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The Total Eclipse Of 1878


On August 21, millions of Americans will look up into the sky - with the proper eye protection, we hope. A total solar eclipse will sweep across the country. This will be the first total eclipse of the sun to pass over the continental United States since 1918. David Baron has been preparing for it for almost 20 years. David, who used to be a science reporter here at NPR, has written "American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race To Catch The Shadow Of The Moon And Win The Glory Of The World." It's the story of the total eclipse that occurred on July 29, 1878. David Baron now joins us from Colorado Public Radio in Denver. David, thanks so much for being back with us.

DAVID BARON: Hello, Scott, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: Before we get into this book, you're kind of an eclipse fanatic, aren't you?

BARON: Oh, yeah. I'm obsessed, I admit it. I saw my first total eclipse in Aruba in 1998. It was the most awe-inspiring, I dare say spiritual experience, I've ever had.

SIMON: What did that set off in you? What did you see?

BARON: Well, so a total solar eclipse, nothing can prepare you for it. A total eclipse is completely different from anything else you've ever experienced, including a partial solar eclipse. During a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely blocks the face of the sun and it goes dark in the middle of the day, that is the only time when it actually is safe to look up toward the sun with the naked eye.

The blue sky gets ripped away, and you can actually stare toward the center of the solar system, see the planets, see the stars in the background - the brighter ones. And you can actually see the sun, not the bright surface but the sun's outer atmosphere which shimmers like a glorious wreath of tinsel in space.

SIMON: I find myself shivering.

BARON: (Laughter).

SIMON: OK. Your book, the eclipse of 1878, why focus on this one?

BARON: Well, back in the 1800s, total solar eclipses were not just wonderful natural spectacles to go gawk at. They were incredibly important to science. Back as - you know, back in the 1800s, astronomers knew how to predict eclipses with great accuracy. So in 1878, they knew that a total eclipse was going to cross America's Wild West. The path of the total eclipse, this - that narrow zone went from Montana territory down to Texas. And this was a time when astronomers would use total eclipses to conduct studies of the sun and try to figure out, what is the sun made of? And so in 1878, dozens of astronomers and other scientists came out to the Wild West to conduct their studies.

SIMON: Thomas Edison was out there, right?

BARON: Indeed. So a young Thomas Edison, age 31, who had just become a global celebrity for his invention of the phonograph, takes a summer vacation - a working vacation - out to Wyoming with a group of astronomers. And he's going to prove that he's not just an inventor but he's a real scientist.

SIMON: And tell us please then about Maria Mitchell of Vassar.

BARON: Maria Mitchell back in the 19th century was the most famous female scientist in America. By 1878, she was teaching astronomy at Vassar College, which was a new all-women's college in Poughkeepsie. She - in 1878, when you can imagine it was not easy being a female scientist, and dozens of these male scientists were heading West for the eclipse and getting government support for it, and she was excluded. So she put together an all-female expedition to the eclipse, which was not only a scientific endeavor, it really was kind of a political theater to show the public what women could do in science.

SIMON: Ultimately, what did science learn from that eclipse?

BARON: The science that came out of it honestly didn't amount to much. However, in terms of its effect on our society, the eclipse of 1878 was really important because it came at a time when America was just trying to prove to the rest of the world that it was not just some industrial power but that it actually was an intellectual nation. And this was our chance - an eclipse in our own backyard - to show what we could do in science. And it's remarkable how the American public rallied around the scientists.

SIMON: David, if it's not too personal, where are you going to be on August 21?

BARON: I made my hotel reservations three years ago in Jackson, Wyo. Jackson sits right in the middle of the path of totality of the eclipse of this year. But I would encourage everyone listening if at all possible on August 21, take the day off. Go to the path of the total eclipse. A total eclipse is mind-blowing. And everyone in his or her lifetime should have the opportunity to see at least one.

SIMON: David Baron. His new book, "American Eclipse." David, thanks so much for speaking with us. And keep looking at the stars.

BARON: You too, Scott.


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