Edison and the Eclipse: Chickens Come Home to Roost

I mentioned the eclipse of 1878 a couple of weeks ago.  I am now required by the historian’s code of ethics and the miSci by-laws to mention the stories around Edison’s trip out to Wyoming.

There are a lot of stories.  At the age of 31, Edison was already a folkhero.  Some of it stemmed from his invention of the phonograph.  More of it came from the press.  Edison was good copy; he was quick with a quip or an eye-catching pull quote, and he carefully played the everyman as opposed to the egghead.

Edison’s close relations with the press may have backfired on him in 1875.  After discovering what he thought to be a new phenomenon caused by a vibrating magnet, he announced his finding in the newspapers rather than to the scientific community.  This was a violation of the unwritten rules of science: you don’t issue a press release until after your scientific peers have had a chance to look at your results.  When his discovery was pronounced to be nothing new, Edison looked foolish before the whole community, and he didn’t take the embarrassment well.

Edison doubled down on the anti-intellectualism.  A number of choice quotes come from this period:  “I wouldn’t give a penny for the ordinary college graduate, except those from Institutes of Technology . . . they aren’t filled up with Latin, philosophy, and all that ninny stuff.”  And my favorite, “I can hire mathematicians at $15 a week, but they can’t hire me.”

Edison’s Tasimeter

All of which raises the question of why Edison was tagging along to Wyoming with all the scientists.  Edison had invented a new device called the tasimeter, a clever bit of engineering that used a carbon button [c] and a vulcanite rod [A] to detect small changes in infrared radiation.  The ultimate test for such a device would to measure the heat of the solar corona, which was best done during an eclipse.  The 1878 Eclipse was just in time, so after taking a quick trip to Austria to steal the tasimeter from Nikola Tesla (kidding, kidding), he headed for Wyoming.

Edison’s folksy quips didn’t endear him to the scientists, which maybe explains some of the stories that come down.  Some are innocuous, like the story recorded by Wyoming historian Phil Roberts, in which Edison does some stargazing and comes up with the idea for the electric lightbulb.  Since the bulb already existed by that point, the story in unlikely.

Most of the stories have fun at Edison’s expense.  The most often repeated is the story of the drunken cowboy who barged into Edison’s room late at night, intent of showing the famous inventor how well he could shoot.  This story comes to us from Edison’s own mouth, as recorded by his biographer Frank Lewis Dyer:

“There were astronomers from nearly every nation,” says Mr. Edison. “We had a special car. The country at that time was rather new; game was in great abundance, and could be seen all day long from the car window, especially antelope. We arrived at Rawlins about 4 P.M. It had a small machine shop, and was the point where locomotives were changed for the next section. The hotel was a very small one, and by doubling up we were barely accommodated. My room-mate was Fox, the correspondent of the New York Herald. After we retired and were asleep a thundering knock on the door awakened us. Upon opening the door a tall, handsome man with flowing hair dressed in western style entered the room. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was somewhat inebriated. He introduced himself as ‘Texas Jack’—Joe Chromondo—and said he wanted to see Edison, as he had read about me in the newspapers. Both Fox and I were rather scared, and didn’t know what was to be the result of the interview. The landlord requested him not to make so much noise, and was thrown out into the hall. Jack explained that he had just come in with a party which had been hunting, and that he felt fine. He explained, also, that he was the boss pistol-shot of the West; that it was he who taught the celebrated Doctor Carver how to shoot. Then suddenly pointing to a weather-vane on the freight depot, he pulled out a Colt revolver and fired through the window, hitting the vane. The shot awakened all the people, and they rushed in to see who was killed. It was only after I told him I was tired and would see him in the morning that he left. Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn’t sleep any that night.”

A more embarrassing story comes down from a shipping agent in Separation, Wyoming named John Jackson Clarke, recounted in Thomas Levenson’s wonderful book “The Hunt for Vulcan.”  Apparently, Edison’s comment about “game in great abundance,” wasn’t just an idle note.  He intended to bring home a trophy:

Edison returned to the station first, and he asked whether there might be anything else worth shooting nearby. Clarke told him that the surrounding plain enjoyed an abundance of jackrabbits—”what the locals call narrow-gauge mules:’ Edison asked where he might find them, and Clarke “pointed west and noticing a rabbit in a clear space in the bushes, said there is one now.”

Edison picked out a silhouette from the platform, but he wanted to make sure of his kill. He “advanced cautiously to within 150 feet and shot.”

The animal did not move. He closed to one hundred feet. He fired again.

The beast wouldn’t jump. He aimed, pulled the trigger once, and then again.

His target stood its ground. Edison glanced over his shoulder and saw that the entire station staff had gathered for the show. The penny dropped.

He’d been set up, played for a dude. His target looked like a desert hare, all right, all ears and legs. It was exactly where one might expect to spy such an exotic creature.

And yet … Thomas Edison, genius, had just murdered … a stuffed jack-rabbit.

Probably the most famous story comes down through as astronomical community, notably from astronomer John A. Eddy.  According to that story, Edison’s late arrival at the viewing site meant that the choice places to set up instruments were already taken.  He was forced to set up his tasimeter in a chicken coop:

In the afternoon of 29 July, as totality neared, a brisk Wyoming wind arose, filling the darkening sky with dirt and debris. These conditions made the balancing of the tasimeter . . . especially difficult, and with the onset of darkness at second contact, the tasimeter was still not adjusted. Only two minutes of totality remained. Feverishly he worked, but alas! With the sun covered and sky dark, the chickens came home to roost, through Edison’s observatory door, past the telescope, in, around, and over the frantic inventor. Uninitiated in astronomy, he had failed to allow for a fundamental eclipse phenomenon.

All these stories make for an embarrassing trip for Edison.  But worst is probably the fact that the tasimeter didn’t work.  It was either too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and it failed to detect the heat from the solar corona.  Unfortunately, the tasimeter would go down in history as one of Edison’s more interesting failures.

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