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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.


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