The Great American Eclipse will traverse the United States on Aug. 21, but it’s not the first one to darken American skies.
On Monday, July 29, 1878, a solar eclipse passed through the western United States.
“America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever” written by author Steve Ruskin tells the story of how professional astronomers traveled mostly to Colorado and Wyoming to view and document a solar eclipse. Few scientists went to Texas as a new concept was emerging that the best way to see, not only solar eclipses, but other astronomical phenomenon was at higher elevations.
“The 1878 solar eclipse was the first to be a truly national event,” Ruskin wrote. “It was the first time so many scientists visited the frontier at one time and at higher elevations.”
The railroad brought people to the Rockies. Denver, and most of Colorado, had many unique options for viewers. The location was a little rough, but it gave Americans a chance to see part of the country that was mostly myth or legend, Ruskin said.
“That’s why I call it America’s first great eclipse,” he said. “This was one that was amazing because the country was not at war, the Civil War had just ended and the transcontinental railroad gave people the opportunity to travel.”
Concerns over weather conditions are a factor at every solar eclipse and the 1878 event was no different. Scientists today have looked back at 10 years of records to determine the best place to be. In 1878, Ruskin found evidence of scientists searching back through six years of weather conditions.
“No one now, or more than a century ago, wanted to see cloud cover instead of the eclipse,” he wrote.
The 1878 solar eclipse was a cultural event. Astronomers were there, but so were the famous men of the day. Tourism was a concern as well, similar to individuals and businesses in the tourism industry today. Locally, events are planned to entertain the crowds leading up to the big day. In 1878, visitors began arriving weeks before the solar eclipse. Ruskin learned “Western railroads like the Denver & Rio Grande took passengers throughout the mountains on sightseeing excursions before, during and after the eclipse.”
Colorado thought the eclipse in 1878 would be a minor event. It was a great opportunity to showcase the state. Solar eclipses allow people to see parts of the country most people aren’t familiar with. While the eclipse in August traverses the country, it will do so in a small, narrow band.
“That’s going to draw people to places that are very remote,” he said. “I think those areas are beautiful but I’m biased because I’m a westerner myself.”
According to Ruskin, the U.S. Naval Observatory published and distributed a 30-page circular for anyone who witnessed the 1878 event. The idea was anyone could make a scientific observation. The circular provided basic instructions, such as recording the beginning and end of the eclipse and how to sketch the Sun’s corona. Those drawings are in the National Archives in Washington D.C.
These directions were vital for science because British and American almanacs differed by almost four miles, Ruskin said. By having hundred or thousands writing these precise times and locations, accurate measurements, such as the width of the eclipse path, were possible.
Scientists worked with the public showing them how to make proper sketches and providing information. Others couldn’t afford to bring their assistants out west, so they hired and trained locals to help them.
Ruskin said this wasn’t unusual. The Royal Society in London published something similar in 1769 for employees of the British East India Company, who were scattered around the world.
Something similar is being done for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. The Eclipse MegaMovie will gather photos from people along the path of totality. Locally, scientists have been discussing at public events what to expect.
Unlike today, when many businesses and schools intend on keeping their doors open, nearly everything was closed. When the eclipse began in Denver at 2:15 p.m., everyone was looking up.
Care for your eyes was also important. Today, for around a dollar, you can get a basic set of glasses, made for viewing the eclipse. Research has gone into making them as safe as possible. In 1878, unless you were an astronomer, you probably had to make your own solar filter out of smoked glass. This glass was, “a piece of clear glass tinted with thick smoke from a candle or oil lamp. This provided a uniform coating of soot (also called ‘lamp-black’) through which the eclipse could be safely viewed,” Ruskin wrote.
Those who didn’t make their own, arrived in towns to find glass at a premium. Many resorted to searching people’s yards for bits of glass.
Scientists will be conducting many different tests on Aug. 21. In 1878, they were particularly interested in the solar corona. One of the more interesting stories Ruskin found was that of Thomas Edison and his newly invented tasimeter, which he claimed could measure the heat of the corona to a millionth of a degree. Edison arrived late in Rawlins, Wyoming, and, as the story goes, lack of preparation resulted in his viewing the eclipse from a chicken coop. The chickens reportedly came home to roost as the eclipse occurred.
Unfortunately, the tasimeter was too sensitive for the Wyoming winds. While Edison’s tasimeter didn’t work, his trip was a success for tourism. He later returned to Rawlins to go hunting and fishing.
Maria Mitchell, professor at Vassar College and the first woman elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, set up her camp on private land without permission. When the owners found out, they “offered to set up a fence around her camp,” to keep out trespassers.
“The astronomers were in that charmed circle," he said. “They had an aura about them that people wanted to bend over backwards to help them.”
Astronomers and their work were held in such high regard, police officers were stationed near them to keep spectators away during their delicate work at totality. Ruskin said the Laramie Daily Sentinel noted that, “disrupting science would be a capital offense.”
During the 1878 eclipse, input from American Indians was largely ignored. Reports of what they saw are second-hand, written by white Americans. Hugh Lenox Scott, cavalryman, would later become superintendent of West Point Military Academy, witnessed the Cheyenne Indians at Bear Butte.
Others recorded responses by the Pueblo and other tribes near Fort Still, Oklahoma.
Once the eclipse was over, newspapers and magazines began referring to the event as “The Great Solar Eclipse.” The 1918 solar eclipse, by contrast, wasn’t a big event. It occurred at the end of World War I and resources had been used in the war, not for science or exploration.
“In 1878, Congress appropriated $8,000 for expeditions,” he said. “In 1918, they fund a quarter of that or less.”
In 1878, people slept in tents in Colorado Springs at the Garden of the Gods to see an event lasting mere moments. In 2017, we will likely see tents filling campgrounds for the same reason.
Ruskin said he hopes visitors take in more than just the eclipse.
“It’s one thing to drive through I-80,” he said. “But when you get out and stop and look around, you realize with the big skies plus the rolling hills, the bluffs have an austere beauty.”
You can read more accounts of the 1878 eclipse and purchase Ruskin’s book at http://www.firstgreateclipse.com/.