A total solar eclipse is coming on August 21, 2017. The last time America experienced one like it was 1878. In the days of the Industrial Revolution, the western expansion, and explosive empirical discovery, America was eager to show well-heeled European scientists that they too could conduct successful observations.

Eclipses are important occurrences for astronomers because it allows for a clearer view around the sun. Typically, the sun’s brightness prevents accurate vision or recording of the corona, the sun’s outer atmosphere. At the time, there was also a working theory of an unseen Vulcan planet — one between Mercury and the Sun. James Craig Watson believed he could prove its existence while the Sun’s blinding rays were dampened for a few minutes.

So many asteroids have now been identified that they have been famously disparaged as “vermin of the skies,” but in the 1870s they were still relatively novel, and a heated international race was underway to see which country could claim the largest share. … Finding one of these diminutive worlds required mind-numbing labor: concentrating on a small patch of sky, mapping all stars visible through one’s telescope, and reexamining that same region night after night until a new starlike object appeared that moved almost imperceptibly across the field.

After determining the likely path of the eclipse, scientists crated up telescopes, lens, filters, star maps, and books. Thomas Edison brought a new invention, a tasimeter, that was created to measure infrared radiation — in this case to get an accurate reading of the temperature of the sun’ corona.

Maria Mitchell with her astronomy students

Perhaps most intriguingly, Maria Mitchell, and her cadre of Vassar astronomy students, also set off on the weeks long, bumpy, dusty and dangerous journey to the untamed West for a chance to view the eclipse. Except perhaps for the setting, this jaunt must have seemed like old hat for Mitchell. She was already the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850).

I do wish the book gave a bit more to Miss Mitchell and her team’s accomplishments during the eclipse, though I do wonder if there was less source material for the author to work with. The focus in American Eclipse is on Watson and Edison, and the difficulty in getting funds to finance the expedition. Meteorology was still in its infancy and the practical need for eclipse-related information was limited to seafaring merchants and military. Just over a decade after the Civil War, there was little extra money to send scientists in territories not even in the nation yet.

The book is highly approachable and a great read to understand a little more about what makes eclipses so exciting to scientist and amateur stargazer alike.


My thanks to Liveright / W.W. Norton for the review copy.

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (June 6, 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1631490168
ISBN-13: 978-1631490163
Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches

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