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Solar Eclipse - August 7, 1869

WATSON, WHITING, PICKERING, BRAZELTON, HOVER, WILSON

Posted By: Pat Ryan White (email)
Date: 7/13/2016 at 15:53:56

THE SOLAR ECLIPSE OF 1869

Only once since the occupation of Iowa by white men has a total solar eclipse been visible within the borders of Iowa. On Saturday, August 7, 1869, occurred an eclipse that is memorable on account of the local interest it created and the unusual opportunities afforded for scientific observation. In every community…for weeks in advance the coming eclipse was a common topic of conversation.

Numerous parties, both private and official, representing many academic and scientific institutions, made elaborate preparations to study the eclipse…thousands watched the phenomenon through smoked glass or improvised telescopes. Iowa was almost ideally situated. Several prominent astronomers established temporary observations in different parts of the state, and it was in Iowa that some of the most important scientific work was done.

The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia…took up headquarters at Burlington, whence small parties were sent to Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa and Oskaloosa. Professor James C. Watson of the University of Michigan was at Mount Pleasant.

It is not known for certain just where the main parties were located in Mount Pleasant. Some of the visitors stayed at the home of their old friend, J.H. Whiting, at the corner of Lincoln and Henry Streets, and made use of the flat deck roof of his dwelling for their instruments. Prof. E.C. Pickering, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted his experiments from the corner room on the third floor of the four-story Brazelton House which afforded an unobstructed view to the west. On the roof above, astronomers labored at one corner, while at another place sat a small group of religious fanatics, “arrayed in their ascension robes of spotless white”, silently awaiting the end of the world.

As the eclipse advanced, a marked decrease in temperature was noticed. At Mount Pleasant the temperature fell from 40.8 degrees centigrade [105 F] to 24.7 degrees centigrade [76 F].

Conditions for observation were almost ideal…the sky was clear and totality occurred in the afternoon. Photography, crude as it was, contributed most in revealing new information to physicists, astronomers and chemists. The Hover Brothers of Mount Pleasant obtained clear pictures of the corona – the first ever taken in America.

The eclipse made a deep impression on those who viewed it…duration was about two minutes fifty-two seconds. Important family events were often spoken of as occurring so long before or after the great eclipse. The one thing most indelibly stamped upon [folks’] memories – “That was the time when the chickens went to roost”.

[Excerpts from an article by Ben Hur Wilson, Iowa Wesleyan Class of 1909, “The Palimpsest”, State Historical Society of Iowa, February 1970, originally published February 1925]


 

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