A Beautiful Solar Eclipse Print (1858)

JF Ptak Science Books   Quick Post



F.G. Hesse captured this dramatic image of total eclipse at Olmos, Peru for Lt. James Melville Gilliss’ report of the event that he chased down for the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Smithsonian in 1858. Gilliss (1811-few months too short of the end of the Civil War in 1865) was a Georgetown boy who is buried in the beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery, and best known probably for being in charge of the Naval Observatory (previously the “National Observatory”), which was teh first national observatory established in the U.S.  He took over that position from Matthew Fontaine Maury1 (as in “Maury Day” celebrations in Virginia and being the father of American Oceanography and a prominent figure in the Confederacy) and was a position he held until his untimely death at age 53. The report in which the eclipse image appears is An Account of the Eclipse of the Sun, published in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge series in 1859.

In the report it sounds as though Gilliss was not prepared for the effects that the eclipse had on his non-experimentalist persona, and how awestruck he was to see it once in totality:

“The screen of the glass [from the telescope] was hurriedly removed, and in the brief instant of doing so I found, to my surprise, that all the phenomena were distinctly visible to the unassisted eye.”

“A corona light flashed out at the instant of totality. It extended farthest from the sun, in lines drawn from the centre through the solar clouds, but was nowhere traceable more than 15′ or 16′ beyond the lunar disk. There were no radial streamers, or bundles of rays, but only a uniformly diminishing, and slightly orange-tinted light, whose brightness and extent were apparently influenced by the mist-film, as the color of the clouds also may have been. Beyond the corona light, the color of the sky was of a grayish-black.”

And then: 

“It was a far more imposing sight without than with the telescope, and long has been my experience in the investigation of celestial phenomena, and calm and unimpassioned, at such times, as my temperament has become, the sublime majesty of the scene thrilled me with excitement and humble reverence.”

During and after the eclipse Gilliss reported on the behavior of the town:

“For some minutes previous, all work in the valley below us had ceased, and even the strains of martial music, which the Governor of Olmos employed to cheer laborers digging for water, two or three miles from town, were no longer audible. Superstition is still dominant here, and we hear the solemn toll of the church bell, whose sounds were intended to drive evil spirits from its vicinity.”

“Neither at Olmos nor Piura, did any enceinte woman leave her room during the eclipse, whilst some from curiosity, but more through fear, were in the streets, yet not daring to look upon the sun, lest malady befall them. The somber green light gave them the appearance of corpses, and they apprehended that a plague might be visited upon them. Afterwards, the muleteers told us that their animals stopped eating, and huddled together in evident alarm.”


1. Maury left the Observatory to become  a high-ranking official and overseas representative with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the war. The writeup for Gilliss in Wikipedia includes the coy and Victorian statement about Maury joining the Confederacy to fight for separation from the United States, with Gilliss promoted to the Maury position “when Maury responded to serve his state, kin and friends…” with no mention of the Civil War. 


By: JF Ptak Science Books
Via: Feedbin Starred Entries
Source: http://j.mp/2vXXL7v

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