition, astronomers turned their attention to the total solar eclipse that would cross the western United States in 1878.  Having heard that many European scientists openly mocked previous astronomical observations coming from their American counterparts, the scientific community on this side of the pond decided it was time to step up to the plate.  The gauntlet was thrown down when the British journal Nature noted the upcoming July of 1876 solar eclipse by saying, “Our American confreres will no doubt give a good account of it.”  American scientists were going to prove they were more than up to the challenge.  

     The Eclipse of 1878 was going to be a unique opportunity for American astronomers.  While solar and lunar eclipses had been observed by humans since the dawn of our species, it took some time for them to be understood.  Superstition and fear drove ancient people to odd, sometimes irrational behavior when they were confronted with the awesome spectacle of having the Sun seemingly blotted from the sky.  Scientific study of our Solar System began putting some of the pieces of the puzzle together, but even as the 1878 eclipse approached, there were many things we still did not understand about the process.  Careful observations of celestial objects and painstaking number crunching by computers (the humans who did the math, not the machines we rely on today) were used to create astronomical tables.  Called ephemeris, these were used by mariners and the U.S. Navy to ensure safe navigation across the world’s oceans.  The U.S. Naval Observatory stated, “Astronomy enters into the price of every pound of sugar, every cup of coffee, every spoonful of tea,” because the efficiency of global trade depended upon the observations of skilled astronomers and the calculations of expert mathematicians. 

     One of the astronomers who set out to view the 1878 eclipse from Colorado was Nantucket born Maria (pronounced muh-rye-uh) Mitchell.  While working as a librarian by day and studying the heavens by night, she discovered a comet in 1847.  She wasn’t the first woman to discover a comet (she was preceded by Maria Kirch and Carolyn Herschel) but she was the first American woman to do so.  She discovered ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ at the age of 29 and was awarded a Gold Medal from King Frederic VI of Denmark for her efforts.  The discovery led to a job with a branch of the U.S. Navy doing computations of Venus’s motions.  A woman astronomer getting paid to do a job was rare but in the language of the day Lieutenant Charles Henry Davis, the superintendent of the Navy’s Nautical Almanac Office wrote to Mitchell (feel free to cringe a little), “As it is ‘Venus’ who brings everything that’s fair, I therefore assign you the ephemeris of Venus – you being my only fair assistant.”  She continued in that role for nineteen years even after she was accepted as the first professor of astronomy at the new, all-women’s institute of higher learning in Poughkeepsie, New York, Vassar College.  

     A distant cousin of Benjamin Franklin, she was raised a Quaker on Nantucket where women’s education was embraced.  Her amateur astronomer father encouraged Maria’s independent study from their rooftop observatory and enlisted her help at age twelve observing a solar eclipse that passed over their island on February 12, 1831.  She grew to resent the second-class status to which women were relegated in the sciences.  Maria visited the Paris Observatory on a European tour she undertook in her late thirties.  When the head of the observatory invited her to tea and a cursory tour, he did not extend an offer to show her the domes.  Having realized the men in charge of the Old World observatories did not view a ‘lady astronomer’ as a peer, she fumed, “It was evident he did not expect me to understand an observatory.”  Maria was admitted to the observatory atop the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome (after some pleading as it was generally off limits to women), but the astronomer-priest in charge would not let her stay for nighttime viewing:  “The Father kindly informed me that my permission did not extend beyond the daylight.”

     Mitchell faced unequal treatment even at Vassar, receiving less than half the salary paid to the school’s male professors.  Men at other universities were offered housing while Maria spent her first decade at the college sleeping on a sofa in the small area that served as her parlor and lecture room.  Eventually, the college’s observatory coal storeroom was converted into a small apartment for her.  It is little wonder Maria Mitchell became a champion in the fight for women advancing in higher education.  When a prominent Boston physician published a book claiming ‘overtaxing a woman’s brain via higher education’ would cause ‘a girl’s body (and reproductive organs) to atrophy’, battle lines were drawn.  In the wake of the half a million men lost during the Civil War, Dr. Clark further offended women, warning that highly educated women would be, “in danger of no longer being women, and men would soon be emasculated and cease to be men.” A man of his times, perhaps, but Dr. Clark was not a progressive thinker.

      As an unmarried professional woman, Mitchell knew the futility of a direct, frontal attack on such nonsense.  Instead, she pointed out, “Women are needed in scientific work for the very reason that a woman’s method is different from that of a man.  All her nice perceptions of minute details, all her delicate observation of color, of form, of shape, of change, and her capability of patient routine, would be of immense value in the collection of scientific facts.”  As the American Eclipse of 1878 approached, Maria decided to assemble a team of woman astronomers to travel west to join the parade of male astronomers who planned to document the event.

     Mitchell and her sister Phoebe boarded a train bound for their planned viewing area in Denver.  In her journal from an earlier trip west, Maria noted, “One peculiarity of traveling from East to West is, you lose the old men.  After Cleveland, it is rare to see a man over forty years old.”  They collected a former Vassar student, Elizabeth Abbot, in Cincinnati and continued to Kansas City where they spent a night.  Joined there by another former student, Cornelia Marsh, they transferred to another line with one more change in trains to take place in Pueblo during the 28 hour trip from Kansas to Colorado.  Unfortunately, Mitchell noted, their through tickets hit a snag when the Denver & Rio Grande RR would not honor their tickets:  “We learned that there was a war between the two railroads which unite in Pueblo.  War, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.”  Somehow, she managed to get them boarded for the last five hour leg of the journey where they would find the rest of their team, Cora Harrison and Emma Culburtson (Class of ‘76 and ‘77, respectively) waiting for them.

     The female astronomical party did not pass unnoticed in the newly minted state of Colorado.  A press representative of the New York Sun working in Dever wrote, “This party adds peculiar interest to the work of observing this eclipse, for it is here [Colorado] that women are making a heroic struggle for equal rights.”  After all, the previous autumn, the legislature had attracted national attention by entertaining the idea of women’s suffrage.  Even Susan B. Anthony herself had barnstormed the state to campaign for women to finally be allowed to vote.  The president of the Colorado Woman Suffrage Association, Dr. Alida C. Avery, had worked at Vassar as their resident doctor when Mitchell was hired to teach there.  Maria had asked her old friend, “Have you a bit of space behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope (to view the eclipse)?”  Avery responded, “Six hundred miles!” in reference to the stretch of open plains between Denver and the Missouri River.  The Vassar party’s decision to do their observations in Denver was not a random choice by any means.  

     Hosting a group of women working in science gave Avery a political angle – a way to show the people of Colorado what intelligent, strong women could do.  Unfortunately, the party landed in Denver only to find their astronomical equipment had not.  The railroad war had unfortunately left their baggage stranded 120 miles away and no amount of pleading with or browbeating the railway agents could get them delivered.  With only a few days left, they began searching for a local source of telescopes to use for their observations. 

      Fortunately, by Friday, July 26, the party’s luggage arrived, but so too did the inclement weather.  As a local journalist reported, “Rain?  Oh, no, it doesn’t ‘rain’ in Colorado this year – it lets go all bolts and comes down in sheets and torrents.  During the past eight years, Colorado has not witnessed a season marked by so many heavy rainfalls.”  The Vassar party were running out of time to rehearse with their equipment before the eclipse.  Prayers for clear weather went unheard the next Sunday when even more rain and hail fell from the sky.  The nation was poised for the big event with the New York papers fanning the flames of anticipation rhapsodizing:

“It will probably be the most interesting and important total eclipse ever seen by man” (The Daily Graphic) and “[Scientists would investigate the eclipse] in a manner never before possible the theories of solar physics.”  Monday, July 29, 1878 dawned with an entire nation (not to mention multiple teams of observers) hoping the weather would cooperate.

     Denverites awoke to clear, cloudless skies.  Having previously stocked up on azure colored panes of glass to promote good health by viewing filtered sunlight in what became known as the ‘blue glass craze’, (a passing fad of no scientific value), Coloradoans were well equipped to view the partial phase of the eclipse.  Naked eye observations were fine during totality, but not before or after the lunar disk obscured the full face of the Sun.  At Alida Avery’s suggestion, Mitchell set up her observation post on a hill on the edge of the city which could easily be reached by horse and buggy.  They were set, but would Mother Nature cooperate long enough to allow for an unobstructed view for the duration of the eclipse?  Many Denver residents left the city early to make excursions to the surrounding foothills packing blankets and picnic baskets.  The Denver Daily Times had recommended that banks and retail establishments treat the event like a holiday and most closed their doors.  Thousands gathered on the high ground of Capitol Hill and on rooftops like the post office, high school, fire station, and the opera house.

     The Vassar party arrived in time to set up a small tent for shade, an array of wooden chairs, and, of course, their telescopes.  Maria brought the scope she had used to discover her famous comet back in Nantucket in 1847.  Nuns from the nearby St. Joseph’s Home (a Catholic hospital owned by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth) noticed the women making preparations and came over to offer them tea.  At one o’clock, a little over an hour before the onset of the eclipse, only a few small clouds were noted in the west and Pikes Peak could be clearly seen against the sky.  The first important observation known as ‘first contact’ (when the Moon is first seen passing the edge of the Sun) was predicted for 2:19:30.5 Denver Mean Time.  Three observers in Mitchell’s group recorded first contact and the times varied by more than a second – “A large difference,” Mitchell wrote in her notes.

     According to author David Baron, “The beginning of a solar eclipse brings momentary excitement, but what comes next is a lull,  Over the following minutes, as the Moon nibbles at the Sun, one feels the urge constantly to gaze upwards, but the scene appears virtually unchanged.”  Indeed, totality would come more than an hour after first contact.  The Vassar group took this time to pose for a stereograph that was printed on souvenir postcards labeled “Colorado Scenery.”

     Totality in Denver began at 3:29.03.5 and lasted until 3:31.44.0 DMT, a little over 2 minutes.

In that brief time, three of them (Mitchell, Harrison, and Abbot) observed with telescopes while the rest made naked-eye observations of the landscape and sky.  They saw Mercury, Mars, and Venus, but not Vulcan.  There had been a few astronomers who were convinced Earth had a twin (Vulcan) that would finally be confirmed during this eclipse, but the mythical planet was finally laid to rest.  For Mitchell’s group, viewing the eclipse was important but being viewed doing the observations was perhaps an even more important moment for women of science. 

     Having spent the majority of this article discussing Maria Mitchell and her Vassar cohort, we will revisit this event in the near future.  At such time, we will catch up with a few of the other teams of observers who took in the Eclipse of 1878.


FTV:  Total Eclipse, you say?  Hit it Bonnie!  Okay – Top of the Pops use lip-syncing, but what the hey . . .