MILLIONS OF NORTH AMERICANS ARE expected to (carefully!) turn their eyes to the sky on August 21 to witness a total eclipse of the sun that will cross the U.S. from shore to shore. Eclipse madness has taken hold. But while such anticipation can be thrilling, it can also be dangerous. In fact, during a solar eclipse in 1878, the fervor to witness the event almost cost the nation arguably its most influential meteorologist.
In 1878, crowds from all across the country gathered in a path of totality that spanned from Montana to Texas. In addition to the tourists who traveled specifically to experience the celestial event, many of the scientific luminaries of the day also made the journey. Thomas Edison headed to the Wyoming Territory to test out his new tasimeter, an early attempt at detecting infrared radiation. Other groups of scientists headed to locations nearer the ends of the path in Texas or Montana. But the lion’s share of astronomers and scientists traveled to Colorado.
One group of researchers made their way to the summit of Colorado’s Pike’s Peak. This group included Cleveland Abbe, who is today known as the father of the National Weather Service. “He was trained as an astronomer, but he became a meteorologist, and he became the first weather forecaster for the U.S. government,” says David Baron, author of American Eclipse: A Nation’s Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. “He climbed Pike’s Peak in 1878 to witness the eclipse and nearly died.”
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