Journalist David Baron discusses his book about the furor surrounding the total solar eclipse of 1878.
Many Americans will be treated to a rare total solar eclipse on August 21, when the shadow of the moon crosses in front of the sun in a path from Oregon to South Carolina. The eclipse, which will occur in the late morning on the West Coast, is expected to produce a 70-mile-wide band of darkness that will be seen by tens of millions of people. The same event happened back in 1878, and it was an important occurrence for three scientists who wanted to learn more. Journalist David Baron chronicles that story in his book, American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. Baron visited the [email protected] show on SiriusXM channel 111 to shed some light on those notable scientists.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: You profiled Thomas Edison, James Craig Watson, who was a planet hunter, and astronomer Maria Mitchell. Why these three?
David Baron: The eclipse of 1878, which passed over America’s Wild West from Montana Territory down to Texas, attracted dozens of the era’s great scientists out to that part of the country to study the sun and solar system. I chose those three characters because they all had something really on the line and something to prove.
Thomas Edison was out to show that he was a scientist, not just an inventor. James Craig Watson, from the University of Michigan, was out to find a planet called Vulcan. And Maria Mitchell from Vassar, who was a rare female scientist and by far the most famous one in the United States, was out to show the American public that women could be scientists.
[email protected]: This solar eclipse was in advance of Edison inventing the light bulb. Did this help him down that path?
Baron: Yes, it’s a fascinating time in the life of Thomas Edison. He went west in 1878 for this total solar eclipse, right after he had become a global celebrity because of his invention of the phonograph. The very day after he returned from Wyoming, he started work on the light bulb. There are some subtle ways in which his eclipse expedition helped him with the light bulb, most importantly because of what he learned about public relations, which was key to his ability to raise money and keep the press on his side while he worked and worked and worked to perfect the light bulb.
Edison was a natural with PR, but in the summer of 1878, he just had the newspapers wrapped around his finger. He headed west for the eclipse. He came up with a device called the tasimeter, which was going to be “bigger than the phonograph,” as the newspapers said. It was a very sensitive heat detector that he was going to use to study the eclipsed sun. He had the newspapers writing glowing reports about the tasimeter even before he had ever created it. That’s the same thing he did with the light bulb. He claimed that he had solved the problem of incandescent lighting long before he really had, but he kept the press on his side until he actually did solve the problem.
[email protected]: Maria Mitchell was trying to prove that women could be very successful business people and scientists. The timing was interesting because it was still 40 years or so away from women’s right to vote.
Baron: Yes, and the 1870s was a time when higher education for women was just getting off the ground. Vassar College had been founded in the 1860s, then Wellesley and others were coming along. But that was a time when educating women in college was considered a dangerous experiment.
“I chose those three characters because they all had something really on the line and something to prove.”
There was a book that came out in 1873 by a Harvard doctor who claimed that higher education could ruin a girl’s health, that if a young woman used her brain too much, it sapped energy from her maturing reproductive organs and would turn her into a sterile, masculine invalid. This was taken seriously. In 1878, Maria Mitchell, who thought this was ridiculous, put together an all-female expedition of scientists to Denver, Colorado. It was kind of a political theater to show the American public that this book was crazy and that women could be educated, smart, scientifically minded and healthy.
[email protected]: Tell us more about James Craig Watson.
Baron: Long before the planet Vulcan showed up on Star Trek, it was thought to be a real planet back in the 1800s. It was thought to orbit the sun between Mercury and the sun. If you look at some solar system diagrams from that period, the planets go Vulcan, Mercury, Venus, Earth. The reason astronomers thought Vulcan existed was because Mercury’s orbit didn’t quite make sense, based on Newtonian mechanics. It acted as if there was something tugging on it, so astronomers guessed that there must be a planet between Mercury and the sun. They called it Vulcan. No one had ever reliably seen it, but they thought orbited so close to the sun that it would never be in the sky at night, and you couldn’t see it in the daytime because it would be lost in the sun’s glare.
However, during a total eclipse, when the moon blocks the bright surface of the sun, enabling you to look right around the sun, you might be able to catch a glimpse of Vulcan. James Craig Watson, who had made a reputation for himself by finding asteroids, was determined to find Vulcan during the eclipse of 1878.
[email protected]: How long in advance was it known that this solar eclipse was actually going to occur?
Baron: It was known decades beforehand, probably even a century beforehand. By the 1800s, astronomers knew how to predict eclipses with great accuracy. They might not be able to map the path of the total eclipse down to a couple of miles until maybe a few years beforehand, but they knew the eclipse was coming long in advance.
[email protected]: We mention what happened with Thomas Edison. What happened with Watson and Mitchell post-eclipse?
Baron: During the eclipse, James Craig Watson convinced himself that he actually found the planet Vulcan. That was the big headline to come out of the eclipse of 1878. In fact, Americans were very proud that one of their own, an American astronomer, had found this planet that astronomers had been looking for for so long.
“There were Europeans who thought that the United States would never compete in any significant way when it came to science.”
Of course, we know today that Watson was wrong. There is no planet Vulcan, but that was not immediately evident. Within a year after the eclipse, other scientists were starting to question if maybe he was wrong. He had quite the ego, however. James Craig Watson could never accept there was any chance that he had been wrong. And he came up with a crazy scheme to find Vulcan without an eclipse. He was going to build a special