Winner of the 2018 AIP Science Communication Award in Science Writing (Books)
Richly illustrated and meticulously researched, American Eclipse ultimately depicts a young nation that looked to the skies to reveal its towering ambition and expose its latent genius.
On a scorching July afternoon in 1878, at the dawn of the Gilded Age, the moon’s shadow descended on the American West, darkening skies from Montana Territory to Texas. This rare celestial event—a total solar eclipse—offered a priceless opportunity to solve some of the solar system’s most enduring riddles, and it prompted a clutch of enterprising scientists to brave the wild frontier in a grueling race to the Rocky Mountains. Acclaimed science journalist David Baron, long fascinated by eclipses, re-creates this epic tale of ambition, failure, and glory in a narrative that reveals as much about the historical trajectory of a striving young nation as it does about those scant three minutes when the blue sky blackened and stars appeared in mid-afternoon.
In vibrant historical detail, American Eclipse animates the fierce jockeying that came to dominate late nineteenth-century American astronomy, bringing to life the challenges faced by three of the most determined eclipse chasers who participated in this adventure. James Craig Watson, virtually forgotten in the twenty-first century, was in his day a renowned asteroid hunter who fantasized about becoming a Gilded Age Galileo. Hauling a telescope, a star chart, and his long-suffering wife out west, Watson believed that he would discover Vulcan, a hypothesized "intra-Mercurial" planet hidden in the sun’s brilliance. No less determined was Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell, who—in an era when women’s education came under fierce attack—fought to demonstrate that science and higher learning were not anathema to femininity. Despite obstacles erected by the male-dominated astronomical community, an indifferent government, and careless porters, Mitchell courageously charged west with a contingent of female students intent on observing the transcendent phenomenon for themselves. Finally, Thomas Edison—a young inventor and irrepressible showman—braved the wilderness to prove himself to the scientific community. Armed with his newest invention, the tasimeter, and pursued at each stop by throngs of reporters, Edison sought to leverage the eclipse to cement his place in history. What he learned on the frontier, in fact, would help him illuminate the world.
With memorable accounts of train robberies and Indian skirmishes, David Baron’s page-turning drama refracts nineteenth-century science through the mythologized age of the Wild West, revealing a history no less fierce and fantastical.
About the Author
David Baron, an award-winning journalist and author of The Beast in the Garden, is a former science correspondent for NPR and former science editor for the public radio program The World. An incurable umbraphile whose passion for chasing eclipses began in 1998, he lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Baron, an award-winning journalist, uses exhaustive research to reconstruct a remarkable chapter of U.S. history. He tells the surprising story of how the eclipse spurred three icons of the 19th century—inventor Thomas Edison, planet hunter James Craig Watson, and astronomer and women's-rights crusader Maria Mitchell—to trek into the wild Western frontier to observe it.
— Lee Billings
The stories of these three enterprising scientists reflect the ambition and intellectual curiosity of the United States in the late-nineteenth-century, when the country was trying to cement its place in the international scientific community.
— Concepción de León
David Baron contracted an incurable case of umbraphilia twenty years ago in Aruba. Fortunately for readers, Baron’s fever stokes his account of the first great American eclipse, in 1878, while priming us for the next one—and the next, and the next.
— Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe
David Baron beautifully captures the awe, the magic, and the mystery of one particular eclipse, an event in 1878 that spurred on America to embrace the sciences. A superb contribution to the history of astronomy.
— Marcia Bartusiak, author of Einstein's Unfinished Symphony
This fascinating portrait of the Gilded Age is suffused with the peculiar magic and sense of awe that have always attended eclipses, those fraught few minutes when day becomes night, time stands still—and anything seems possible.
— Hampton Sides, New York Times best-selling author of Blood and Thunder
A suspenseful and dramatic account of the rival scientific expeditions that came to the American West to view and study this rare phenomenon…Baron enables us to understand what drew them to the eclipse and what this episode tells us about the changing role of science in American culture.
— Paul Israel, author of Edison: A Life of Invention
A wonderful book, bringing lessons from the past to the present. In exceptionally clear and interesting prose, Baron brings nineteenth-century personalities to life, showing how men and, unusually, a female astronomy professor of that time observed the total solar eclipse of 1878.
— Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College
Lucidly melds science, ambition, policy, technology, the interplay of personality and practice, and the immediacy of experience. The book is marked by wonderful, eye-opening surprises, notably Edison’s enthusiasm for and participation in the observation of the eclipse and the independent expedition of Maria Mitchell and her crew in the face of their exclusion from the effort.
— Daniel Kevles, author of The Physicists
Brilliantly researched and beautifully crafted, American Eclipse conveys historical discoveries and scientific obsessions with the verve and excitement of a work of fiction. David Baron's vivid prose captures the wonder of an era in which modern astronomy was just beginning to reveal our connection to vast universe beyond our own small world.
— John Pipkin, author of The Blind Astronomer's Daughter
Science journalist Baron shares a timely tale of science and suspense in this story of rival Gilded Age astronomers contending with everything from cloudy skies to train robbers to overserve the historic total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. . . . Baron skillfully builds tension, giving readers a vivid sense of the excitement, hard work, and high stakes in play. With the first total solar eclipse to cross the U.S. in 99 years set to occur in late August 2017, this engrossing story makes an entertaining and informative teaser.
Baron mingles the excitement, aspiration and drama of these events with a good dose of technical information and scientific history. Archival photos, sketches and prints are scattered throughout the pages. This is a wonderful, dramatic piece of scientific history, and a fine companion for eclipses to come.
— Sara Catterall