Trumpeted by the press as “the great eclipse of the nineteenth century,” the total solar eclipse of August 7, 1869 was the world’s first astronomical event marketed as popular entertainment — not merely a pinnacle of excitement for the scientific community, but a celestial spectator sport for laypeople. Smoked, stained, or vanished glass sold faster than any other item in American stores that summer. Small towns on the eclipse path, which stretched from Alaska to the mid-Atlantic coast, experienced an unprecedented surge of tourism. Newspapers offered extensive coverage of the event in the weeks leading up to it, crowned by front-page headlines the morning after the eclipse. But by far the most exquisite and original piece about the cosmic marvel came two months later from the inimitable Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first female astronomer, who paved the way for women in science and became the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus” — a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world. Writing in the October issue of Hours at Home, Scribner’s first magazine, Mitchell reported on the eclipse expedition she had… Read full this story
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