I’ve explained in a previous post that I really enjoy reading as a hobby. I do read a lot of books, many of which I enjoy and many of which I believe often do not get the notice they deserve. So, in these posts I plan to tell you about a book I have read that I think some of you might also like. I read mostly fiction, but I do read a wide variety of books that strike my fancy. And also, if we’re being honest, I should admit that I think highly of my own opinion and always want to share it far and wide.
For my first post in this series, I want to report on a very timely book that I just finished reading called American Eclipse : a Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World by David Baron. Baron’s book is the story of the great 1878 total solar eclipse that was visible across a great swath of the United States, and the quest to show that America was worthy of a place among the great nations of the world for its growing scientific and industrial prowess.
As you may have heard there will be another total solar eclipse that will take place this year on Monday, August 21. Unfortunately, just like in 1878, Long Island is not in the path of totality, which means that we will only see a partial eclipse of the sun. Still it should be a fun show. And of course the Patchogue-Medford Library is planning an Eclipse Extravaganza to celebrate. Our own Martha and Jessica are throwing a big party with arts and crafts, refreshments, and a live video feed from NASA of the total eclipse. It will be held at the Carnegie Library from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM on August 21. Trust me when I say that I have been to library parties that Martha and Jessica have thrown in the past and believe it when I tell you that they know how to throw a party.
David Baron’s book is popular history at its best. I always used to be a person who thought that when it came to American history, that lots of important events happened from colonial days to the Civil War and then again from World War I to the present. In between from say 1865 to 1914, I once believed that not much of historical importance really happened and that the United States was run by a string of forgettable presidents, albeit presidents with great facial hair.
Over the years I have learned just how false that opinion was, and David Baron’s book is just the latest work to put the nail into that coffin for me. Baron uses the example of the Great Eclipse of 1878 to show just how active the intellectual ferment was in the country at that time. Many European scientist and engineers in their various royal societies looked down on American technological prowess of that era. The Eclipse of 1878 was the chance for America to prove that it could pull its own scientific weight in the world and should belong with the big boys.
Along the way Baron tells stories and anecdotes that illustrate the industrial, scientific, and technical ferment that was consuming the United States and its effort to be taken seriously in the front ranks of the nations of the world. Among other stories, this book tells of the true origin of the gypsy moth plague in the United States, the development of the telegraph and telephone, and of course the cutting edge scientific theory of the time regarding the deleterious effects of railroad travel on women’s reproductive parts. Watch out next time you are on the Long Island Rail Road ladies, because I don’t know if that theory has been officially disproved!
One story I particularly enjoyed was the fight over the telephone greeting. The story is that when Alexander Graham Bell first invented the telephone, he wanted everyone to use “ahoy” as the greeting whenever you picked up the phone. It was Thomas Edison who championed the now familiar “hello.” I think that’s too bad, as it seems like it would be great fun to shout, “ahoy” every time we answer the phone. Therefore, I propose that the library Board of Trustees take up a motion at their next meeting to adopt “Ahoy! Patchogue-Medford Library here mateys,” as our official phone greeting.
Many colorful characters fill the pages of the book, but Baron focuses on three major ones. The first was James Watson, a somewhat pompous University of Michigan professor and the man considered the leading American astronomer of the time. His quest was to prove that there was an undiscovered planet orbiting between the Sun and Mercury. The elusive planet Vulcan. Then there was Maria Mitchell, a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, which was then a women’s only school. Even though her scientific training and research was first rate, Mitchell and her female students had to struggle to get the respect and recognition their work deserved. They viewed the eclipse of 1878 as their big chance to attain equality, at least for their science. And finally, there is Thomas Edison, the great American inventor. His part in studying the 1878 eclipse was a trip out west to work on the tasimeter, a device used to measure small changes in temperature. Like a good thriller writer, Baron builds his oftentimes suspensful and exciting story by bringing all these major, and quite a few minor characters, together for the big 1878 eclipse viewing in Wyoming, where it could best be viewed.
I guarantee that you don’t have to be an umbraphile to enjoy this book. Anyone who enjoys popular history, the history of science, or wants to learn more about a lesser known period of American history would find American Eclipse well worth reading.