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Solar eclipses in history: Eclipses of the 1800s

Stereograph of the solar eclipse of 1869 from the Marian S. Carson collection.

In preparation for Monday's total solar eclipse, Sinclair is taking a look back at significant eclipses throughout American history. These are three of the most notable ones of the 19th century.

JUNE 16, 1806 - THE GRADUAL APPROACH OF DARKNESS

The June 16, 1806 annular eclipse traversed the country from an area just south of San Diego through New York and New England.

“So rare a phenomenon has not happened since the settlement of this country,” the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser reported days beforehand. “Indeed, we recollect not to have read of but one instance of the kind.”

Following the eclipse, the same paper detailed the event as viewed from New York: “The gradual approach of darkness, the pale and sickly hue given to the objects around us, the brilliant appearance of a few stars, the general suspension of business, the streets lined with inhabitants, all anxiously viewing the appearance and the progress of this sublime phenomenon, and the recollection that many generations must pass away before so grand an exhibition of the kind will occur, all conspired to produce an effect on the mind which cannot be described.”

Prior to the eclipse, Andrew Newell of Boston published a pamphlet titled, “Darkness at Noon, or the Great Solar Eclipse of the 16th of June, 1806, described and represented in every particular, containing, also, a general explanation of eclipses and the causes on which they depend.”

“In the less enlightened ages of the world, the eclipses of the sun and moon were regarded with surprise and consternation, and as intimations of divine displeasure. Amongst many of the ancients, they were considered as the harbingers of disastrous events, and as indications of some revolution in the physical system of things.”

In a letter that fall, President Thomas Jefferson lamented that he was unable to get a better view of the eclipse.

“Fortune seems to have favored every other place but this with a fair view of it,” Jefferson wrote to surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who had sent along his observations. “This spot was covered by a dense cloud through the whole of its duration, & for some time before & after. I hope the great extent of the path of this eclipse round the globe, & especially thro’ our states will furnish many useful corrections of our longitudes. Capt. Lewis will bring us a treasure in this way.”

Years after the death of author James Fenimore Cooper, Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature published his previously unreleased writings on the 1806 eclipse, including his recollection of watching a condemned prisoner view it from a courthouse window.

“During the twelve-month previous, he had seen the sun but once. The prisons of those days were literally dungeons, cut off from the light of day. That striking figure, the very picture of utter misery, his emotion, his wretchedness, I can never forget…. Here was a man drawn from the depths of human misery, to be immediately confronted with the grandest natural exhibition in which the Creator deigns to reveal his Omnipotence to our race. The wretched criminal, a murderer in fact, though not in intention, seemed to gaze upward at the awful spectacle, with an intentness and a distinctness of mental vision far beyond our own, and purchased by an agony scarcely less bitter than death. It seemed as if, for him, the curtain which veils the world beyond the grave, had been lifted.”

MAY 26, 1854 - PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN

A May 26, 1854 total eclipse only passed directly over parts of the northwest and northeast of the U.S. and several provinces of Canada, but it was noteworthy for being the first such event visible in North America after the invention of the daguerreotype, the first publicly available photographic process. Seven images taken by William and Frederick Langenheim have survived, as have a few taken by other photographers.

In an article published on the morning of May 26, the New York Herald attempted to prepare readers for viewing the event by, among other things, recalling other eclipses throughout history.

“But the greatest eclipse of which we have any record is that which occurred at the death of our Saviour,” it states. “‘And it was about the sixth hour,’ says the inspired writer, ‘and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour, and the sun was darkened.’ This was a general eclipse, a total darkness having fallen upon the earth for three hours.”

The Herald also informs readers of the superstitious beliefs of “the Orientals” about eclipses:

“The Orientals, generally, looked upon eclipses as occurrences of a supernatural character, and attributed them to magical science, or evil demons who were endeavoring to destroy the luminary. In fact, they considered it a struggle between the powers of good and evil, and they awaited the issue with breathless anxiety, trembling with apprehension as the shadow passed over the disc of the sun, and radiant with joy and triumph as it receded and ultimately disappeared. Some more zealous or more courageous than the frightened multitude, formed themselves into volunteer auxiliary corps to assist the sorepressed (?) God of Day, and armed with gongs and kettle drums endeavored to drive away his terrible enemy.”

The following day, the Daily Union of Washington, D.C. struggled to relate the experience of the eclipse to its readers.

“Lamentably deficient ourself in the science of astronomy, we cannot, with instruction or interest to the reader, dwell upon the imposing phenomenon but will only say that, in all respects the scene equaled in magnitude and interest in the expectation of our citizens,” they wrote before simply quoting the “Encyclopedia Americana” entry on eclipses.

A report in the Grand River Times notes that the Scientific Association dispatched twenty “distinguished men” to study the eclipse from different parts of the country.

Astronomer Stephen Alexander, who observed the event from Ogdensburgh, New York, published his findings in the Astronomical Journal later that year. In addition to changes in light and temperature as the moon covered the sun, he also saw evidence of an increase in moisture.

“A little girl was overheard asking her brother to go home, as she feared that it would rain,” Alexander wrote. “Here, at Princeton, about the time of greatest obscuration, an individual was seen walking with an umbrella raised, as a defense against the approaching shower; though the sky was very clear.”

JULY 29, 1878 - THE AMERICAN ECLIPSE

The path of totality for the eclipse of July 29, 1878 passed over Alaska before traveling over the continental U.S. from Montana to Louisiana—“from Siberia to St. Domingo,” as the New York Herald put it.

Astronomers saw a great opportunity to learn from the eclipse, and apparently some in Washington did too. Congress appropriated $8,000 for scientific expeditions to the Rocky Mountains to witness the event.

The day before, the Herald published an extensive guide for viewing the event “so that the popular interest in the event may be based on an intelligent appreciation of all the facts relating to it.” The Rocky Mountain News offered similar but more concise directions, which it described as “a good thing to cut out and paste in your bonnet.”

On July 30, the Herald ran a report via telegraph from Wyoming, where Thomas Edison and others were stationed.

“The observation of the eclipse has been a grand success and the astronomers here are in a high state of happiness. Everything passed off in the most satisfactory manner.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune posted dispatches from throughout the country on what was observable and, in many cases, what was obscured by bad weather.

“No perturbation was evinced by animals,” a report from Lake Charles, Louisiana states. “Dogs and cats retained their position in the shadow here. They were lying down when the eclipse began, and the cattle browsed quietly in the fields. Children were interested, but not frightened, while looking through smoked-glass at the sun.”

According to David Baron, author of “American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World,” the 1878 eclipse was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it was passing directly over the country’s burgeoning western frontier. This offered Americans a valuable opportunity to study the still-unsolved mysteries of the sun.

“In 1878, the U.S. was a young country with a poor reputation in the sciences," he said. "The eclipse offered American scientists a chance to show Europe that we were an intellectual force to be reckoned with. It was a chance for the country to prove that it was a player on the international, scientific stage.”

From a scientific perspective, though, the biggest developments resulting from the eclipse were underwhelming. Astronomer James Craig Watson was seeking evidence of a planet called Vulcan orbiting somewhere between Mercury and the sun. Edison was testing a new invention called a tasimeter that was intended to detect heat in the sun’s corona.

“Obviously, neither of those announcements withstood the test of time,” Baron said. “There is no planet Vulcan, and Edison’s tasimeter turned out to be a dud—forgotten in the dustbin of history.”

The New York Herald related one of the challenges Edison encountered:

“A strong wind began blowing the frail pine structures used for observatories. These commenced to rock. Edison’s observatory, which, in its normal condition, is a hen house, was particularly susceptible. He hurried toward it only to find his sensitively adjusted apparatus in an extreme state of commotion…Hatless and coatless he ran to a neighboring lumber yard, and in a moment a dozen stalwart men were carrying boards with which to prop up the structure and erect a temporary fence at its side.”

Instead, Baron said the lasting impact of the 1878 eclipse was social.

“The eclipse inspired America to rally around science as a shared, national goal—sort of like the moon landing would be a century later,” he said. “It was an important step toward the United States becoming, in the twentieth century, the world’s scientific superpower.”

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