The Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878

The mapping of the dark shadow, with its limitations of one hundred and sixteen miles, lay across the country from Montana, through Colorado, northern and eastern Texas, and entered the Gulf of Mexico between Galveston and New Orleans. This was the region of total eclipse. Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

Maria Mitchell, professor of astronomy at Vassar College, describing the eclipse of 1878

Several total eclipses crossed North America during the nineteenth century, and each has an interesting story to be told about it, although no other had the same order of significance as that of 1806. The authorities would not let themselves be caught out again in the same way as with the Shawnee Prophet. In this chapter we will concentrate upon the eclipse ofJuly 29, 1878.

Eclipses had entered a period of heightened scientific study. As I wrote in Chapter 5, the heyday of eclipse watching was between the 1840s and the 1930s. Having realized that the corona was some form of extensive solar atmosphere, astronomers mounted expeditions to find out what they could during the precious few minutes of totality. Elsewhere we have learned about the discovery of helium in 1868, and other secrets of the Sun that were uncovered in following eclipses.

That is not to say that eclipses were regarded solely through the cold visage of science. As people abandoned their old irrational beliefs, there was more romance attached to eclipses. Yes, they were regarded as being perfectly understandable natural phenomena, but also wonderful things to behold for their sheer beauty. An example of this new attitude is shown in Figure 9-1. The Sun is depicted as a male deity, being embraced by the female moon goddess during an eclipse. All this is watched by an array of anthropomorphized optical instruments on the Earth below.

The total eclipse in 1878 was big news, exciting the general public throughout the land. Although it was far to the east of totality, in St. Louis the local people were thrilled by the partial obscuration they saw, and they thronged around Washington University where telescopes were trained on the Sun. Immediately after the termination of the event the St. Louis Evening Post put out a second edition, recounting such information as had been gathered already by telegraph from the observing parties in Wyoming and Colorado. The headlines, reading as follows, used the same symbolism as that in Figure 9-1:


Old Sol Obscured by the Lunar Sphere.

The Sun God Embraces the Queen of Night.

All About the Astronomical Event of the Year.

Although eclipses had firmly entered the sphere of science, rather than superstition, it does not follow that they were viewed

French Superstitions
FIGURE 9-1. A nineteenth-century French lithograph showing a romanticized impression of an eclipse. Human-like telescopes and binoculars watch from the Earth below as the Sun and Moon meet; the eclipse is depicted as a celestial embrace between god and goddess.

from an atheistic standpoint. Indeed many then, as now, regarded the splendor of the skies as being manifestations of their religious beliefs. As one writer put it: "Science and general education have banished all the dread these events inspired. Announced with exhaustive accuracy before their coming, fear has given way to admiration at the fixed laws, the order, the harmony of God's workings, where once ignorance anticipated accident, the coming of disasters, and tokens of the anger and wrath of the Creator."

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