American eclipse tourism in the nineteenth century

Steve Ruskin has achieved the history of astronomy equivalent of squaring the circle; he has written a popular history of astronomy book that is informative, enlightening, entertaining and at the same time both historically and scientifically accurate. A rare phenomenon in an age where all too many authors of popular history of science books throw accuracy out of the window in favour of a good narrative.

I assume that by now all of the readers of this blog will be aware that America is being treated to the spectacular of a total solar eclipse on 21 August this year; this event has been dubbed The Great American Eclipse! This is by no means the first great eclipse that America has experienced and Steve Ruskin has written a book on the eclipse from 1878, which in the age of the new technology of instant world wide communication with the telegraph and viable long distant travel with steam ships and steam trains became a mass eclipse tourism phenomenon.

Ruskin’s book, America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever [1], is divided into three sections. The first deals with the period leading up to the eclipse, the publication of the event and the preparations for it. The second, the eclipse itself and the observations made both by the professional astronomers and by the lay tourists. The third deals with the results of those observations both the scientific evaluations and the popular public reactions.

One of the things that makes this book very good is the authors extensive use of and generous quotes from the contemporary news sources, newspapers and magazines. Ruskin lets those involved and present at the time speak for themselves, mostly just providing a framework for them to do so. The reader experiences the lead up to the eclipse, the eclipse itself and the very public aftermath, as it was experienced in the nineteenth century.

As an astronomy historian Ruskin’s main historical point, announced in the subtitle, concerns high altitude astronomical observation. He argues that the eclipse, whose path ran through the Rocky Mountains, triggered the modern debate on the advantages, or possibly lack of them, of making astronomical observations at high altitude, where the atmosphere is thinner. Several of the professional observers took the opportunity of trying mountain top observation, with all the strategic problems that this involved, in order to test the hypothesis that this would lead to better results. Although the results, in this case, were not totally convincing the debate they provoked led eventually to the construction of the first permanent high altitude observatories.

As this is a popular book there are no foot or endnotes and no index but there is a fairly extensive bibliography of original sources and books for further reading, which are also clearly referenced in the text. This is a delightful little book and I heartily recommend anybody travelling later this month to experience this year’s Great American Eclipse to acquire a copy, either paper or electronic, to read on their journey. Naturally, it is also an informative and recommended lecture for those not able or willing to join this year’s eclipse tourists.

[1] Steve Ruskin, America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever, Alpine Alchemy Press, 2017



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy

13 responses to “American eclipse tourism in the nineteenth century

  1. Did the eclipse help build public support for the construction of observatories, or was that already present?

    • There had been an intensive debate in America about building new observatories for several decades. See Charles Withers, “Zero Degrees”

    • Pretty well all the funding for the major US observatories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries came from individual philanthropists or philanthropic foundations. George Ellery Hale founded the Yerkes Observatory in 1897 with money from Charles T Yerkes. He then went on to found Mount Wilson in 1904 with funding from the Carnegie Institute of Washington. The mirror of the 100″ telescope was funded by John D Hooker (after whom the telescope is named) while Andrew Carnegie funded the cost of the mechanics of the telescope and the dome. The 200″ at Palomar, named after Hale, was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

      So we are not really talking about public support as much as the support of a small number of philanthropists, convinced by the vision of one man – George Ellery Hale.

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  3. Jeb

    I wondered if the book touched on how it was experianced in different ways. i.e. you have military observations at the same time you have small bands of folk using the eclipse as a cover to move from Canada back into America.

    How Black Eagle and Yellow Wolf (Nez Perce) viewed such a landscape and how American Cavalry officers viewed the same scene. Rather interesting I think.

  4. Looks like an interesting read, thanks for the post! On a slightly different note, what books or papers would you recommend on the history of eclipse predictions? I’m wondering how the accuracy of predictions changed over time.

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  6. Jeb

    I should perhaps add my question was not in regard to cultural relativism and science but in regard to the way the book is selling itself.

    “On July 29, 1878, having braved treacherous storms, debilitating altitude sickness, and the threat of Indian attacks, they joined thousands of East-coast tourists and Western pioneers as they spread out across the Great Plains and climbed to the top of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, all to glimpse one of nature’s grandest spectacles: a total solar eclipse.”

    Does it manage to move beyond the stereotype deployed as a sales pitch?

  7. Readers of this book might be interested in The Hunt for Vulcan; there is of course some overlap between the two. My review of the latter might whet your appetite. (The page linked to has a link to a PDF file of the review.)

    • The PDF file has a couple of typos in it, which were corrected in the published version (old-school, on paper, proper editing, but no online version).

      • Some of the 1878 Eclipse observers thought they would be able to see the (non-existent) hypothesised planet Vulcan with the temporary removal of the sun’s glare. Ruskin covers this in his book and recommends Levenson’s The Hunt for Vulcan as further reading on the topic.

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