How a 19th century astronomer can help you watch the total solar eclipse

In July 1878, six women scientists, their attendants, a photographer and an artist gathered in Colorado on a panoramic plateau at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The group had a shared mission: Observe a total solar eclipse. Leading the expedition was celebrated astronomer Maria Mitchell, the first American to discover a comet.  

The eclipse captured national attention. The transcontinental railroad, completed the previous decade, made viewing the event accessible to people across the country. Mitchell and her crew — with telescopes and tents in tow — traveled from Boston, through Cincinnati, then Kansas City and on to Denver to watch a phenomenon that would last mere minutes. 

But Mitchell knew the journey was worth it. She was one of the most experienced eclipse viewers of her time. During her first eclipse, at age 12, she noted the time out loud so that her father, an amateur astronomer and schoolteacher, could make accurate scientific observations. During her last, in 1885, 54 years later, she again counted the seconds. But this time, she kept time for her students at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 

Mitchell’s extensive notes and popular writings about eclipses, especially her rich account of the expedition in 1878, offer insight into the breadth of phenomena visible during a total solar eclipse. These notes still provide guidance for anyone wondering what to watch for during this year’s total solar eclipse on April 8 (SN: 1/4/21). 

Maria Mitchell was an astronomy pioneer

Mitchell made the astronomical observation that would bring her international fame and solidify her stature as a scientist on the evening of October 1, 1847. Looking through her telescope from her home in Nantucket, Mass., she spotted an unexpected object. She had just become the first person to observe Comet 1847-VI, later nicknamed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” 

Thanks to that discovery, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She also became the first female professional astronomer when Vassar hired her as a professor in 1865. 

This postcard depicts Maria Mitchell in the observatory at Vassar College in June 1878. Mitchell became an astronomy professor at the then all-women’s college in 1865.Henry S. Wyer/Wikimedia Commons

Mitchell’s legacy as an astronomer and educator remains relevant, says Colette Salyk, an astronomer at Vassar. “She was a very dedicated educator,” Salyk says, ensuring the next generations of women learned about astronomy, including the female scientists she took to Colorado to observe the 1878 eclipse. “That legacy still lasts here at Vassar.” 

Astronomers flock to total solar eclipses because certain observations of the sun are possible only during these events. Normally, the sun’s intense rays overwhelm observations of more subtle solar phenomena. But during a total eclipse, when the moon passes between Earth and the sun and blocks the sun’s bright surface, these aspects become observable. 

That’s what intrigues Shadia Habbal, a solar physicist at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy in Mānoa and a member of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Solar Eclipses. Past eclipses have allowed her to study the composition of the sun’s normally invisible outer atmosphere, the corona. One enduring mystery is why the corona is so much hotter than the sun’s surface (SN: 8/20/17).

But eclipse watching is not just for scientists. “Natural phenomena belong as much to [lay people] as to scientific people,” Mitchell wrote in her notes in 1878. She shared her enthusiasm and knowledge of astronomy with the public by publishing articles in popular magazines like Scientific American.

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