In American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, self-professed umbraphile (eclipse chaser) and author David Baron tells the tale of an eclipse that briefly darkened Denver and other parts of the American West in July 1878. As Baron acknowledges, a total solar eclipse, “in which the moon completely obscures the face of the sun, is exceptional.” Passing over any given location on earth just once every 400 years, it provides an experience that is “otherworldly.”
Baron neatly weaves together the stories of three scientific visionaries of the period: famous inventor Thomas Edison and astronomers James Craig Watson and Maria Mitchell. Edison hoped to use the eclipse to test his latest invention, a tasimeter (designed to measure the heat emanating from the sun’s corona), and promote his scientific and creative reputation in the process. Watson was seeking to discover the elusive and mysterious planet Vulcan, which was said to lie between Mercury and the sun. Mitchell, a progressive trailblazer and professor of astronomy at Vassar, with a group of female students in tow, sought to prove that women were viable scientists and to expand women’s limited opportunities.
In vivid detail, Baron unfolds their backstories and reveals what led each of them to make their way to the still unsettled Wild West to view this phenomenon. He deftly communicates the significance of the event within the era. It was the midst of the Gilded Age, and Americans were desperately trying to show the world they were competitive and powerful. As Baron points out, “advancing science in the United States required convincing the populace of the value of research—that it was worth promotion and investment.”
American Eclipse will undoubtedly spur scores of readers to desire their own total solar eclipse experience. How auspicious that such an event takes place in America on August 21—the first total solar eclipse to travel across America in 99 years. Baron will undoubtedly be watching.