Lost amongst all the hoopla in the days leading up to the Great American Solar Eclipse this past August was the forgotten American Solar Eclipse of 1878. It’s good to revisit the past because it helps us understand the present. Especially a past with all sorts of disturbing parallels.
The path of totality in 1878 also passed through Wyoming, through the city of Rawlings, east of where I ended up in August, in Glendo, WY.
And there are more than a few stunning parallels between 1878 and 2017.
How low was belief in science? This was a bestselling book first published in 1873. “Sex in Education – A Fair Chance for Girls” by Dr Edward H Clarke, MD. And you can see it was so popular that they reprinted again in 1884.
Dr Clarke warned that the push for female colleges and coeducation could harm the health of the American woman. By taxing the brain, higher education caused a girl’s body, especially her reproductive organs, to atrophy! I quote: “This produces a change in a woman’s character to include a dropping out of maternal instincts, and an appearance of Amazonian coarseness and force” !!!!!
I assume if you are reading this, you are either laughing or incredulous with disbelief. I wonder if readers 150 years from now will react to climate change naysayers similarly.
Fortunately, the American Eclipse of 1878 would be remembered by the world for the serious science conducted by an all American expedition including none other than Thomas Edison! And it would also be the first truly modern solar eclipse because instead of spending months struggling to reach the path of totality, Edison rode in Victorian luxury from his home in New Jersey to Rawlings, WY by train on the newly finished Union Pacific railway. And for you kids who have no idea who Thomas Edison is … he was a way bigger celebrity inventor than Elon Musk is today.
One of the goals of the science expedition was to find the planet Vulcan. No, this is not the planet Vulcan that orbits 40 Eridani – that’s where Mr Spock is from. This is the theoretical planet Vulcan that orbits inside of Mercury and because it is so close to the Sun it is hidden by its glare and can be only seen during a total solar eclipse. The reason for proposing the existence of Vulcan is to explain the odd perihelion advance of Mercury during each solar orbit. The perihelion is the position of closest solar approach by an orbiting body and typically is a fixed position in space. So instead of tracing the same orbit each time, Mercury exhibits a slightly translocated orbit each time.
The best minds of the time reasoned there must be another planetary body whose gravitation pull was affecting Mercury’s orbit this way. And that was a pretty reasonable idea at the time …. This was how Neptune was discovered because the math predicted another body had to be present outside of Uranus’s orbit to account for Uranus’s orbital mechanics.
But of course there was no Vulcan to be found because it doesn’t exist. In 1919, Einstein elegantly proved that Mercury’s strange orbit can be predicted by general relativity.
Fast forwarding to 2017. I flew into Denver and picked up my rental RV since every hotel and motel room was booked years in advance and the RV would give me mobility if the weather soured the night before the Eclipse. When I travel, I try to restrict my luggage to only carry on so I was very limited in the photographic equipment I could take – a Kenko Skymemo tracking mount which I polar aligned the night before, my Olympus E-M1.2 camera and a 500 mm focal length reflex lens.
Glendo is a small town of about 200 residents. Night skies were pristine as a result and our Milky Way Galaxy easily visible.
The weather was desert like and the skies clear leading up to the Solar Eclipse which occurred just before lunch time with the Sun at its very highest position. I had the camera shooting at 18 fps at a variety of different exposures controlled over Wifi with my Android phone. The different exposures were combined to create a high dynamic range high resolution image by stacking multiple images and using radial blur post processing in Photoshop as detailed by Fred Espenak in Sky & Telescope.
Because of the good weather, half a million people drove from Colorado to Wyoming, and they all left right after Totality. Took between 12-15 hours on the road to get back to Denver on the I-25 when it normally would have taken only 3 hours. We should’ve just enjoyed another day in the RV Park and left the following morning.
But it was well worth the expense and effort to see a solar eclipse in person. Despite all my preparation it was not what I expected the experience to be. It was not life changing or emotional in any respect but it was shockingly surprising despite all that I had read and watched. Here’s a time lapse for a taste of what it felt like to be there.
Be sure to catch the next total Solar Eclipse in North America, 2024. I’ll be in one of my favourite parts of Canada, Niagara on the Lake.