The World’s First Celestial Spectator Sport: Astronomer Maria Mitchell’s Stunning Account of the 1869 Total Solar Eclipse
“All nature rejoiced, and … we rejoiced with Nature.”
By Maria Popova
Trumpeted by the press as “the great eclipse of the nineteenth century,” the total solar eclipse of August 7, 1869 was the world’s first astronomical event marketed as popular entertainment — not merely a pinnacle of excitement for the scientific community, but a celestial spectator sport for laypeople. Smoked, stained, or vanished glass sold faster than any other item in American stores that summer. Small towns on the eclipse path, which stretched from Alaska to the mid-Atlantic coast, experienced an unprecedented surge of tourism. Newspapers offered extensive coverage of the event in the weeks leading up to it, crowned by front-page headlines the morning after the eclipse.
But by far the most exquisite and original piece about the cosmic marvel came two months later from the inimitable Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first female astronomer, who paved the way for women in science and became the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus” — a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world.
Writing in the October issue of Hours at Home, Scribner’s first magazine, Mitchell reported on the eclipse expedition she had led to Burlington, Iowa. (Nearly a decade later, she would draw on this experience and a subsequent one in her tips on how to watch a solar eclipse.) Fusing rigorous insight into the science of eclipses with a poetic account of this uncommonly transcendent encounter with the universe, Mitchell ends her anonymous essay with a clever rhetorical twist that throws a grenade into society’s most foundational assumptions about science, gender, and human nature.
She begins by framing the enormity of the fanfare surrounding the event, summoning the throngs “ticketed to totality”:
Every known astronomer received courteous invitations into the shadow. Every astronomer, professional or amateur, prepared to go. The observatories must have been left undirected; the mathematical chairs of the colleges must have been empty, and, judging from the crowded condition of hotels within the darkness, Saratoga and Newport must have felt the different set of the travelling current… In the halls of the hotels we saw meetings between friends long separated, and heard joyous exclamations as grayhaired men met and shook hands and laughed, that neither could recognize in the middle-aged other the youth whom he had left, and whom he had since known only through scientific journals.
Leading a team of six young scientists, Mitchell arrived at Burlington Collegiate Institute on August 4, “too late to attempt any work that day,” and was engulfed in inclement weather for the next two days, glooming from cloudy to “rainy, rainy all day.” When the third day broke with “as beautiful as morning could be,” they began setting up their instruments. Writing deliberately in the masculine, she describes the technical setup:
In preparing for an observation of time, the astronomer gives himself every possible facility. He ascertains to a tenth of a second the condition of his chronometer, not only how fast or how slow it is, but how much that fastness or that slowness varies from hour to hour. He notes exactly the second and part of a second when the expected event should arrive; and a short time before that he places himself at the telescope.
Mitchell then pivots smoothly from this matter-of-factly reportage to a lyrical account of the pinnacle of the experience — the sight of the corona and its attendant otherworldly light:
There were some seconds of breathless suspense, and then the inky blackness appeared on the burning limb of the sun. All honor to my assistant, whose uniform count on and on, with unwavering voice, steadied my nerves! That for which we had travelled fifteen hundred miles had really come. We watched the movement of the moon’s black disk across the less black spots on the sun’s disk, and we looked for the peculiarities which other observers of partial eclipses had known. The colored glasses of our telescope were several, arranged on a circular plate, so that w could slip a green one before the eye, change it for a red one or a yellow one, or, if we wished to look with the eye unprotected, a vacant space could be found in the circumference. In the course of the hour, from the beginning of the eclipse to total phase, this was readily done. I fancied that an orange hue suited my eye best, and kept that in place intending to slip it aside and receive the full light when the darkness came on. As the moon moved on, the crescent sun became a narrower and narrower golden curve of light, and as it seemed to break up into brilliant lines and points, we knew that the total phase was only a few seconds off.
Light clouds had for some time seemed to drift toward the sun; the Mississippi assumed a leaden hue; a sickly green spread over the landscape; Venus shone brightly on one side of the sun, Mercury on the other; Arcturus was gleaming overhead, Saturn was rising in the east; the neighboring cattle began to low; the birds uttered a painful cry; fireflies twinkled in the foliage, and when the last ray of light was extinguished, a wave of sound came up from the villages below, the mingling of the subdued voices of the multitude.
Instantly the corona burst forth, a glory indeed! It encircled the sun with a soft light, and it sent off streamers for millions of miles into space!
On looking through the glass, two rosy prominences were seen on the right of the sun’s disk, perhaps one-twentieth of the diameter of the moon, having the shape of the half-blown morning-glory. I found myself continually likening almost all these appearances to flowers, possibly from the exquisite delicacy of the tints. They were not wholly rosy, but of an invariegated pink and white, with a mingling of violet.
Here, in a supreme testament to the subjectivity of individual human consciousness — the sole tool we have for probing the objective truths of the universe — Mithcell reminds us that no two perceptual experiences of the same phenomenon are alike. (My blue is never your blue.) A century and a half before modern neuroscience coined the notion of the “qualia” that shape our experience of the world, she writes:
Any correct observation of color is, however, impossible. Beside the different perception of the eye, in its normal state, the retina cannot instantly lose the effect of the colored glass. I had just left an orange glass, and was quite insensible to that color; while one of our party who had been using a green glass declares the protuberances to be orange-red.
In a parallel sentiment, with an eye to the representatives of various disciplines observing the eclipse — photography, spectrography, astronomy — she offers a reflection on the nature of knowledge itself:
No one person can give an account of this eclipse, but the speciality of each is the bit of mosaic which he contributes to the whole.
Mitchell, who around that very time had written in her diary that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” returns to the aesthetic and almost numinous enchantment of this scientific phenomenon:
As I ran my glance along the limb of the moon I saw another protuberance much larger than the former ones, very nearly at the vertex, increasing rapidly. It seemed to be brought into light as the moon moved on; and yet, billowy in shape and mottled in color, it appeared to have, or possibly it had, a motion within itself. Next there leapt out on the left of the moon two more flower-shaped and flower-tinted creations. Twice, as I was looking at these, a flickering light caught my eye, as if from the moon’s centre; another strangely shaped figure rushed out as if from behind the moon, and instantly the sun came forth. All nature rejoiced, and much as we needed more time, we rejoiced with Nature, and felt that we loved the light… The darkness was neither that of twilight nor of moonlight.
Now here is the ingenious twist: The attentive reader would notice that, throughout her account of the phenomenon, Mitchell is deliberately using the gender-neutral “we” to refer to her team of scientists and doesn’t once use gender pronouns in her first-person narrative. A century and a half before Ursula K. Le Guin so brilliantly unsexed the universal pronoun, Mitchell’s choice inclines her reader to the assumption, standard in her era and still lamentably common in ours, that “scientist” defaults to maleness (even though the word itself had been coined for woman thirty-five years earlier). Against that backdrop of implicit assumption, Mitchell draws on a Wordsworth verse and concludes her anonymous essay with a dramatic revelation surprising, perhaps even shocking, to her reader:
[The English astronomer Charles] Piazzi Smyth says: “The effect of a total eclipse on the minds of men is so overpowering, that if they have never seen it before they forget their appointed tasks, and will look around during the few seconds of obscuration to witness the scene.” Other astronomers have said the same. My assistants, a party of young students, would not have turned from the narrow line of observation assigned to them if the earth had quaked beneath them. They would have said
— “by the storms of circumstance unshaken
And subject neither to eclipse nor wane,
Was it because they were women?
In 1869, what a way to turn the magazine page into a drum onto which to play such a zinging rimshot sting.
Complement with Mitchell on science, spirituality, and the conquest of truth, the art of knowing what to do with your life, and her advice on how to watch a solar eclipse, then revisit poet Adrienne Rich’s tribute to astronomy’s unsung heroines and the story of the remarkable women who revolutionized astronomy long before they could vote.
UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.
Published July 13, 2017