Victorian Era Solar Eclipses caused flurries of excitement just as they do today. Even without Social Media, people throughout the 1800s gathered to marvel at the profound beauty and other worldliness of science in motion. Astronomers already understood much about the mechanics of the solar system. Inspired by her “insider knowledge” of these celestial events, Mabel Loomis Todd (1856 –1932) wrote her seminal science book for non-scientists titled, Total Eclipses of the Sun.
Spoiler Alert: We did not invent solar eclipse parties. According to NASA, 242 solar eclipses occurred between 1801 and 1900. Sixty-three of those were total. And Mabel Loomis Todd was privileged to have a front row seat for a few of those. Much like people are traveling to the strip of totality on August 21, 2017, Mabel Todd travelled to Victorian Era solar eclipses with her husband, David Peck Todd.
David Peck Todd was a noted American astronomer and teacher. He designed several observatories, including those at Smith College and Amherst College. He was chief astronomer at Lick Observatory and a member of several prestigious scientific associations. He also organized multiple scientific expeditions that were equipped to study Victorian Era solar eclipses in Japan, Peru and Texas to name a few.
While Mabel Todd had a strong understanding of astronomy, women were not readily welcomed in observatories. But she was exposed to leading-edge thinking and developments in astronomy. With her fine writing skills, she edited her husband’s scientific papers and joined him in his fieldwork and expeditions.
Mabel Todd’s book was published in 1894. Total Eclipse of the Sun incorporates the highest levels of scientific knowledge of Victorian Era Solar Eclipses with a poetic sensibility. She had a unique talent for transforming scientific knowledge into a form that was accessible to every person who observed the splendor of the skies.
Following are a few passages worth reading before experiencing your next total solar eclipse. Total Eclipses Of The Sun can also be read in full.
“Astronomers have indeed little chance to appreciate the strange poetry of a world in ashy and unnatural shadow. Even the observer who has to draw the filmy streamers of the outer corona cannot be permitted to see too much; his eyes must be bandaged for ten or twelve minutes before total phase, that they may be acutely sensitive to the faintest ray from these airy, yet stupendously extended streamers of an unknown light.
As the dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun little effect is at first noticed. The light hardly diminishes, apparently, and birds and animals detect no change. During he partial phase a curious appearance may be noticed under any shady tree. Ordinarily, without an eclipse, the sunlight filters through the leaves in a series of tiny, overlapping disks on the ground each of which is an image of the Sun.” p. 19
“This is matter of the commonest observation; and on noticing more closely I will be found that the luminous circles are larger in proportion to the height of the foliage, their diameter being about one inch for every ten feet…These sunny spots become crescent in form, images of the now narrowing Sun; and there is of course, the same appearance after totality also.” pp. 19-20
“Then out upon the darkness, gruesome but sublime, flashes the glory of the incomparable corona, a silvery, soft, unearthly light, with radiant streamers, stretching at times millions of uncomprehended miles into space, while the rosy, flaming protuberances skirt the black rim of the Moon in ethereal splendor. It becomes curiously cold, dew frequently forms, and the chill is perhaps mental as well as physical.” p. 22
“Suddenly, instantaneous as a lightning flash, an arrow of actual sunlight strikes the landscape, and Earth comes to life again, while corona and protuberances melt into the returning brilliance, and occasionally the receding lunar shadow is glimpsed as it flies away with the tremendous speed of its approach.
Professor Langley says of this superb sight: ‘The spectacle is one of which, though the man of science may prosaically state the facts, perhaps only the poet could render the impression.'” p. 22
In spite of her brilliant book on eclipses, Mabel Todd is best known for editing three volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry after her death. According to the New England Historical Society, Mabel Todd had been to Dickinson’s home many times, but never met her face to face. Emily sat in the darkness in her “weird white dress” listening to Todd play piano and sing. Dickinson sometimes wrote poems inspired by her music.
Most of Todd’s time in the Dickinson house was spent with her lover who was Emily’s married brother, Austin. He was more than 25 years her senior. Mabel Todd had an open marriage. Her husband knew about her affair and she knew about many of his. Austin’s wife was destroyed by her husband’s secret, of which everyone in town was aware.
Sadly, Todd’s spectacular book was nearly eclipsed by her connections to the Dickinson family. Please take a look at it, even if just a few moments online, so it will not be in the category of “Forgotten Books.”
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