Sand and Stars

Solar Eclipse… with Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)
Maria Mitchell (1818-1898)

21 Aug 2017

You don’t see a total eclipse – you experience it. It is an exquisitely odd and wondrous experience that affects one profoundly, and is very difficult to describe, beyond saying there are changes above you, around you, and within you.

I have only experienced one total solar eclipse – on December 4, 2002, from the far northern Kruger National Park in Limpopo, South Africa. And during the moment of totality when we experienced the strange and rare sensation of solar emissions, both visible and invisible, vanishing right in the middle of the day, it was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.

Today, as we all know, a total solar eclipse is cutting through the entire continental United States. Like most people who have experienced a solar eclipse, all you want to do is experience another… but alas, that is impossible for me today, so I did the second best thing… I went eclipse chasing in America with Maria Mitchell – the now largely ignored first professional woman astronomer in the United States and a role model for generations of aspiring women scientists.

Vassar’s professor of astronomy, Maria Mitchell led an all-female expedition from that pioneering women’s institution to observe the July 29, 1878 total solar eclipse that also cut across America.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the book I had ordered about this extremely gifted, intelligent and independent woman, Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters by Henry Albers (Editor) arrived. A fascinating read. And it is from this marvellous book that I have transcribed her report of the 1878 eclipse.

The women set out wooden chairs, erected a small tent for shade, and mounted their three telescopes on tall tripods. (Mitchell had brought with her the same telescope she had used on her home turf of Nantucket in 1847 to discover her famous comet.) Image credit Vassar College
The women set out wooden chairs, erected a small tent for shade, and mounted their three telescopes on tall tripods. (Mitchell had brought with her the same telescope she had used on her home turf of Nantucket in 1847 to discover her famous comet.) Image credit Archives and Special Collections ,Vassar College Library

In her own words – (and with the images of the scientists who sketched and photographed the eclipse)…

“1878. In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

“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.

Chicago Times
The path of totality. Chicago Times

“But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

“My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ‘Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

The Total Solar Eclipse of July 29, 1878 photographed by Henry Draper, who viewed it from Rawlings, Wyoming
The total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878 photographed by Henry Draper, who viewed it from Rawlins, Wyoming Territory

“A journey from Boston to Denver makes one hopeful for the future of our country. We had hour after hour and day after day of railroad travel, over level, unbroken land on which cattle fed unprotected, summer and winter, and which seemed to implore the traveller to stay and to accept its richness. It must be centuries before the now unpeopled land of western Kansas and Colorado can be crowded.

“We started from Boston a party of two; at Cincinnati a third joined us; at Kansas City we came upon a fourth who was ready to fall into our ranks, and at Denver two more awaited us; so we were a party of six – ‘All good women and true.’

“All along the road it had been evident that the country was roused to a knowledge of the coming eclipse; we overheard remarks about it; small telescopes travelled with us, and our landlord at Kansas City, when I asked him to take care of a chronometer, said he had taken care of fifty of them in the previous fortnight. Our party had three telescopes and one chronometer.

“We had travelled so comfortably all along the Santa Fe road, from Kansas City to Pueblo, that we had forgotten the possibility of other railroad annoyances than those of heat and dust until we reached Pueblo. At Pueblo all seemed to change. We left the Santa Fe road and entered upon that of the Rio Grande.

“Which road was to blame, it is not for me to say, but there was trouble at once about our ’round-trip ticket.’ That settled, we supposed all was right.

“In sending out telescopes so far as from Boston to Denver, I had carefully taken out the glasses, and packed them in my trunks. I carried the chronometer in my hand.

“It was only five hours’ travel from Pueblo to Denver, and we went on to that city. The trunks, for some unexplained reason, or for no reason at all, chose to remain at Pueblo.

“One telescope-tube reached Denver when we did; but a telescope-tube is of no value without glasses. We learned that there was a war between the two railroads which unite at Pueblo, and war, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.

“The unit of measure of value which the railroad man believes in is entirely different from that in which the scientist rests his faith.

“A war between two railroads seemed very small compared with two minutes forty seconds of observation of a total eclipse. One was terrestrial, the other cosmic.

The eclipse of 1878 was prominently featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly of August 24, 1878. This scene shows an eclipse observation party in the vicinity of Gray’s Peak and Torrey’s Peak, in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado
The eclipse of 1878 was prominently featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly of August 24, 1878. This scene shows an eclipse observation party in the vicinity of Gray’s Peak and Torrey’s Peak, in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado

“It was Wednesday when we reached Denver. The eclipse was to occur the following Monday.

“We haunted the telegraph-rooms, and sent imploring messages. We placed ourselves at the station, and watched the trains as they tossed out their freight; we listened to every express-wagon which passed our door without stopping, and just as we were trying to find if a telescope could be hired or bought in Denver, the glasses arrived.

“It was now Friday; we must put up tents and telescopes, and test the glasses.

“It rained hard on Friday – nothing could be done. It rained harder on Saturday. It rained hardest of all on Sunday, and hail mingled with the rain. But Monday morning was clear and bright. It was strange enough to find that we might camp anywhere around Denver. Our hostess suggested to us to place ourselves on ‘McCullough’s Addition.’ In New York or Boston, if I were about to camp on private grounds I should certainly ask permission. In the far West you choose your spot of ground, you dig post-holes and you pitch tents, and you set up telescopes and inhabit the land; and then the owner of the land comes to you, and asks if he may not put up a fence for you, to keep off intruders, and the nearest residents come to you and offer aid of any kind.

“Our camping-place was near the house occupied by sisters of charity, and the black-robed, sweet-faced women came out to offer us the refreshing cup of tea and the new-made bread.

“All that we needed was ‘space,’ and of that there was plenty.

“Our tents being up and the telescopes mounted, we had time to look around at the view. The space had the unlimitedness that we usually connect with sea and sky. Our tents were on the slope of a hill, at the foot of which we were about six thousand feet above the sea. The plain was three times as high as the hills of the Hudson-river region, and there arose on the south, almost from west to east, the peaks upon peaks of the Rocky mountains. One needs to live upon such a plateau for weeks, to take in the grandeur of the panorama.

“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people. Camping parties who put up telescopes are always supposed to be corporations with particular privileges, and curious lookers-on gather around, and try to enter what they consider a charmed circle. We were remarkably free from specialists of this kind. Camping on the south-west slope of the hill, we were hidden on the north and east, and another party which chose the brow of the hill was much more attractive to the crowd. Our good serving-man was told to send away the few strollers who approached; even our friends from the city were asked to remove beyond the reach of voice.

“There is always some one to be found in every gathering who will not submit to law. At the time of the total eclipse in Iowa, in 1869, there passed in and out among our telescopes and observers an unknown, closely veiled woman. The remembrance of that occasion never comes to my mind without the accompaniment of a fluttering green veil.

Astronomer Samuel Langley
Astronomer Samuel Langley managed to lug a huge brass telescope and related equipment to the top of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, from where he did this beautiful sketch of the corona

“This time it was a man. How he came among us and why he remained, no one can say. Each one supposed that the others knew, and that there was good reason for his presence. If I was under the tent, wiping glasses, he stood beside me; if the photographer wished to make a picture of the party, this man came to the front; and when I asked the servant to send off the half-vagrant boys and girls who stood gazing at us, this man came up and said to me in a confidential tone, ‘They do not understand the sacredness of the occasion, and the fineness of the conditions.’ There was something regal in his audacity, but he was none the less a tramp.

“Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

“When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

“When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glasses – the less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

French astronomer Camille Fla viewed frommmarion's sketch of the eclipse,
French astronomer Camille Flammarion’s sketch of the eclipse which he viewed from Nebraska

“One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

“Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

“Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction. [Footnote: As the computed time for the first contact drew near, the breath of the counter grew short, and the seconds were almost gasped and threatened to become inaudible, when Miss Mitchell, without moving her eye from the tube of the telescope, took up the counting, and continued until the young lady recovered herself, which she did immediately.]

“The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

“Each observer made her record in silence, and then we turned and faced one another, with record in hand – we differed more than a second; it was a large difference.

“Between first contact and totality there was more than an hour, and we had little to do but look at the beautiful scenery and watch the slow motion of a few clouds, on a height which was cloud-land to dwellers by the sea.

“Our photographer begged us to keep our positions while he made a picture of us. The only value to the picture is the record that it preserves of the parallelism of the three telescopes. You would say it was stiff and unnatural, did you not know that it was the ordering of Nature herself – they all point to the centre of the solar system.

“As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

“As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

Astronomer Simon Newcomb of the Nautical Almanac Office sketched the eclipse from Separartion, Wyoming Territory

“It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

“There was certainly not the beauty of the eclipse of 1869. Then immense radiations shot out in all directions, and threw themselves over half the sky. In 1869, the rosy prominences were so many, so brilliant, so fantastic, so weirdly changing, that the eye must follow them; now, scarcely a protuberance of color, only a roseate light around the sun as the totality ended. But if streamers and prominences were absent, the corona itself was a great glory. Our special artist, who made the sketch for my party, could not bear the light.

Drawing by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, French artist and astronomer

“When the two minutes forty seconds were over, each observer left her instrument, turned in silence from the sun, and wrote down brief notes. Happily, some one broke through all rules of order, and shouted out, ‘The shadow! the shadow!’ And looking toward the southeast we saw the black band of shadow moving from us, a hundred and sixty miles over the plain, and toward the Indian Territory. It was not the flitting of the closer shadow over the hill and dale: it was a picture which the sun threw at our feet of the dignified march of the moon in its orbit.

“And now we looked around. What a strange orange light there was in the north-east! what a spectral hue to the whole landscape! Was it really the same old earth, and not another planet?

“Great is the self-denial of those who follow science. They who look through telescopes at the time of a total eclipse are martyrs; they severely deny themselves. The persons who can say that they have seen a total eclipse of the sun are those who rely upon their eyes. My aids, who touched no glasses, had a season of rare enjoyment. They saw Mercury, with its gleam of white light, and Mars, with its ruddy glow; they saw Regulus come out of the darkening blue on one side of the sun, Venus shimmer and Procyon twinkle near the horizon, and Arcturus shine down from the zenith.

“We saw the giant shadow as it left us and passed over the lands of the untutored Indian; they saw it as it approached from the distant west, as it fell upon the peaks of the mountain-tops, and, in the impressive stillness, moved directly for our camping-ground.

“The savage, to whom it is the frowning of the Great Spirit, is awe-struck and alarmed; the scholar, to whom it is a token of the inviolability of law, is serious and reverent.

Maria Mitchell…what a tremendous astronomer with whom to experience the 1878 total solar eclipse!

Copyright © 2017 Susan Young