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Eclipse Vicissitudes:Thomas Edison and the Chickens

J. Donald Fernie

Langley Awaits

En route to the Rockies Edison was accompanied by a correspondent of the New York Herald and hailed at every stop by the local press and railroad telegraphers, who regarded him as one of their own. Edison, one presumes, was never at a loss for a reply.

Rawlins, population 800, had been chosen as an eclipse site by some scientists since it was over 2,000 meters in altitude and, in particular, was readily available by train. Others, however, were spread up and down the mountain ranges, including Langley, 400 kilometers southward on the eclipse path at Pike's Peak, 4,300 meters high, still hoping to measure the coronal heat with a thermopile. All told, the astronomers observing the eclipse included some of the most illustrious names from around the world. They were doubtless unamused to find themselves summed up by the press in the phrase, "Professor Edison accompanied by a party of scientists . . .," especially since Edison was young, boastful, knew little astronomy and was not a professor to boot. Their feelings can be judged from the 500-page report on the eclipse eventually prepared by the U.S. Naval Observatory: The name of Edison appears nowhere in it!

Figure 3. Astronomy group at RawlinsClick to Enlarge Image

Edison was more explicit regarding his contempt for most academics. He is on record with the statement "I wouldn't give a penny for the ordinary college graduate, except those from Institutes of Technology . . . they aren't filled up with Latin, philosophy, and all that ninny stuff." As for the mathematical sciences, "I can hire mathematicians at $15 a week but they can't hire me." He was scornfully amused at the precise latitude and longitude determinations made at the eclipse site: "It seemed to take an immense amount of mathematics. I preserved one of the sheets which looked like the timetable of a Chinese railroad."

One modern writer has described Edison at Rawlins as unwittingly like "a rather typical modern day eclipse-goer since (1) he made preparations only shortly before leaving, (2) he elected to defer final assembly and tests until arrival at the site, (3) he claimed success immediately after third contact, (4) he never reduced his data and (5) he never published his scientific findings." Which brings us finally to the chickens. This oft-told tale has been recorded by J. A. Eddy thus:

When Edison stepped off the train at Rawlins he found the professional astronomers already ensconced in the best rooms of the only hotel and already in possessive claim of the more protected places from which to observe the coming eclipse. All that remained for the tasimeter was a dilapidated hen-house, and in its doorway Edison set up his telescope and equipment. In the afternoon of 29 July, as totality neared, a brisk Wyoming wind arose, filling the darkening sky with dirt and debris. These conditions made the balancing of the tasimeter . . . especially difficult, and with the onset of darkness at second contact, the tasimeter was still not adjusted. Only two minutes of totality remained. Feverishly he worked, but alas! With the sun covered and sky dark, the chickens came home to roost, through Edison's observatory door, past the telescope, in, around, and over the frantic inventor. Uninitiated in astronomy, he had failed to allow for a fundamental eclipse phenomenon.

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