The Advent Of Eclipse Track Prediction

Edmond Halley was the first person able to predict with reasonable accuracy the tracks of total solar eclipses, such as those cross ing the British Isles in 1715 and 1724. This was an important development, not just for science. It meant that, in principle, it was feasible for cultures with modern scientific attainments (and thus the ability to read an astronomical almanac) to scare the wits out of less-learned peoples.

The reality is that this ability was only really employed by the authors of novels, such as H. Rider Haggard, Mark Twain, and Herge, whose invention of solar eclipses at critical points in their stories were considered earlier. For potential conquerors or colonists the problem, as such, was that total solar eclipses are so infrequent that it is most unlikely that a track will pass through any region of interest where they are trying to unseat the natives. Lunar eclipses—like that advantageously interpreted by Christopher Columbus in 1504 (see Figure 8-1)—may more easily be used because they can be seen over a much wider area.

Given these facts, it seems ironic that the two total solar eclipses to cross the fledgling United States in the decades following independence—in 1780 and in 1806—each had results that are the converse of what one might have expected. Their stories contradict the impression that the superior science delivered by Halley and his successors must surely have lead to advantages for the purveyors of precise astronomical knowledge. The first eclipse led to a major embarrassment for the new American astronomy. And it was the indigents, rather than the incomers, who exploited the second eclipse to gain the upper hand in a festering dispute.

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