The eclipse that made America great
It was a perfect summer afternoon when they arrived at the summit. Overhead, a cloudless blue sky gave cause for celebration. The hundreds of hikers who’d made the trek to Pikes Peak toasted with a feast of champagne that filled the valley below with drunken laughter.
Then, at exactly 3:29 p.m., the cerulean sky grew dark. The temperature plummeted. From the northwest came what one picnicker called “an angry black cloud of inky blackness” that advanced with the ferocity of a hurricane, violently sweeping over the land like a onyx curtain.
Before anyone could blink, the blackness had engulfed the mountaintop. Onlookers gazed up to find that the sun had gone dark like a burned-out light bulb. Silence fell over the crowd.
Then the spectators erupted in joy. “Cheer after cheer echoed and re-echoed among the surrounding mountains,” noted a journalist. They were witnessing what they had come for: a total eclipse of the sun.
It was Monday, July 29, 1878, and the Great American Eclipse — which sliced the nation from the Montana Territory down to the coast of Louisiana — had reached the Centennial State, barely two years old. After months of media hype and weeks of
painstaking preparation, thousands of scientists, amateur astronomers and adventure seekers from across the globe descended on Colorado and Wyoming to witness the rare alignment of sun, moon and earth.
That’s but one memorable scene in David Baron’s “American Eclipse,” the new historical account of “how an unfledged young nation came to embrace something much larger than itself — the enduring human quest for knowledge and truth.”
Baron, who lives in Boulder, sets out to educate and entertain. “American Eclipse” is a social story dressed in scientific garb, more This American Life than Scientific American.
He starts at the height of the Gilded Age with the sorry state of American science, which lagged embarrassingly far behind its European peers. “It must be acknowledged,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville after his 1831 tour of the young republic, summarizing widespread European opinion, “that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States.”
The 1878 eclipse offered Americans a fleeting, three-minute window to prove that wrong. And, no less, on home turf. Scientists wanted to capitalize on the ideal, eclipse-created conditions for star-gazing to put to rest fundamental questions about the solar system: Why did Mercury have such a peculiar and inexplicable orbit? Did another planet exist between Mercury and the sun? What exactly makes up the sun? What about the solar corona?
However impertinent to the average American, these problems vexed 19th century astronomers, who were tantalized by the prospect of a discovery that could win renown for themselves and glory for their nation. Those aspiring to acclaim, though, almost exclusively lived and worked in the universities of Europe and, to a lesser extent, New England. Baron convincingly shows how, for a brief few weeks in the summer of 1878, the eyes of the international scientific community looked to the Wild West, a mythic land of popular lore and common misconception.
“Denver was no rude, utilitarian borough,” Baron writes, “but instead an oasis of civilization in a barbarous West.” Despite unpaved streets, perennial sewage, and a reputation as a refuge for errant criminals looking to escape the East Coast, the Mile High City “aspired to elegance, even enlightenment.” That explained why eclipse chasers from Princeton, Chicago, Washington and London flocked to Cherry Creek, Capitol Hill and the peaks of Colorado mountains to glimpse the cosmic splendor firsthand.
The book’s story un- spools through three characters: Thomas Edison, the eccentric and quintessentially American inventor who ventured to Wyoming with a team of leading intellectuals — and his own personal eclipse correspondent — to test out a dubious new gadget on the haloed sun; Maria Mitchell, the Vassar astronomer and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women who set out to “transform American culture by expanding the paltry opportunities for women in science”; and James Craig Watson, a brash cosmologist with a reputation for genius and an itching for the fame he believed his birthright.
With an expert storyteller at the helm, a narrative that might otherwise sink in arcane technicalities stays afloat at a brisk, accessible pace. Baron breaks down the science with a patience learned from three decades in public radio. “In broadcasting, you can’t reread,” he said in an interview. “So you need to write very simply, in a straightforward manner, so people can easily follow its direction.”
The result successfully swerves from the dry, impenetrable prose of science writing, grasping instead at something poetic, often funny. The author winks at historic parallels between bygone figures and realities in the present. Edison, for instance, will remind many of Elon Musk, an entrepreneur as savvy at technological disruption as self-promotion.
Baron downplays any one-to-one likeness, though. Instead, he emphasizes the broad similarities of the post-reconstruction era with contemporary polarization.
“In 1878, we had a total eclipse that really brought the country together in this shared experience of wonder at nature,” he said. “There was a sense of patriotism that this was our eclipse.”
This August, he sees a similar opportunity for unity through awe. “The eclipse of 2017 won’t solve our political disagreements,” he said, “but it can be a shared experience for us as a nation to put down our differences for a day and simply enjoy something amazing.”
“American Eclipse” recounts the Great American Eclipse of the late 19th century, a celestial phenomenon that inspired scientists, tourists and shadowchasers across the world to descend on Colorado and Wyoming in July 1878.
A sketch of the solar corona during totality, by renowned astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley, as seen from atop Pikes Peak in 1878.
Boulder author David Baron decided to write the book 19 years ago after viewing his first total solar eclipse in Aruba in February 1998.