The Total Eclipse of 1878

Harper's Weekly, July 1878 Eclipse

Harper’s Weekly, July 1878 Eclipse

As we gear up for the Eclipse Across America this summer, it’s worth looking back at the history of eclipse viewing and the role it played in modern astronomy.  Treks out to some remote location to view a solar eclipse were a type of pilgrimage for American astronomers, bringing together large numbers of scientists in one remote location.  Questions were answered, rivalries were struck, scores were settled and a lot of good science was accomplished.

One of the most interesting was the solar eclipse of July 1878, which allowed several old friends (and enemies) to settle one of the most vexing questions of 19th century astronomy.

The path of the 1878 eclipse made it visible from Alaska down through the Rockies and then into the Gulf of Mexico and Cuba.  There were a number of sites in its path that would be ideal for viewing: dry, elevated and dark.  Even better: the decade old transcontinental railroad ran out to the path of the eclipse, meaning that astronomers could take along all the bulky equipment they could ship.

So the scientific community boxed up their gear and headed out to Rawlins, Wyoming, where the total eclipse would be visible for two minutes, fifty-six seconds.  Along for the trip were men like Simon Newcomb of the Naval Observatory, soon to become possibly the most famous astronomer in America.  Also in attendance was Norman Lockyer, founder of the journal Nature, and James Craig Watson of the Ann Arbor Observatory.

And also a 31 year old tinkerer named Thomas Edison, but that’s another story.

The eclipse viewing crew, led by Henry Draper.

The eclipse viewing crew, led by Henry Draper.  Edison is second from the right.  The two women are Mrs. Draper and Mrs. Watson.  It’s nearly impossible to identify the rest of the mustached mass of men.

There was a great deal of scientific work to be done in the just-under three minutes of the eclipse, but the goal that caught the popular attention was the search for the hypothetical planet Vulcan.  

The French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier had theorized the existence of this small planet in between Mercury and the Sun during the mid 19th century.  Many astronomers considered it the most likely explanation for certain irregularities in the orbit of Mercury.  But finding it had proved difficult. Many astronomers had caught fleeting glimpses of something in the right vicinity – asteroid, sunspot or maybe a small planet.

The search for Vulcan had taken on a new urgency after an eclipse in 1869, thanks to our own Benjamin Gould.  After leaving Dudley, Gould had become one of the early astronomers skilled in photo-astronomy.  He set up his equipment in Burlington, Iowa, during the eclipse in order to photograph the solar corona.  On the right bank of the Mississippi he snapped forty two images of the eclipse.

Gould reasoned that if there was a planet orbiting between Mercury and the Sun, then it should be visible in the shadow of the eclipse.  He examined his own photographs, plus over three hundred other photographs of the eclipse, and came to the conclusion that nothing was there.  Not a man for mincing words, Gould announced, “I am convinced that this investigation dispenses with the hypothesis that the movement of the perihelion of Mercury results from the effects of one or many small interior planets.”

For Gould, the matter was settled.  But popular theories don’t die that easily.  For a while, most astronomers continued to find nothing.  Then in April, 1876, a German astronomer working in northern China named Heinrich Weber sent a telegram back to Europe announcing that he had seen a circular object in transit across the Sun.  Once again, the game was afoot.

America was still struggling to catch up to Europe in the realm of science. Many in the American scientific community would have loved to find Vulcan from a spot on American soil.  So many of those tromping out to Wyoming were hoping to be the one to spot the rogue planet.  

In the end, the verdict was mixed.  Most of the astronomers, including Newcomb, had found nothing.  Watson had, and Watson was a well respected observer.  He also seemed to be supported by Lewis Swift, an amateur astronomer from Rochester who had been observing the eclipse in Denver.  

Rochester has produced many fine astronomers, but in the end it came down to what Watson believed he saw.  Surprisingly, Benjamin Gould’s verdict on Vulcan ended up being supported by his arch-nemesis – and fellow Dudley alumni – Christian F.H. Peters.  After leaving Dudley, Peters had ended up at Hamilton College are racked up an impressive number of asteroid discoveries.  He had been a Vulcan skeptic since the beginning, and he left no doubt that he believed Watson had made some basic errors in his supposed sighting.

While the journal Nature chided Peters for his tone, few seemed eager to defend Watson’s observations.  After the bulk of the astronomers viewing the 1878 eclipse reported no luck in spotting Vulcan, the pendulum seems to shift towards skepticism.  The problems with Mercury’s orbit remained, but the search for Vulcan drifted to a close.  In 1915, Albert Einstein was able to use his new theories of gravitation to accurately predict the orbit of Mercury, ending any need for another planet and closing the debate.

Goulds all the way back

There’s one advantage to inheriting a library; you don’t just get the books, you also get the bookmarks.  This bit of paper was found in one of the books used by Benjamin Gould.  On one side are some calculations.  On this side is a rough family tree.

Like any good Boston pure-blood, Gould was very interested in his own genealogy.  I know we’ve got some fans who can trace their lineage back to Gould’s family, so I thought this might be useful.

In the third column, the John Gould that is married to Sarah Parker would probably be Lieutenant John Gould (1635-1710), who served during King Phillip’s War.  Since he had eight children, you can see that this listing is very partial.

Benjamin A. Gould Family Tree (Gould Papers, B6,F6)

Benjamin A. Gould Family Tree (Gould Papers, B6,F6)

I’m afraid that all future generations will find in my books are the backs of Netflix envelopes and old receipts.  I feel like I’m failing history.

A Scientific Puritan: Benjamin Apthorp Gould

Benjamin A. Gould

Benjamin A. Gould

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel and James Armsby both deserve credit for inspiring and founding the Dudley Observatory.  But when Mitchell was tied up working as an engineer, Armsby had to look elsewhere to find a director who could organize the construction of the Observatory building and get the instruments working.  Through a developing partnership with the US Costal Survey, the premier scientific institution in America at the time, Armsby and the rest of the financial backers approached an employee of the Survey, Benjamin Apthorp Gould jr.

On paper, it’s hard to find a candidate as impressive as Benjamin Gould.  To start, his Boston pedigree was impeccable.  His grandfather was Captain Benjamin Gould, who served under Benedict Arnold at West Point and helped ferret out his treachery – albeit too late.  Gould’s father served as principal at the Boston Latin School, considered the top classical school in early America.  Due to health issues in his father, Gould was largely raised by his aunt Hannah, a respected local poet.

Gould was a prodigy, a fact that may explain some on his later eccentricities.  He was reading by the age of three, and composing Latin odes at five.  He dabbled in electrical engineering, building simple electrical machines and delivering lectures on the principles, by age ten.  Despite having to take a hiatus between his junior and senior years due to family financial problems, Gould still graduated from Harvard in 1844, at nineteen years old.

Gould’s interests had turned to science and mathematics, and particularly to astronomy. In the 1840s, Americans wanting higher education in science still had to travel to Europe.  So Gould sailed in 1845, packing letters of recommendation from sources like Harvard mathematician Benjamin Pierce and President John Quincy Adams.

Gould did a sort of academic grand tour, stopping at the greatest observatories of the day in Greenwich, Paris and Berlin.  Gould was probably most impressed by Berlin, which he described as a “great scientific emporium.”  He was impressed by the no-nonsense German style of science, and was particularly fond of the combative attitudes of the great German thinkers.  He later admitted that he preferred to be where “scientific men fight like cats and dogs,” an attitude that would come back to haunt him.

One of Gould’s last stops was the University of Göttingen, where he studied under no less an authority that Carl Friedrich Gauss, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the age.   Under Gauss, Gould would complete his doctorate in 1848, at the ripe old age of twenty three.  He was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Astronomy.

Gould returned to America at the end of 1848.  Having spent three years in the greatest universities of Europe, he was taken aback at how far behind American astronomers were.  America still lacked the institutions of science; not only the observatories but also the journals, libraries and great universities.

Another scientist may have just given American the laugh and headed back to Europe, where scientific institutions were more developed, and scientific jobs were easier to find.  Instead, true to his Puritanical roots, Gould set out to reform American science.  Supporting himself by teaching languages and mathematics, Gould relentlessly published articles on astronomy .  Finally in 1849, Gould began publishing his own astronomical journal, imaginatively named the Astronomical Journal.

This was the first professional quality astronomical journal in America.  O.M. Mitchell was already publishing the Sidereal Messenger, but true to Mitchel’s nature this was aimed at amateur astronomers.  Gould went the other direction; only original research from professional astronomers was published.  In a time period where slow communications made it difficult for astronomers to stay abreast of what their colleagues were doing, Gould’s journal became essential.

Gould’s commitment to reforming American science can be seen in his reaction to a job offer in 1851.  His mentor, Carl Friedrich Gauss, offered him a position in Göttingen as a full professor and the director of the observatory.  Had he accepted, Gould would likely have become a famous name in the history of astronomy.  But he refused, because he was committed to staying the course and remaking American science.

This drive was remarkable, but Gould was not alone.  He had some impressive allies looking to advance American science.  But more on them later.

The Poetry of Benjamin Gould


Observatory Lyrics 
Tom Tom the President
Begged Grabbed the money and quickly spent
But Jimmy was caught though he was bought
And now Tommy's going to get what he ought.
Published in NYT, July 28, 1858

Published in NYT, July 28, 1858

This little bit of doggerel was one of Benjamin A. Gould’s ways of blowing off steam.  He would pen a scathing poem directed at whoever was irritating him at the moment.  This one is undated, so it’s not clear what had Gould riled up, but we can puzzle some of it out.  Tom the President was probably Thomas Olcott, President of the Board.  Jimmy is harder to pin down.  The poem is clearly about some issue of money being spent, but there were so many issues about money during the founding of the Dudley Observatory that this doesn’t help.

We have no idea how many of these little verses Gould wrote because, of course, they likely got tossed away.  Only one of his poems ever got published, to Gould’s regret.  This one was written while Gould was trying to convince academics and politicians in New York City to adopt his plan of selling accurate time from Dudley Observatory.  As I wrote previously, this idea never took off, and Gould got frustrated with some of the administrators who were rejecting his idea.  He penned this bit of song, set to the tune of the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock-Robin,” to mock the cluelessness of some of the professors at New York University.

Somehow, someone got a hold of this Gould’s throw-away poem and slipped it to the New York Times while the Letters to the Editors page was still arguing about the Dudley controversy. Gould’s career at Dudley was basically over by that point, but this leak must have seemed like the door hitting him on the way out.

From the Collection: Polsey Clock

Polsey ClockThis piece is a bit of a mystery. It comes down to us simply as the “Polsey Clock.” Our other clocks come from famous makers, but Polsey is virtually unknown. It’s also very plain, somewhat battered, and missing a few pieces. Still, in its way, it’s the most interesting clock we have. It may be the lone surviving remnant from an ambitious project created by Moses Farmer.

Here’s where I get to put on my miSci cap. Moses Gerrish Farmer was one of the countless electrical inventors that appeared during the nineteenth century, before the giant corporations like GE and Westinghouse formed and sucked up all the oxygen. Farmer, from New Hampshire, is one of the most important of these inventors, and some of his contributions were long lasting.

For example, in 1856 Farmer demonstrated a duplex telegraph between New York and Philadelphia, sending two signals down the same wire. In 1872, Thomas Edison took his technique, combined it with some other ideas, and created the duplex and quadruplex telegraphy system, sending two signals down the wire and two signals back. He sold the idea to Western Union, one of his first major sales.

(Being Thomas Edison, he then also sold it to Jay Gould’s Atlantic and Pacific company. This is probably the incident that caused the editors of the New York Tribune to dub him the “great professor of duplicity and quadruplicity,” one of the more colorful insults that Edison ever received.)

But before all that, Farmer was working on a fire alarm system in Boston that would work much like systems we use today; there would be a central alarm with signal boxes scattered throughout the city, all connected by telegraph cable. In 1855, he ran into the director of Dudley, Benjamin Gould, who must have liked the idea of a central system that could communicate through telegraph. But rather than fire, Gould was thinking clocks.

New York State Capitol Building with Time Ball, ca. 1860

New York State Capitol Building with Time Ball, ca. 1860

So in 1855, Moses Farmer, along with an assistant named John Polsey, came to the Dudley Observatory to create a clock system. The clock was set into a niche near the entrance to the observatory, and it was wired to other clocks throughout the building through telegraph cable. This allowed the main clock to send signals to the other clocks that would keep them all synchronized. And the telegraph cable also ran out of the building, allowing the clock to send accurate time to distant places.

That last part was part of Gould’s plan to sell accurate time to buildings throughout the capital and down to New York City. It was an ambitious plan, which would have meant telegraph cables running to the government buildings and railroad depots along the Hudson, all reaching back to Dudley Observatory to keep every clock running accurately.

The system was finished in 1856, just in time for the inauguration. It became a centerpiece of Gould’s inauguration speech:

The clock for mean time has been made by our accomplished fellow-citizen, Mr. Farmer, of Boston. Its pendulum has no weights, and needs no winding. […]On the right is the great marble dial, three feet square, which shows the Observatory time, beat by the beautiful electro-magnetic pendulum which is swinging on the left, and which is not only to supply this city with its time correct to the fraction of a second, but is to flash it along the electric wire till its little tick be heard upon the lakes and at the ocean, and in all the rail-road stations lying between — the stay of the navigator, the guardian of the traveler, the safeguard of human life, and the promoter of human welfare on land and sea.

It never worked out the way Gould wanted it to. His successor, George Washington Hough, did send accurate time to the state capitol, but it never became the large scale (and lucrative) operation that Gould wanted.

Farmer’s clock system disappears from the record soon after the inauguration. When the original observatory building was vacated, the system was dismantled. This portion of the system, most likely one of the secondary clocks in the system, was set up in the central dome with the Pruyn telescope. It appears to be the only portion that now survives.

The All-Cut Come-It

comet seeker displayDr. Rapson put together this display in our Planetarium Gallery.  That’s the Dudley’s Comet Seeker telescope, built by Alvan Clark & Co., along with articles from the Astronomical Journal detailing the two comets that the telescope discovered.  The first was discovered by Dr. Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters, known as C.H.F. Peters for obvious reasons.

In the summer of 1857, Dr. Peters was in charge of the observatory.  The actual director, Benjamin Gould, was away in Cambridge, and Peters was stuck with the unenviable task of running an observatory that was still in the slow, halting stages of being constructed.  Peters was well aware that that the Dudley’s trustees were unhappy with the slow progress of the construction.  The Detroit Observatory in Ann Arbor had been commissioned in 1854, around the same time as the Dudley Observatory, but was almost complete.  Meanwhile, the Dudley Observatory had been inaugurated in August, 1856, but the building was not functional at that point, and a year later it still hadn’t set up its primary telescope.

All Peters had to work with was the Comet Seeker, so he sought comets.  On July 25, 1857, he found one.  In the Astronomical Journal, he announced:

The Comet was found (as astronomers have been notified by Circular) on the evening of July 25, at the Dudley Observatory. If the priority of discovery remains to me, I propose to call it the Olcott Comet, after the very beloved and esteemed name of the distinguished citizen who is identified with the history of the erection of this observatory.

If that last part was a bit obsequious, it was also very shrewd.  Thomas Olcott was the President of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank of Albany, one of the wealthiest banks of the era.  Tremendous amounts of raw goods and farm products flowed through Albany, much of it purchased through loans provided by Olcott’s bank.  Thomas Olcott was also one of the primary movers on the board of Dudley.  Finding a comet and making a big production out of it could go a long way towards proving that the proto-observatory was functional, and placating the trustees.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  Benjamin Gould was on record as opposed to naming comets and asteroids.  The sober Gould thought they should be given an index number and nothing else.  So the “Olcott Comet,” the fourth comet discovered in 1857, should have been Comet 1857-IV.  Having a person who was technically his subordinate go against his wishes made Gould look bad, and his relationship to Peters soured.  When Gould suggested that the name be dropped, his relationship to Olcott and the rest of the board suffered.

Apparently Gould wasn’t the only one unimpressed by Peter’s gesture.  Consider this political cartoon:


all cut come it

Showman PETER, “now mein Herr, you shust keep your eye mit der Glass and you shall zee die grnde ALL-CUT-Come-it vich I discovare expressly you to do Honor.
Old Foozle, Pray Doctor, wich is the All-Cut-Come-It? There appear to be two ,
Showman PETER: Shust vich you please mien Herr, either vill answer.”

This cartoon by an unknown artist writing as “Snooks” shows “Showman Peter” (presumably C.H.F. Peters) talking to “Old Foozle” (presumably Thomas Olcott) in an absurd accent (Peters was an immigrant, born in Denmark).  Foozle sees two comets, one labeled “Canal Bank,” the other “Watervliet.”

Unfortunately, the exact scandal that this comments on is now lost to history.  This was during the Panic of 1857, and Olcott’s bank was suffering like all the rest.  Perhaps he had to choose a bank to liquidate?  Regardless, it seems that the artist was less than impressed with Peters.  Just above Foozle is a picture labeled ‘Dudley Observatory’ hanging upside down.