The American Eclipse of 1878 and the Scientists Who Raced West to See It

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.
Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.

On a scorching July afternoon in 1878, the moon's shadow descended on the American West, darkening skies from Montana Territory to Texas. This rare celestial event—a total solar eclipse—offered a priceless opportunity to solve some of the solar system's most enduring riddles, and enterprising scientists raced to the Rocky Mountains to experience totality. Some, like University of Michigan astronomer James Craig Watson, hunted for a planet (called Vulcan) that was thought to exist between Mercury and the sun; others, like astronomical artist E.L. Trouvelot, sketched the sun's mysterious corona. Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell headed west with an all-female team of assistants and a societal goal to achieve—opening the doors of science to women. Even a young Thomas Edison got involved. During the eclipse, he aimed to demonstrate the value of his latest device—an infrared detector called the tasimeter—and to prove himself not just an inventor, but a scientist.

In this excerpt from American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, science journalist David Baron writes about the morning and afternoon just before the eclipse, when national anticipation was at its peak.

 
 

Monday, July 29, 1878 // Morning through mid-afternoon

Across the breadth of the nation, on the morning of the great eclipse, it seemed as if a long-awaited tournament—or battle—was set to commence. New York’s newspapers exuded anticipation. “[I]t will probably be the most interesting and important total eclipse ever seen by man,” The Daily Graphic rhapsodized. The New York Herald explained that scientists would investigate “in a manner never before possible the theories of solar physics.” The front page of The Sun offered the headline THIS AFTERNOON'S ECLIPSE, with the subhead: “Prof. Edison and Other Savants Ready to Watch the Moon’s Passage.”

A rundown of those savants appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Professors Newcombe and Harkness take charge of the stations at Creston, Wyoming” began the list, which, despite small errors of spelling and location, conveyed a good sense of the field of play. “Professor Langley, with General Myer and Professor Abbe, of the Signal Service, are at Pike’s Peak, and various other points in Colorado are occupied. With these astronomers there are many amateur scientists, and others will make observations independent of the government programme. Professor Young is at Denver, Professor Draper at Rawlings, and Miss Maria Mitchell near by.”

Courtesy of David Baron // Public Domain

As to the scientific goals for the eclipse, The Chicago Times outlined the most important. “First, the establishment of a relative co-ordinate of the sun and moon”—that is, determining the precise start and end times of the eclipse at different locations, which would enable the Nautical Almanac to update its tables of the moon’s orbit. “Second, the study of the physical constitution of the sun by an examination of the corona and protuberances that jut out from behind the moon when the sun’s disc is wholly obscured.” In this regard, Edison’s tasimeter was a new tool that could offer new insights. “A third matter of interest,” the paper continued, “is the opportunity the total eclipse affords in searching for any planetoid or group of planetoids that may be between Mercury and the sun”—in other words, Vulcan. The Washington Post left no doubt that this last trophy was the most coveted. “Should this body be discovered, it would be one of the greatest triumphs that astronomy could achieve.”

The Boston Globe ended its preview of the day’s event on a patriotic, self-congratulatory note, reminding its readers that eclipses were once seen as omens that portended “accident, the coming of disasters, and tokens of the anger and wrath of the Creator.” Not so in modern, enlightened America. “Science and general education,” the paper asserted, “have banished all the dread which these events inspired.”

 
 

There was ample dread, though, among the scientists at their camps in Wyoming and Colorado. The depths of anxiety experienced by an astronomer in the hours before a total solar eclipse are difficult to fathom. With so much to do and so much to go wrong, emotions can overwhelm. One British scientist who headed an eclipse expedition to Siam in 1875 recalled that, the day before the event, “I could not help sitting down and having a good cry.”

At Creston, William Harkness and his party emerged from their postal-car sleeping quarters to a chilly sunrise and nervously eyed the heavens over the Great Divide Basin. “[N]ot a cloud was to be seen in the deep-blue sky stretching above us in all its purity,” wrote an enthusiastic E. L. Trouvelot. Harkness too was optimistic. “Everything promised well for the eclipse,” he remarked. The men washed up, then sat down for breakfast. A wind blew in from the southwest. It quickly strengthened, propelling dirt airborne. By eight o’clock, the astronomers in the mess tent found themselves and their dishes covered with sand and dust.

Scientists—including Edison (second from right) and Watson (sixth from right)—at Rawlins, Wyoming Territory.U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Down the tracks in Rawlins, the Draper party scanned the skies. They anxiously watched a cloud bank thicken in the east, but a few hours later—to their relief—it moved off toward the south. By noon, however, the wind picked up here, too, rocking their frail observatory. Even more vulnerable to the gusts was the chicken coop that housed the tasimeter. Edison had spent the weekend carefully adjusting his instrument, but the gale was now undoing his hard work—throwing the equipment out of alignment. Frantic, Edison ran to the neighboring lumberyard and recruited a dozen strong men to carry boards and help him prop up the structure and erect a temporary fence against the wind, which was blowing—in the estimation of one who experienced it—“with the force of a hurricane.”

James Craig Watson and Norman Lockyer, meanwhile, made a last-minute decision to gain a few seconds of totality. Rather than observe the eclipse in Rawlins, they would head to Separation, which sat closer to the midline of the eclipse path and therefore would experience a slightly longer phase of darkness. J. B. Silvis, the Union Pacific photographer, offered his wheeled studio for transport. Hooked to the back of a westbound freight train, the caboose carried the two astronomers to the remote rail stop where Edison had hunted the stuffed jackrabbit. Joining them were several volunteers for the day: Watson’s wife, Annette; D. H. Talbot, the Sioux City land broker; and the two young men from Cambridge, R. C. Lehmann and his friend James Brooks Close. When the train arrived at Separation, Lockyer erected his equipment by the station, in the lee of the large water tank. Watson, with his wife and telescope, headed on to Simon Newcomb’s camp, which sat almost a mile away on the south side of the tracks. Pushing through the thorny brush could not have been pleasant for a man of girth.

 
 

In Colorado, the people of Denver also awoke to limpid skies. Joseph Brinker, the founder of a private school in the city, kept close track of the weather that morning—at six o’clock, he wrote: “Not a cloud”; seven: “Not a cloud”; seven-thirty: “Not a cloud”; eight: “Not a cloud”—but given the experience of recent weeks, no one could be confident that conditions would remain unchanged in the afternoon.

In the forenoon, locals and visitors prepared for the big event. The eclipse’s brief total phase, when the moon would cover the entire surface of the sun, could be viewed safely with the naked eye, but the much longer partial phase required a dark filter for direct observation. To fill this need, Denverites who had been hoodwinked during the recent blue glass craze—sold azure panes to promote their health—now put their poor investment to profitable use; they employed the glass as a solar filter, in some cases fitting it in the bottoms of boxes or the tops of old stovepipe hats. Many children went a different route, collecting shards of clear glass and blackening them over candles. (Neither smoked nor stained glass is deemed safe by modern standards for viewing the sun, but both were commonly used in the nineteenth century.) “Here’s your eclipse glasses,” Denver’s newsboys yelled, hawking their crude wares for pennies and earning one ambitious youngster a reported seventy dollars over the course of the day.

Stereograph card of the Vassar College eclipse party in Denver.Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library // ID No. 08.09.04

Some in the Denver area left early for eclipse excursions into the foothills and mountains, taking with them picnics of bread and cheese. Many more scoped out suitable viewing locations in town. Maria Mitchell chose for her observation post, at Alida Avery’s suggestion, a hill on the edge of the city, just beyond the reach of suburban development. It was a broad, sloping tract of short grass, easily reached by horse and buggy. Once there, the Vassar party had no time to make elaborate preparations. The women set out wooden chairs, erected a small tent for shade, and mounted their three telescopes on tall tripods. (Mitchell had brought with her the same telescope she had used on her home turf of Nantucket in 1847 to discover her famous comet.) The view east offered an endless, empty expanse of plains. To the west lay Denver and the Rockies behind it. Immediately to the south sat a three-story brick building topped by a gabled roof and an ornate cross. It was St. Joseph’s Home, a Catholic hospital operated by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas. The nuns in dark habits, spying the astronomers in dresses, came over to offer tea.

The city appeared to be on holiday. As the Denver Daily Times had recommended, banks and retail establishments closed their doors. People gathered on rooftops: the post office, the high school, the fire station, the opera house. A crowd estimated in the thousands assembled along the high ground of Capitol Hill, and in that neighborhood could be found the scientific party sponsored by the Chicago Astronomical Society, including the twenty Denverites who had been specially trained to sketch the corona. They sat themselves on the brow of the hill, facing the sun. A rival team of Chicago astronomers placed itself nearby, on the grounds of the Brinker Collegiate Institute, where principal Joseph Brinker continued to enter notes in his weather log.

Eleven-thirty: “Not a cloud.”
Noon: “Single speck of cloud west.”
Twelve-thirty: “Three light clouds west.”
One o’clock: “Number of small bright clouds west.”

A bit over an hour remained until the eclipse began. Looking south from Denver, the growing throngs could see Pikes Peak standing bright and bold against the sapphire sky.

 
 

Up on the summit of Pikes Peak, the assembled scientists were at last enjoying sunshine. Samuel P. Langley and his brother spent the morning adjusting their equipment and modifying their observing plans, given that they had lost a member of their team to illness.

Courtesy David Baron // Public Domain

That sick participant, Cleveland Abbe, after being evacuated the night before, had been carried not to the base of the mountain but to just below the timberline, where a rustic lodge sat on a lake at an elevation still of about ten thousand feet. At one o’clock in the morning, a doctor arrived to assess Abbe’s condition. He ordered Abbe not to return to the summit, and left two nurses to care for the ailing scientist until he was well enough to descend to the base of the mountain. Abbe then scratched out a note to be delivered to his boss at the top of the peak:

My Dear General;

I am most devoutly thankful to you for the good care that you have taken of me—and Dr Hart of Col. Springs whom you have summoned—seems decidedly of the opinion that you have done wisely. I must not oppose my own will to reason & your orders. I will therefore stay here today and organise some sort of system of observing the eclipse so that you shall have a report from the Lake House as well as the summit. . . . I trust that you will not yourself suffer from the Pike Peak “fever”

I remain yours truly

Cleveland Abbe.

At daybreak, despite having slept in the somewhat thicker oxygen at slightly lower altitude, Abbe remained weak and faint, yet he was determined to be again what he once was: an astronomer. At noon, he arranged to be carried outside and laid dramatically on a southwest-facing slope with his head propped up. His telescope—a fine instrument made by Alvan Clark & Sons—was still on the summit. All he could rely on were his poor eyes and imperfect spectacles.

 
 

According to calculations by the Nautical Almanac, the eclipse was set to commence in Rawlins shortly after 2:00 p.m. local time, and in Denver at around 2:20. The event’s beginning, like the start of the transit of Mercury, would be barely perceptible—the moon would at first appear like a subtle dent, or flattening, along the sun’s western edge. Across the region, everyone watched and waited. The skies held clear, and for those fortunate enough to be in the path of totality, it promised to be quite a show. “[A]t last we were among the favored mortals of earth,” one Colorado newspaper remarked.

The rest of the nation was less favored—those outside the shadow path would not witness a total eclipse—but everyone would see at least a partial eclipse, weather permitting. Sidewalk vendors in Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, and elsewhere did a brisk business in eclipse glasses. “Here ye are now,” a hawker cried in Manhattan, “blue glass only three cents apiece; all ready to look at th’ eclipse—three cents apiece.”

In the late afternoon, when the partial eclipse was set to begin in New York, the city’s focus shifted upward, as the Herald described:

Portly bankers about to start for home paused on their office steps and turned their eyes above the money making world; merchants stood in the doorways of their busy stores, alternately consulting the face of their watches and the face of the sky; clerks and messengers, hurrying along the crowded streets, ceased to knock and jostle one another and with upturned faces and a blissful forgetfulness of business stood gazing all in one direction, while shop girls, escaping from the toilsome factory, caught a [momentary] glimpse of the heavens above and stalwart policemen stood boldly by frightened French nurses and their infant charges. Even the stage drivers forgot for a single moment to crane their necks and beckon enticingly to passing pedestrians, in the hope of securing another passenger and another fare.

Across the land, as America’s attention was drawn to the higher spheres, an otherwise typical workday assumed a new and exotic countenance.

Excerpted from American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World by David Baron. Copyright © 2017 by David Baron. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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Meet Your Home's Microbes in The Great Indoors

Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash
Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

This year, you’ve probably been spending more time than you ever expected at home. You might be sharing space with family members, roommates, pets—and an entire universe of microbes. In The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, science journalist Emily Anthes investigates homes, offices, schools, hospitals, and other places where we live, work, and play. She looks at how the design of our surroundings affects major aspects of our lives, even when we don’t realize it. In this excerpt, she explores the thriving communities of bacteria and fungi with which we share our abodes—and what they reveal about us.

In 2010, microbiologist Noah Fierer made his first foray into the indoor microbial world, cataloging the bacteria present in 12 public restrooms at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he teaches. (Among the findings: The floor and the toilet handles were home to similar kinds of bacteria, suggesting that some bathroom-goers were flushing the toilet with their feet—“a practice well known to germaphobes and those who have had the misfortune of using restrooms that are less than sanitary,” Fierer and his colleagues reported.) The following year, he studied the microbes in residential kitchens and partnered with Rob Dunn to launch the Wild Life of Our Homes project. They began with a small pilot study in North Carolina, recruiting 40 families to run cotton swabs across seven surfaces inside their homes: a countertop, a cutting board, a refrigerator shelf, a pillowcase, a toilet seat, a TV screen, and the trim around an interior doorway.

The homes were crawling with microbial squatters—more than two thousand types, on average. Different locations within the homes formed distinct habitats: kitchens harbored bacteria associated with food, while doorways were covered in species that typically live in leaves and soil. From a microbiological perspective, toilet seats and pillowcases looked strikingly similar; both were dominated by bacteria that typically live on our skin and in our mouths.

Beyond these commonalities, there was a lot of variation among the homes, each of which had its own microbial profile, sheltering a slightly different collection of organisms. But the researchers couldn’t explain why. So Fierer and Dunn launched a second study, asking more than one thousand families living across the United States to swab the dust that had collected on the trim around their interior doorways.

“We focused on that because nobody ever cleans it,” Fierer told me. “Or we don’t clean it very often—maybe you’re an exception.” (I am not.) Because the dust collects over months or years, the duo hoped it would give them the broadest possible look at indoor life, an inventory of the organisms that had floated, crawled, and skittered through the homes over the previous months and years. As Dunn put it: “Each bit of dust is a microhistory of your life.”

Back in the lab, the team analyzed the DNA fragments present in each dust sample, listing every organism that made an appearance. The numbers were staggering. In total, the indoor dust contained DNA from more than 116,000 species of bacteria and 63,000 species of fungi. “The shocker was the diversity of fungi,” Dunn told me. There are fewer than 25,000 species of named fungi in all of North America, which means that our houses could be teeming with organisms that are essentially unknown to science. In fact, when the researchers compared the indoor dust to samples that the volunteers had taken from the trim around an exterior door, they found that there was more microbial diversity inside the homes than outside of them.

Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Some of the species that Fierer and Dunn identified originate outside, hitching rides into our homes on our clothes or drifting in through open windows. (And they may not all be alive by the time they turn up inside; DNA sequencing can identify the organisms that are present in a sample, but it can’t distinguish between living creatures and dead ones.) Other kinds of bacteria actually grow in our homes—in our walls and our pipes, our air conditioning units, and our dishwashers. Some sprout on our houseplants or our food.

And a lot of indoor microbes, it turns out, are living on us. “We’re constantly shedding bacteria from every orifice and body part,” Fierer said. “It’s nothing to be grossed out about. It’s just the way it is.” Our individual microbiomes—the collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies—are unique, and we each leave our own microbial signatures on the places we inhabit. In one innovative study, re- searchers tracked three families as they moved into new homes; each family’s distinct blend of microbes colonized its new residence within hours. The scientists—led by Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologist then at the University of Chicago—could even detect the individual microbial contributions of each family member. “People who spent more time in the kitchen, their microbiome dominated that space,” Gilbert explained. “People who spent more time in the bedroom, their microbiome dominated there. You could start to forensically identify their movement.”

Indeed, the bacteria that turn up inside a home depend enormously on who lives there. Fierer and Dunn found that Lactobacil­lus bacteria, which are a major component of the vaginal microbiome, were most abundant in homes in which women outnumbered men. When men were in the majority, different bacteria thrived: Roseburia, which normally live in the gut, and Corynebacterium and Derma­bacter, which both populate the skin. Corynebacterium is known to occupy the armpit and contribute to body odor. “Maybe it means that men’s houses smell more like armpits,” Dunn ventured. “Microbially, that’s a fair assessment.” The findings may be due to sex differences in skin biology; men tend to have more Corynebacterium on their skin— and to shed more skin microbes into the environment—than women do. (The researchers also acknowledge the possibility that a bachelor pad’s bacterial profile could be the result of “hygiene practices.”) In a subsequent study, Fierer and his colleagues showed that they could accurately predict the sex of the students living in a college dorm room simply by analyzing the bacteria in its dust.

Meanwhile, dogs introduce their own drool and fecal microbes into a home and track soil dwellers in from outside. (Dog owners never seem too bothered when Dunn tells them that Fido is smuggling an entire microbial zoo into their homes. “It’s a pretty fine conversation most of the time,” he told me. On the other hand, he noted, “If I say that every time your neighbor comes over, that he brings over a mix of beneficial microbes and pathogens, it just makes people scrub.”) Cats change a home’s microbial makeup more modestly, perhaps because they are smaller and venture outside less often. Using the dust DNA alone, Fierer and Dunn were able to predict whether a home contained a dog or a cat with roughly 80 to 90 percent accuracy.

While the bacteria in our homes mostly comes from us (and our pets), the fungi are another story. Fungi are much less abundant in our own microbiomes, and our houses are dominated by fungal species that originate outdoors. A home’s fungal signature, Fierer and Dunn found, was largely determined by where it was located. Houses in eastern states had different fungal communities than those in western ones. Ditto homes in humid climates compared with those in dry ones. The geographic correlation was so strong that Fierer and Dunn could use fungal DNA to determine, to within about 150 miles, where a house dust sample originated.

Fierer and Dunn did identify more than 700 kinds of fungi that were more common indoors than out, including a variety of household molds, yeasts, edible mushrooms, and fungi that live on human skin. Homes with basements had different fungi than those without them. And because some species of fungi feed on wood and other building materials, what our homes are made of affects the fungi that live there. “It’s kind of a ‘three pigs’ thing,” Dunn told me. “A stone house feeds different fungi from a wood house from a mud house. Because unlike the bacteria, they’re eating the house.”

 

Some of the microbes that inhabit our homes are known to cause disease. Black mold, which grows in and on our walls, can trigger allergies and respiratory problems. Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that can cause lung infections in people with weakened immune systems, lives in our pillows. Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, loves indoor plumbing. It nestles inside hot water tanks, cooling towers, and faucets, and spreads through airborne, or aerosolized, droplets of water. Streptococcus bacteria—which can cause strep throat, sinus and ear infections, pinkeye, meningitis, and pneumonia—are more abundant inside our homes than outside them, Fierer and Dunn found. Though the mere presence of these microbes isn’t necessarily dangerous, and not all strains cause illness, buildings can provide an infrastructure that helps diseases spread. Airborne influenza can waft through an office building’s ventilation system; a spray of Strepto­coccus can turn a doorknob into a booby trap.

But many indoor microbes are completely innocuous, and some may even have lifelong health benefits. In recent decades, the rates of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases have skyrocketed in industrialized nations. Some scientists have theorized that the increasing prevalence of these diseases may be the fault of our modern lifestyles, which keep us at a distance from the robust microbial menageries that surrounded our ancestors for most of human evolution. As a result, our immune systems never get properly trained.

Evidence has been accumulating to support this theory. Studies show that children who live with dogs, which increase the richness and diversity of bacteria in a home, are less sensitive to allergens and less likely to develop asthma. (A dog might be the immune system’s best friend.) Children who grow up on farms, and are exposed to livestock and their microbes, appear to be similarly protected from allergies and asthma.

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from research on two American farming communities: the Amish and the Hutterites. Although the groups have much in common—including large families and Central European ancestry—just 5 percent of Amish kids have asthma, compared to 21 percent of Hutterite children. The communities also have distinct farming customs. The Amish, who generally eschew electricity, live on single-family farms and employ traditional agricultural methods, using horses to plow their fields. It’s not uncommon for Amish children to play in the family barns, which are typically located near their homes. The Hutterites, on the other hand, live together on big, industrial farms, complete with high-tech tools and equipment, and their children have less contact with livestock.

These differences may affect the children’s microbial exposures and the development of their immune systems. In 2016, scientists reported that house dust collected from Amish households had higher levels of endotoxins—molecules contained in the cellular membranes of some bacteria—than dust from Hutterite homes. What’s more, when they drew blood from kids in both communities, they found that compared to Hutterite children, Amish children had more neutrophils, white blood cells that help the body fight infection, and fewer eosinophils, which play a critical role in allergic reactions.

The researchers also whipped up some house-dust cocktails, mixing dust samples from Amish and Hutterite homes with water, and then shooting the slurries into the nasal passages of young mice. Then they exposed the mice to allergens. The mice that had received the Hutterite dust responded as expected; their airways trembled and twitched. But the mice that had received the Amish dust continued to breathe relatively freely, seemingly protected from this allergic response.

Although there’s still a lot to learn, the science suggests that a healthy home is one that’s full of uninvited guests. “We are exposed to microbes every day, and a lot of these are harmless or potentially beneficial,” Fierer told me. “We don’t want a sterile house.” Which is good, because it turns out that I don’t have one.