Solar Eclipse

The eclipse party of professor Henry Draper stands with equipment at its viewing site in July 1878 in Rawlins. Thomas Edison is second from the right.

Photo courtesy of Carbon County Museum

In August, Laramie is set to be a busy place as people from around the country pass through on their way north to place themselves in the path of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Laramie found itself in a similar situation about 140 years ago, when a solar eclipse darkened the skies west of town on July 29, 1878.

The 1878 eclipse passed directly over the brand-new Yellowstone National Park before following a path south over the Wyoming Territory towns of Dubois, Lander and Rawlins. It then crossed over Colorado cities including Denver and Colorado Springs before crossing over Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.

The transcontinental railroad had been completed less than 10 years earlier, opening the West to adventurous travelers. But according to University of Wyoming professor of history Phil Roberts, Wyoming towns along the railroad didn’t promote the eclipse to the general public.

“There didn’t seem to be any particular effort to encourage people to come and look,” he said in an interview. “It was probably a little early for that in the life of the tourism industry.”

However, the eclipse was a popular event for those in the scientific world, who traveled to points along the path of totality including Santa Fe, New Mexico; Pikes Peak; Long’s Peak and Rawlins.

Perhaps the most famous person to pass through town was inventor Thomas Edison, who was part of a group led by astronomer Henry Draper, a professor of chemistry at New York University Medical School.

The Laramie Weekly Sentinel reported on July 20, 1878, that Edison, the “great inventor,” stopped in Laramie on his way to Rawlins by train, where he planned to watch the eclipse. The inventor, 31, was nationally known and had patented the phonograph the previous year, according to Roberts.

Roberts has written two articles about Edison and the eclipse. “Edison, the Light Bulb and the Eclipse of 1878” is available at WyoHistory.org. A longer article, “Edison, the Electric Light at the Eclipse,” was published in Annals of Wyoming in 1981.

The Weekly Sentinel newspaper reporter described Edison as boyish in appearance because he didn’t have a beard. The inventor’s large nose was “the most remarkable indication of greatness.”

The reporter writes of the eclipse being “to us in this region, an event of more than usual interest.”

According to Roberts, Edison spent about $20 on fishing supplies during his stop, while the railroad superintendent also purchased a $35 Winchester rifle for the inventor while in Laramie.

Edison agreed to join Draper’s party, traveling from his home in New Jersey to do so, in order to test a new invention called the tasimeter, which was designed to measure small changes in temperature. The device was so sensitive, according to newspaper reports, it could register a man walking into a room with a lit cigar.

Rawlins, a town of a few hundred people, was packed in the days leading up the eclipse, but Edison found a room in a local hotel. The scientists spent their time testing their equipment in preparation for the three-minute event.

The Laramie Daily Sentinel reported on July 27 that scientists were very interested in observing and photographing the sun’s corona, which is the plasma that surrounds the sun, extends millions of miles into space and is hotter than the sun’s surface. During a total eclipse, it can be seen with the naked eye.

“The importance of the eclipse to science can hardly be overestimated,” the reporter writes.

Scientists were also hoping to use the moments when the sun’s light was obscured to find evidence of a planet they called Vulcan, which they hypothesized had an orbit closer to the sun than Mercury. Unexpected characteristics in Mercury’s orbit led to the hypothesis of an undiscovered nearby planet.

“If any of our astronomers should be so fortunate as to discover any such body or bodies, his discovery will be heralded throughout the scientific world,” the reporter writes.

A reporter from the Laramie Daily Sentinel joined the Draper party on the day of the eclipse. The reporter described a group of eight scientists and their spouses showing the residents of Rawlins their equipment and describing their work during their stay.

“They had entirely captivated the citizens of Rawlins by their courtesy and kindness,” the article says.

On the day of the eclipse, the Daily Sentinel reported clear skies that allowed the scientists to gather information to “puzzle and surprise the world.”

Among their great findings, according to the article, was the discovery of Vulcan by a man named Professor Watson of Michigan.

“He found this long-lost Vulcan and got an observation that will enable him to determine pretty correctly its orbit, location, magnitude and movements,” according to the article.

Of course, there is no such planet. The movements of Mercury that had puzzled scientists were explained by Einstein’s theory of general relativity about 35 years later.

The reporter also relayed that Edison’s tasimeter experiment, conducted inside a chicken coop with the roof removed, was a success and he was able to measure the temperature of the corona. According to Roberts, the experiment failed because the instrument was too sensitive for the conditions.

Draper’s efforts were a success, however, and he captured some of the earliest photographs of the sun during an eclipse. According to the Daily Sentinel, the party also made observations about the chemical composition of the corona and gathered data for future research.

“All those discoveries had to be done in less than three minutes. What momentous interest hung upon this brief space of time!” the article says.

After the eclipse, Edison remained in the West to travel, hunt and fish. According to legend — and a sign along Wyoming Highway 70 — he dreamed up his greatest invention, the incandescent light bulb, during his travels near Battle Lake south of Rawlins when the tip of his bamboo fishing rod fell in the camp fire and began to glow.

According to Roberts, however, that story isn’t true.

“I actually wanted to believe that story,” Roberts said. “I desperately wanted to believe.”

The lightbulb story was reported about 40 years later by a man who claimed to be part of Edison’s hunting group. The man recalled Edison talking about his new lightbulb invention, with the added detail of the fishing pole.

Roberts said he tried to corroborate the story by contacting historians at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey.

“The guy wrote back and said it sounds like a folk tale to us here,” Roberts said.

He did learn that arc lighting had been demonstrated in Paris that same summer, and Edison solved his incandescent light riddle more than a year later and after considerable expense by using carbonized cotton thread. Edison tried 6,000 different materials before he found bamboo would work.

Roberts said he thinks the legend began with someone misremembering an event that had happened decades before.

“It demonstrates the strength of mythology in the West,” he said.

Edison passed through Laramie one more time on his way back to the East Coast several weeks after the eclipse, concluding his only visit to the West.

The Laramie Daily Sentinel reported on Aug. 19 he and several friends “had a very pleasant hunt and fish,” killing elk, deer and antelope, while also “bagging about 3,000 trout.”

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