The American Eclipse of 1878

Why scientists raced West to catch a glimpse.

Vintage & Historical
3 min
Engrid Barnett
Engrid Barnett
The American Eclipse of 1878
All stories
Vintage & Historical

On Monday, April 8, 2024, parts of North America will be veiled in darkness thanks to a total solar eclipse stretching from Mexico to Canada. Lucky folks in the narrow track of the eclipse will experience totality —the moment when the Moon’s disk completely covers the Sun, shrouding the region in pitch blackness. From Oklahoma to Maine, local officials anticipate massive crowds as people from across the United States flock to the band of black. 

Back in 1878, another such event drew throngs of scientists and researchers to the American West, all bent on gaining a better understanding of the natural world. 

A July to Remember

Total solar eclipses occur about every 20 years in different locations around the globe. These events require a perfect storm of circumstances, including a new moon and a precise tilt of the moon’s orbit. That’s exactly what people saw during the sun-blotting event of 1878.

Back in 1878, America was a different place. Instead of the state of Montana, there was simply the Montana Territory. The Lincoln County War raged in New Mexico, made enduringly famous by one of the participants: Billy the Kid. And the Pope Manufacturing Company started a bicycle craze by producing their Columbia high-wheel bicycle

However, for a curious group of scientists and researchers, the highlight of that year occurred on July 29th, from Texas to Montana Territory. The Rocky Mountains became ground zero for the event as scholars gathered to experience totality and gather as much data as possible.

A Who’s Who of the Day

Those who flocked westward included a who’s who of space-minded folks of the day. Like the Michigan astronomer James Craig Watson, hot on the trail of a hypothesized planet called Vulcan. Watson believed Vulcan existed somewhere between the Sun and Mercury. E.L. Trouvelot, an astronomical artist, came to sketch the Sun’s corona.

Even Thomas Edison showed up for the stellar event, using it to promote one of his inventions, the tasimeter, an infrared detector. Maria Mitchell of Vassar brought an all-female crew of scientists. For Mitchell, the eclipse killed two birds with one stone. Pursuing scientific advancement and promoting further opportunities in science for women. 

thomas edison

In addition to notable guests, locals and visitors turned out en masse to see the eclipse’s short total phase. They used ash-blackened shards of plate glass to view the event safely, and hawkers sold eclipse glasses on Denver’s streets.

Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Weigh In

Contemporary newspapers printed aggrandizing descriptions of the Rocky Mountain eclipse. For example , The Daily Graphic declared it “the most interesting and important total eclipse ever seen by [humanity].”

The New York Herald argued that data collected during the moment of totality had the potential to reveal “the theories of solar physics.” Not to be outdone, The Boston Globe waxed poetic about the event’s significance in the greater context of human history. The paper argued, “Science and general education have banished all the dread which these events inspired.”

Preparing for April Darkness

How does the April 8, 2024, eclipse compare to its 19th-century counterpart? Scientists are still excited about the data they can collect during and after the event. But people’s expectations are more tempered when it comes to what the space experience will reveal.

Watching eclipse

The April 8th eclipse is slated to last for approximately four and a half minutes, making it one of the longest in the 21st century. It also boasts a much wider path than previous eclipses such as the one in 2017, which inspired a crowd of 215 million eye witnesses to head outside for viewing.

The path of the 2024 eclipse will cover densely populated portions of the United States, making it easier for millions to experience totality up close and personal. If you’re in the path of totality, prepare for a breathtaking sight like none other. And good luck with the crowds. Also, don’t forget to wear eclipse glasses specifically designed for solar viewing.

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