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Why the American eclipse of 1878 still inspires

Astronomer Maria Mitchell led an all- woman expedition out west to view the total solar eclipse of 1878.
Vassar College
Astronomer Maria Mitchell led an all- woman expedition out West to view the total solar eclipse of 1878.

Eclipse mania has taken hold as we prepare for the big celestial event. And as Monday’s total solar eclipse promises to be amazing, it might not hold up to the last time there was a total solar eclipse that crossed through Texas. That was in 1878. And it was so astonishing some people are still talking about it and singing about it.

Students in the Baylor University Musical Theatre Workshop are singing a show-stopper number from the new musical in development “An American Eclipse.”

The song captures the excitement and wonder of a total solar eclipse that crossed America about 150 years ago. The musical is based on the book “An American Eclipse” by former NPR science correspondent David Baron.

“When I discovered that in 1878, a total solar eclipse crossed America's Wild West at a time when the United States was just starting to prove itself as a scientific nation. The deeper and deeper I got into investigating it, the more fascinating it became,” he said.

Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa was approached to write the music, and lyrics.

“And it fascinated me. I did not know very much about eclipses in general. But when I read the book, I was fascinated by first of all, the time period it was set, and the people involved, the characters involved,” LaChiusa said.

The characters include a young Thomas Edison who was then considered a science wizard for his invention, the phonograph.

Edison was part of a national science expedition that was sent into the West to make discoveries during the eclipse, and he had a new invention that he promised would be able to measure the temperature of the sun.

“This device was called the tasimeter and, at the time, he was hyping it, and the newspapers were hyping it as it was going to be bigger than the phonograph. Well, you can probably guess how that turned out. I would suspect most folks have never heard of the tasimeter.” said Baron.

That’s because it didn’t actually work.

Another character in the book and musical is the then world-famous planet-hunter James Craig Watson. Back in 1878 the solar system was much more mysterious. Watson and others were in a frenzy to find new planets and name them.

“Asteroids were called minor planets, and they were given names just like the major planets. So James Craig Watson was in a race with other astronomers to find the most asteroids. But in 1878, he went west for the total solar eclipse to find something even more impressive than another minor planet, another asteroid, he was going to look for a major planet, a planet called Vulcan,” said Baron.

The theory was that Vulcan was between planet Mercury and the sun—so close to the sun that it could only be seen during a total solar eclipse. Spoiler alert—he didn’t find it. But he claimed to the last days that Vulcan is real and he found it.

Also out West for the eclipse was Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell. She organized an all-female expedition to the frontier not so much as to prove anything about the sun but about women.

“This was a time when, of course, you can imagine it was not easy to be a female scientist, but in fact, higher education for women overall was thought to be a risky social experiment. And a book had come out just a short time earlier by a very prominent Boston doctor claiming that higher education was bad for a woman's health. He claimed, in all seriousness, that if a young woman used her brain too much, it would sap energy from other parts of her maturing body, including her reproductive organs, and it would turn her into a sterile, masculine, invalid,” said Baron.

Mitchell had set out to prove that anti-feminism theory wrong and that women were just as capable as men in science. But this was a time when it was still difficult to tell the difference from science and fiction.

Which according to Michael John LaChuga is certainly something worth singing about.

“That's a miracle of it all. That's why we love our musicals. We love singing,” he said.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi