Skip to main content

American Eclipse: How an Intrepid Band of Ladies (and Edison) Saw the 1878 Eclipse

American Eclipse, the nonfiction book by David Baron about the 1878 solar eclipse, was published just this summer in anticipation of the August 21st solar eclipse that will be visible across the middle of America, cutting a horizontal swath across the country, lingering longest in Illinois (yes, of course I'm proud of this) and being most fully visible in what looks like Kentucky and Indiana.

The book's subtitle is "A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World."

So that's fun.

It's really readable, and I say that as someone who thought The Martian was way too damn sciencey. Baron keeps skirting the edges of my interest but does not go over the cliff into the pits of Too Much Science Don't Care. Because he also talks about humans! I love humans!

The main humans involved here are University of Michigan astronomer James Craig Watson, Vassar astronomer and comet-discoverer Maria Mitchell, and then Thomas Edison.

and we all know about him

James Craig Watson
. Kind of a douchebag. Discovered a ton of asteroids. The kind of guy who yells at his wife not to write her mother that he's sick while they're traveling, but hero wife that she is, she just basically writes "Now he's yelled at me not to tell you that he's sick, but I'm not rewriting this whole thing, so there we go." Watson was SURE that an "intermercurial" planet named Vulcan existed, and the only time to find it was when the sun was covered. As you might suspect due to today's knowledge, Vulcan is not a thing.

Maria Mitchell. First American woman to discover a comet! All the back in 1848. Which is the same year she was the first woman elected first woman elected to be a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was later the first professor hired at Vassar and taught astronomy to scores of 19th century college women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch. Mitchell pretty much wanted to lead an expedition of Vassar women to study the eclipse in order to make men shut up about academia masculinizing women and making their ovaries shrivel.

Edison. Invented some kind of gadget designed to measure heat given off by stars and wanted to test it. It ended up pretty much not working, but whatever.

I came out of this book knowing things like the phrase PATH OF TOTALITY, which is one time scientists really stepped up to the plate in terms of naming things.

that's one dollar they don't need to spend

The path of totality is the area where the total eclipse can be seen. You want to be in that. Especially if you're a 19th century scientist who still doesn't know what the hell the sun's corona is. In 1878, that path was going through the American West, which means scientists packed up their telescopes and got on trains heading west. Trains that gave discounted or free fare to all scientists except the women because why would they do that.

Mitchell and her band of Vassar ladies headed to Colorado. Edison went with a party to Montana. The idea among the scientific community was to spread out, because if everyone tried one town and that town turned out to be cloudy that day, you were screwed.

The Vassar band encounters problems, starting with, when an amateur scientist wrote an official about getting the scientist train discount on trains heading west (this was a real thing), the official sends him a signed letter to show and try to get the discount, but when Maria Mitchell, DISCOVERER OF A COMET and Vassar professor, wrote with the same request, that official was like "Haha I dunno, better try your luck, maybe they'll help out."

Their telescopes arrived, but the bag with their lenses was stuck hundreds of miles away at a railroad transfer. LADIES GOTTA DEAL WITH SHIT. But Mitchell went on to speak at women's rights gatherings (sometimes also attended by Frances Willard -- all the pieces are falling into place) and people were weirdly surprised that a band of ladies would go and calmly study an eclipse without, like, standing on a bucket screaming about the vote during it (although that would've been neat). The basic response was "OH, women are be pro-women's rights AND ladylike." To which I say screwwwwwwwwww you, some of the people of the 19th century. 

Everyone is a giant nerd about this eclipse. It's super cute. Even outside the path of totality, the sun is partially covered, so there's an excellent paragraph about how New York pauses in its busy motion and turns its attention heavenwards for a brief moment. Scientists science, normal people go "ooooo" and then after three minutes, it's over.

The 2017 solar eclipse is so soon! Read this book before or after.


  1. There is a Frances Willard street in my town. Several streets are named after random women's rights and/or temperance activists nobody in this century has heard of, because the founding couple were big on those things.

    We are giant nerds about this eclipse. Maybe I will have to read this.

  2. "people were weirdly surprised that a band of ladies would go and calmly study an eclipse without, like, standing on a bucket screaming about the vote during it " I mean, I'd like to think that was happening somewhere in the country.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How to Build a Girl Introductory Post, which is full of wonderful things you probably want to read

Acclaimed (in England mostly) lady Caitlin Moran has a novel coming out. A NOVEL. Where before she has primarily stuck to essays. Curious as we obviously were about this, I and a group of bloggers are having a READALONG of said novel, probably rife with spoilers (maybe they don't really matter for this book, though, so you should totally still read my posts). This is all hosted/cared for/lovingly nursed to health by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads) because she has a lovely fancy job at an actual bookshop ( Odyssey Books , where you can in fact pre-order this book and then feel delightful about yourself for helping an independent store). Emily and I have negotiated the wonders of Sri Lankan cuisine and wandered the Javits Center together. Would that I could drink with her more often than I have. I feel like we could get to this point, Emily INTRODUCTION-wise (I might've tipped back a little something this evening, thus the constant asides), I am Alice. I enjoy

Harry Potter 2013 Readalong Signup Post of Amazingness and Jollity

Okay, people. Here it is. Where you sign up to read the entire Harry Potter series (or to reminisce fondly), starting January 2013, assuming we all survive the Mayan apocalypse. I don't think I'm even going to get to Tina and Bette's reunion on The L Word until after Christmas, so here's hopin'. You guys know how this works. Sign up if you want to. If you're new to the blog, know that we are mostly not going to take this seriously. And when we do take it seriously, it's going to be all Monty Python quotes when we disagree on something like the other person's opinion on Draco Malfoy. So be prepared for your parents being likened to hamsters. If you want to write lengthy, heartfelt essays, that is SWELL. But this is maybe not the readalong for you. It's gonna be more posts with this sort of thing: We're starting Sorceror's/Philosopher's Stone January 4th. Posts will be on Fridays. The first post will be some sort of hilar

Book Blogger Hop, Pt II

All right. The question for this week is:  "Do you read only one book at a time, or do you have several going at once?" Oh-ho my. I have an issue with book commitment. I start a new book, and it's exciting and fresh, and I get really jazzed about it, and then 20% of the way through, almost without fail, I start getting bored and want to start another book. I once had seven books going at the same time, because I kept getting bored and starting new ones. It's a sickness. Right now I'm being pretty good and working on The Monk , Northanger Abbey , Kissing the Witch , and I'm about to start Waiting for the Barbarians since my friend lent it to me. But The Monk and NA are basically books I only read when I'm at work, so I don't see it so much as working on four books, as having books in different locales. Yes. This entry wasn't as good as some of the others, but I shall rally on the morrow. Yes I shall.