August eclipse shines a light on the past

Published 2:56 pm Saturday, July 22, 2017


Guest columnist

On Aug. 21, Kentucky will be the epicenter of a rare total solar eclipse. From Bowling Green to Paducah, thousands of visitors will come to Kentucky to view this phenomenon.

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Nearly 150 years ago, on Aug. 7, 1869, the Bluegrass State was the focal point of another total eclipse. Just like today, astronomers and curious travelers flocked to the state to watch the moon obscure the sun.

Kentucky was, of course, a very different place in 1869. The Civil War had been over for only four years and the Bluegrass State was grappling with the consequences of the nation’s greatest conflict, including the end of slavery.

John W. Stevenson, a Confederate sympathizer, was governor of Kentucky, while Ulysses S. Grant, a former Union general, was U.S. president.

Cities were much smaller. Owensboro had a population of 3,400 people; Bowling Green had 4,500 residents; and Lexington numbered about 14,000. Louisville’s population was about 100,000. Kentucky contained approximately 1.3 million residents, compared to 4.3 million today.

In 1869, Americans understood the importance of the eclipse. One headline in the Chicago Tribune called it “The Great Astronomical Event of the Age.”

The press also worked to calm citizens who did not understand the science behind the event. One Illinois newspaper reassured readers that “It is nothing to be alarmed about, startling as are its phenomena, for it is a very ordinary occurrence.”

In Kentucky, the central line of the eclipse ran through Manchester, Mount Vernon, Harrodsburg and Louisville. Visitors rode railcars, steamboats, carriages and horses to reach the best locations for viewing.

Shelbyville, then a town of 2,000 people, became a hub for astronomers. Shelby College, a local academy chartered in 1798, owned the third-best telescope in the nation (purchased for $4,000), resulting in the campus being packed with visitors and out-of-state scientists.

One astronomer had personal reasons for traveling to Shelbyville. Joseph Winlock was a Shelbyville native and a Shelby College graduate who once taught mathematics and astronomy there. Winlock’s career soon skyrocketed; in addition to teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, he was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. By 1869, he had been leading the Harvard University college observatory for three years. For Winlock, the eclipse was a homecoming.

On the day of the eclipse, Winlock took the helm of the Shelby College telescope. Other astronomers peered into at least a dozen smaller instruments across the campus lawn and on the rooftops of buildings.

The eclipse started at 4:23 p.m. As darkness fell, “citizens rushed to the college grounds.” The temperature reputedly dropped 14 degrees in less than one hour. Stars were visible. Chickens and other birds went to roost.

For some, the eclipse was disconcerting. “Six minutes before totality a deathly ashen hue overspread the countenances of all present,” one newspaper reported, “and for awhile the faint-hearted were terrified. The scene during totality was an awful one and when the sunlight appeared again a shout of exultation went up from the great crowd in the college grounds.”

Astronomers photographed the eclipse and recorded what they had seen. Winlock, for example, “observed a shower of meteors between the moon and the earth.” The eclipse was supposedly “the most remarkable since 1806.”

Winlock’s career continued at Harvard until his death in 1875. A crater on the moon was later named in his honor.

Just as the 1869 eclipse spurred curiosity and advanced knowledge, Kentuckians should use this year’s event to foster scientific learning and historical understanding. As the aerospace industry produces one-third of Kentucky’s total exports, this is a wonderful opportunity to engage younger generations about the thrill of discovery.

At the same time, let us also generate excitement about past Kentuckians — like Shelbyville’s own Joseph Winlock — who made their mark as scientists, inventors and explorers. True inspiration is found at the intersection of science and history; therefore, let us use August’s eclipse to shine a light on the connections between the past and our future.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.