The Eclipse That Made America Great

The solar eclipse of 1878 was a chance for the young nation’s scientists to finally shine.

Total eclipse of the sun as observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun as observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory (New York Public Library)

Historians have identified the period between 1861 and 1877—from the beginning of the Civil War to the end of Reconstruction—as the era that created the America we recognize today, when a continental power finally coalesced north and south, ocean to ocean. At the time of the 1878 total solar eclipse, the country was still adjusting to this new reality.

Like an ungainly teenager after a growth spurt, the United States was settling into its larger, more muscular body, and it was beginning to exert its strength. Soon it would project its military might overseas, interpreting Manifest Destiny on an ever-grander scale as it grabbed possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and by 1900 this brawny empire would overshadow its European rivals economically, outperforming Britain, France, and Germany in industrial production. Around that same time, America would start eclipsing the Old World in another realm: the pursuit of science—an eventuality that, a few generations earlier, many in Europe thought would never come to pass.

“It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker, after his visit to America in 1831. “Many Europeans, struck by this fact, have looked upon it as a natural and inevitable result of equality; and they have thought that, if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon-lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness.”

Simon Newcomb did not subscribe to this view, but the American astronomer agreed that his own country faced a special challenge. “In other intellectual nations, science has a fostering mother,” he maintained. “In Germany the universities, in France the government, in England the scientific societies ... The only one it can look to here is the educated public.” In a democratic and egalitarian America, the citizenry was in charge of the nation’s destiny, and therefore advancing science in the United States required convincing the populace of the value of research—that it was worth promotion and investment.

The eclipse of 1878, then, arrived at a fortuitous moment in this campaign, and its influence was far-reaching and multifaceted.

“It is good for our general culture if startling astronomical events awaken an interest in the things above us,” Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote, and indeed the eclipse had that effect: instilling awe about the workings of nature, educating a broad public through a flood of science news, and infusing astronomical research with a patriotic fervor as Americans cheered on their home team of observers. For the United States, a nation of strivers, the celestial event suggested a higher calling—a point made, appropriately, by a man of the cloth.

“When the time of our late eclipse drew near, what a procession of arts and of instruments moved far out to where the shadow would fall!” the Reverend David Swing, an influential preacher, sermonized from the stage of the fashionable McVicker’s Theater in Chicago in late 1878. “In the very summer when we are lamenting most that mankind knows no pursuit except that of gold,” he proclaimed, “[this] Rocky Mountain scene only faintly illustrates the intellectual activity of our era. If the passion for money is great in our day, it is also true that the intellectual power of the same period is equally colossal.” Americans radiated pride when speaking of the astronomical event that their nation had hosted. As one Centennial State newspaper exulted, “Colorado has ... furnished the grandest eclipse of the age.”

The federal institutions that had sponsored expeditions claimed a share of the glory as well. The U.S. Naval Observatory preened over what its efforts had produced: an abundance of new photographs, drawings, spectroscopic data, and other observations for scientists to ponder in the years ahead. “It is thought that the results reached are important, and in many respects differed from things previously seen,” Admiral John Rodgers, head of the observatory, wrote to the secretary of the Navy. “In many respects this is perhaps inferior in interest to no eclipse ever observed, since the weather was exceptionally fine, and it was attempted to take advantage of the previous experience of the world.” The Naval Observatory prepared a thick volume of reports for wide distribution.

The U.S. Army Signal Corps seemed to be making similar plans. General Albert Myer, the corps’ commander, assigned meteorologist Cleveland Abbe to compile a report on the eclipse observations from Pikes Peak and from weather service observers elsewhere. Abbe avidly took up the task. He was eager to promulgate a theory he had devised just after totality, that those vast rays he had seen emanating from the corona were enormous streams of meteors pouring into the sun. This idea aligned with another theory some 19th-century astronomers embraced—that the sun’s energy was generated by a constant rain of material from space—and Abbe further proposed that his meteor streams might account for periodic displays of shooting stars on earth. Abbe surmised that meteor showers occurred when our planet passed through these highways of debris. (In fact, we know now that such showers result from the earth passing through dust trails from comets, and the sun derives its energy from nuclear fusion, a process unknown in Abbe’s time.)

Portrait of Cleveland Abbe
Library of Congress

Several months after the eclipse, in October 1878, Abbe gave his boss his lengthy report—a full 461 pages—at which point the general, perhaps still reluctant to share the spotlight with his underling, put a stop to the whole project. Only General Myer’s death, two years later, would finally give Abbe the chance to publish his report, but by then Abbe had long since shared his hypothesis about the coronal streamers—and his ordeal on Pikes Peak—with other scientists and the press, and he must have been cheered by the response, which helped restore not only his reputation as an astronomer but also his nickname.

“Was ever [an] astronomer in such a plight?” the Chicago Tribune wrote in a humorously flattering article. “Sick, nearsighted, flat on his back, trying to squint through a pair of old, defective spectacles,” and yet Abbe had made what seemed a potentially important discovery. “Now if Old Probabilities, with only a bad pair of spectacles, a few obliging young men, and good Mrs. Copley, and flat on his back at that, could do so much, what might he not have done if he had had a telescope, and a tasimeter, and a galvanometer, and an integrating telescope, and could have stood on his feet?” Before long, periodicals in London were also recounting Abbe’s deed. France and England had long boasted stories of eclipse adventure—Jules Janssen’s balloon escape from Paris under siege, Norman Lockyer’s shipwreck on the way to Sicily. Now America could claim its own tale of pluck and tribulation in the race to catch the shadow of the moon.

Scientists in the Old World offered generous praise for what the United States had accomplished. Lockyer declared in the pages of his own Nature, “I regard this eclipse as the most important that has been observed for many years as it throws much needed light on many points hitherto obscured in doubt.” Scotland’s Astronomer Royal Charles Piazzi Smyth, in a letter to Henry Draper, extended his congratulations on the eclipse, “which American men, and American instruments, methods, and ideas, have made more peculiarly and grandly American than any solar eclipse you have had in your country yet.” For those scientists on the receiving end of the praise—the Americans who had gone west seeking fame and respect and societal change in the ethereal glow of the sun’s corona—the event’s influence would endure, both for good and for ill.

In the fall of 1878, three months after the eclipse, Maria Mitchell once again attended the annual Woman’s Congress, this time in Providence. In addition to the usual crowd of activists and intellectuals, a large contingent of the general public attended. Schools canceled classes so teachers and older students could hear the lectures. More than a thousand tickets were sold. Two years earlier, in 1876, when Mitchell had presided at the gathering in Philadelphia, she had delivered the opening remarks. Now, as a vice president of the assembly, she was advertised to speak on the final evening.

At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 11, the audience pressed into Low’s Opera House, filling the ground floor and boxes. Up on the stage stood a blackboard. Mitchell ascended and drew three circles in chalk to represent bodies in our solar system. “In a total eclipse of the sun, the earth passes through the small dark cone of shadow which the moon throws upon the earth,” she explained, adding lines to her diagram to indicate the area in shade. “The dark shadow is never great in extent, at most but about 200 miles, but as the moon moves along it throws its shadow upon one place after another, circle of black overlying circle of black, until if we map down the footsteps of the shadow a narrow band of black seems to girdle the country.”

Mitchell described the path of totality of the recent eclipse, a line that crossed rugged terrain from Montana to Texas. “Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of his science,” she said. “My party chose Denver.”

Here she turned from professor to storyteller, relating the adventures of the Vassar College eclipse expedition. She told of adversity—the storms that plagued the region, the railroads that misplaced her luggage. “We haunted the telegraph rooms and sent imploring messages,” she recalled of her desperation. She praised those who had come to her party’s aid—a “friend who lived in Denver” (Alida Avery), and the Sisters of Charity. “The black-robed sweet-faced women came out to offer us the refreshing cup of tea and the new-made bread.” And she described the flawless sky that met totality. “As the last ray of sunlight disappeared the corona burst out, all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it.”

Portrait of Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell (Bettmann / Contributor / Reuters)

Thomas Edison’s lecture on the eclipse, in St. Louis, had been technical and dry. Maria Mitchell’s approached poetry. “Looking toward the southeast we saw the black band of shadow moving from us—160 miles over the plain and toward the Indian Territory. It was not the flitting of the cloud shadow over hill and dale,” she said, “it was a picture which the sun threw at our feet of the dignified march of the moon in its orbit.” The astronomer finished her performance to great applause, “conclusive proof,” a Chicago newspaper noted, “that Miss Mitchell had popularized science.”

If at previous meetings of the Woman’s Congress the press had sometimes ridiculed the speakers as grotesque harpies, the reviews now seemed unequivocally positive. “Professor Maria Mitchell of Vassar, who came to describe the solar eclipse at Denver with graphic and beautiful language, must have satisfied every man fortunately present that the highest scientific attainment is compatible with true womanliness,” a Boston daily commented. “Possibly they may have felt that she gave a masculine stroke in drawing her diagrams, but would certainly concede that she proved herself perfectly feminine when she lost her trunks.”

Mitchell’s story of robustly feminine Vassar astronomers surely helped her cause—transforming public attitudes toward women in science. However, proponents of the broader effort to expand women’s education were still haunted, as the founding dean of Bryn Mawr College later put it, “by the clanging chains of that gloomy little specter, Edward H. Clarke’s Sex in Education.”

The idea had not yet been banished that—as proposed in Dr. Clarke’s 1873 book—education itself could coarsen and sicken American girls. By the early 1880s, though, a group of female college graduates would form an organization, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (now the American Association of University Women), which would boast among its members a physician, Emma Culbertson, Vassar class of 1877, who had received her medical degree after participating in Mitchell’s eclipse expedition to Denver. The association would immediately take up Clarke’s screed and answer it with logic by surveying more than 700 alumnae, inquiring extensively into their health (including menstrual health) before, during, and after college. The completed questionnaires were then delivered for analysis to an impartial outsider, the head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor. His findings, issued in 1885, were clear: “The graduates, as a body, entered college in good health, passed through the course of study prescribed without material change in health, and since graduation ... do not seem to have become unfitted to meet the responsibilities or bear their proportionate share of the burdens of life.”

College did not harm women, the report emphasized, and the evidence was so conclusive “that there is little need, were it within our province, for extended discussion of the subject.” In other words, the case was effectively closed, and while the ghost that Dr. Clarke had conjured would linger for some time, its reign of terror finally began to lift, due—fittingly—to a scientifically minded group of women.

Overall, the 1880s would be a time of energy and optimism for women’s higher education, but Mitchell herself, after a long run of good health, slowed down. Two years after her journey to Colorado, she fell seriously ill and left Vassar to convalesce with family on Nantucket. “If I am to get really well,” she wrote a short time later, weak in body but strong in resolve, “may I be enabled to work for others and not for myself.” She did just that, returning to Vassar to teach and fight for women’s rights until she physically could do so no longer. She died at age 70 in 1889, still 31 years before American women were finally granted the vote.

This article is adapted from Baron’s new book, American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World.