The Eclipse

Cloudy Eclipse

They had just come to a solitary stand of poplar trees after walking for several hours in searching for a place nearer the central line of the path of totality. Edison, tired, gazed attentively at the trackless sea of grass in every direction. The wind had picked up strong, and that worried the scientist.

He took a deep breath and looked at Marshall Fox, ten feet away. He was holding in his hands the box that contained the tasimeter, Edison’s newest invention. As soon as he placed the box on the ground and began to open it, Edison shouted, annoyed.

“Careful! Not yet!”

Fox stiffened his body and said: “Isn’t this place good enough? We can see clearly the skies from here.”

“There is more to it than that. We need a solid and level basis for my instrument, and this isn’t the place.”

Fox turned his eyes another way and almost in a whisper he said, “Oh God, I surely wished you had prepared this trip more thoughtfully. We wouldn’t be struggling to find a place right now.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“I heard you clearly, Fox, and I should remind you to do what I tell you to do, and leave the rest to me,” Edison said, shaking his head impatiently as he rested his telescope against the tree trunk and sat down.

For a few minutes Fox remained too stunned to speak and kept staring at the fast moving clouds rushing overhead off to the west.

Suddenly, a gust of wind caught the corner of his hat almost snatching it away. He looked at Edison and, while holding his left hand on his head to secure his hat, he said: “How confident are you that this weather is going to improve?”

“I ain’t got no crystal ball,” Edison said, shrugging his shoulders. “Who knows?”

Fox seemed undisturbed. After a few more minutes gazing at the vast horizon in front of him, as if daydreaming, he ventured another question:

“What about your thermopile? Do you think it will work under this weather?”

“It is not a thermopile, for Christ’s sake; it is a tasimeter, my damn tasimeter.” Edison could swear that Fox knew perfectly well the difference.

“But it works like a thermopile, does it not?”

Edison gave up and sighed heavily as he surrendered to Fox’s relentless interrogation.

“Yes, you may say that, but with the distinction of being one hundred times more sensitive than all the existing thermopiles out there, and above all, uninfluenced by alien radiations.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, that’s so. This instrument is the most remarkable of all my discoveries. You can be damn sure that it will have a devastating impact on the scientific world. As I told you before, and I’m surprised you haven’t written in your paper yet, my tasimeter, with a conventional galvanometer”—and here Edison raised his short, fat index finger into the air in a theatrical way as he was checking the direction of the wind— “is six times more sensitive to heat from my little finger than a thermopile to a red-hot iron. If the sun’s corona has any heat of its own, the tasimeter will be able to detect it with undisputed accuracy.”

“Remarkable, indeed,” Fox said with a somewhat sarcastic smile.

Marshall Fox was the special correspondent for the New York Herald, who had been selected by Edison to join the expedition for the upcoming total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. Edison was excited at the idea of visiting the Wild West, just recently opened to rail travel, and thrilled to test his new invention. All the preparations (or the lack of) for the trip were done at the last minute, and both had come in a hurry to Rawlins, Wyoming Territory, literally fleeing from the frenetic atmosphere of Menlo Park Laboratory. It was Edison’s long overdue vacation time, but since he could not envision leisure without work, the solar eclipse gave him the opportunity he was looking for. Fox, initially, was delighted to travel with the scientist and had readily accepted the conditions imposed upon him of being the carrier for the most of Edison’s expedition equipments, besides, of course, to write an article about the tasimeter’s performance during the eclipsed sun.

“Tasimeter. How did you came up with this name?” Fox said, producing a notebook and a pencil from the inner pocket of his coat.

“Haven’t we gone through this before?”

“No, sir. You may have told other reporters, but not me.”

Edison sighed again and said: “It took me more time to name it than to invent it. It is from the Greek words extension and measure, because primarily the effect is to measure extension of any kind.” And he continued: “Essentially, the tasimeter is a carbon button placed between two metallic plates. The principle of operation…”

“Please, if you don’t mind, sir, skip the technical details,” Fox interrupted. “Give me in layman’s terms the basics. That’s what my readers in the Herald want.”

“What’s the matter with you? Am I boring you?” Edison said with unusual sense of humor.

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just for simplification…”

“Let me put this way, the tasimeter is the most sensitive instrument to heat known to man; I’m proud to say that. It can detect the heat from a person’s hand thirty feet away. As the correspondent from the Wyoming Tribune put ‘let a person come into the room with a lighted cigar, and it will drive the little animal wild.’”

Edison paused and said: “Did you get it? Is it too difficult for you to grasp?”

Fox muttered and kept jotting down in his notebook.

And to put an end to that conversation Edison said mockingly: “You from New York should do better than the local correspondents from here. See if you can come up with a catching description of the tasimeter as vividly as of your colleague from the Wyoming Tribune. That guy got it; he understood perfectly well the power of my instrument.”

Fox said some unintelligible words again, barely audible under the singing winds.

Edison suddenly stood up: “Let’s move on. We don’t have any more time to waste.”

Using his binoculars, he examined the trees near the train station and decided that it seemed like a good place to shelter the equipment against the threatening weather. But he soon discovered that the trees could not offer any protection from the brisk winds.

He looked once more, enraptured, at the open grassland shimmering and waving in the sun. He couldn’t tell if the grandest spectacle he had come to witness was right there around him or about to happen in heaven in a few hours. Everything was in perfect accord with the maps from The National Geographic Society. He decided to come to Rawlins not only because of its accessibility to the shadow path of the solar eclipse, but also because of its isolation, a frontier town of about eight hundred inhabitants. The only missing elements were the buffalo and Indians, long gone from the Great Plains.

They waited near the trees, listening to the gusty prairie winds. The weather had improved; it was no longer raining. For a couple of hours the sun appeared brilliant in the skies, but then it was obscured by some clouds.

Howling winds were moving the clouds perilously to the west, where the eclipse would occur. That was the major threat to the expedition. The total eclipse was approaching and he had to work fast.

A gust of wind lifted some debris, swirled it into the sky, and shook the lush leaves of the poplar trees. The sky was clear, but then clouds moved in, and soon heavy raindrops fell, dashing noisily through the dense canopy of trees and flattening the ground.

“It’s hopeless,” Edison said. “We won’t be able to set up an observatory with this wind. We need to get back to town. Maybe we can find a place next to Langley’s.”

“Dr. Langley? Don’t you know that he is not in Rawlins? He knows how to organize an expedition,” Fox said taking satisfaction at Edison’s lack of methodology. “At this point he is at the top of Pikes Peak, 14,100 feet above sea level, face to face with the moon. Besides, I doubt he would give you any help, after having waited for so long for the promised tasimeter that was never delivered.”

“To hell with him,” Edison said, irritated. “What right does he have to demand anything from me? Sorry! I do what I can and when I can. Besides, I am not sure he would be able to use my instrument properly. The idiot Young didn’t know either. I’ve never witnessed so much incompetence. The problem is not with the tasimeter, but with its user.”

“Are you referring to Professor Young?”

“Who else? He insisted that I give him a model, and it turned out that the stupid man could not make it work. He is now stuck with that ridiculous thermopile! Does he think he can measure the millionth part of a degree Fahrenheit with that piece of junk? Fox, there is nothing more precise than my tasimeter. Ask Lockyer. You know whom I’m talking about, don’t you?”

“But of course, Norman Lockyer, the editor of Nature.”

“Precisely. You can tell that’s a pragmatic man. He doesn’t have his head full of philosophy, Latin, and all that ninny stuff, like the majority of the astronomers around here. Unfortunately, you didn’t see last night when I tested the tasimeter in the star Arcturus. Lockyer helped in the experiment. We measured, with incredible accuracy, the radiation from the incident light from the star, about 2 x 10-8 calories, and I could detect an increase of temperature of 10-7 Fahrenheit. Tell me, my dear Fox, what instrument on the face of this earth detects such an infinitesimal variation in heat?”

Fox didn’t say a thing.

Edison continued, “And do you know what the theoretical physicists from the other expeditions spent their night doing? What a joke! They spent their time determining their position upon the earth. Among other things, they said with pride that the Rawlins station is twelve miles off from the position given on the maps. What a waste of time! It seemed to take an immense amount of mathematics for such triviality. I preserved one of the sheets, which looked like the timetable of a Chinese railroad. I’ll show you at the hotel. This world needs more Edisons, Fox, not daydreaming philosophers.”

Fox looked at the scientist and only said, “Wonderful, sir, but this won’t help us much. We urgently need to find a place to set up our observation post.”

“All right. Follow me. Let’s go back to our hotel and see what we can do. I’m also a telegrapher, and my fame will not fail to help me in town.”

All the buildings in Rawlins were occupied for the event. Edison had to content himself with his small hotel room, which barely held his instruments, and he had to share the room with Fox. It was a far cry from laboratory space. Edison tried the windows and even contemplated opening a hole in the ceiling, but with no result. He soon realized it would not be possible to see the eclipse from that place. From the corner of the same room, Fox shook his head in disbelief. Now they both looked like idiots, gazing humbly at the ceiling as if a god would descend from the skies in the middle of the room with the ready solution to their problems.

“Let’s go,” Edison said. “We cannot stay inside this cage.”

“You don’t need to tell me that. Where are we going?”

“I don’t know. Anywhere. We don’t have time to lose.”

They stepped out from the hotel and reached the streets. At that moment a strong wind current swept the main street, slapped the flag on the telegraph pole, moved to the church bell-tower, and with vicious fury descended over Edison’s head, sending his Panama hat skyward.

All the inhabitants of Rawlins were in the streets, fighting with the astronomers for the best site to watch the eclipse. Fox, with the equipment on his back, had great difficulty seeing through the air polluted with dust. Further ahead, Edison searched anxiously for a proper spot to set up camp. Everybody wanted to help the famous visitor, but there wasn’t much they could do. It was then that they came across a henhouse in dilapidated condition.

“This is the place, Fox,” Edison shouted, looking simultaneously to the henhouse’s entrance that faced west and the sun’s position in the southwest sky, where the eclipse was about to happen. “Haven’t I told you how stupid these scientists are? They neglected this location perhaps because it is a henhouse. No doubt, we’re better off here than in any other place.”

Fox placed his backpack on the floor and entered the henhouse. It was a huge shed, filthy with chicken droppings and feathers everywhere.

“Don’t worry,” Edison said, laughing at his friend’s appalled look. “We only need this little space here at the doorway. As you see, it’s fairly clean.”

“I’m not worried about cleanliness. I still don’t see how we can make an observation post out of this,” Fox said, examining the irregularities of the floor with his feet. “We need a solid base for the instruments, as you said.”

“For God’s sake, Fox. What do you know about instrumentation? As I told you and I’m telling you again, leave the show to me.”

Fox, in the presence of such authority, resumed his functions as an assistant. At the henhouse entrance, Edison mounted his instruments. He spread on the floor the tasimeter linked to a telescope, a Whetstone’s bridge, and a mirror galvanometer, which had been recently invented by Sir William Thompson. As hard as he tried, he was hopeless to protect his instruments against the blizzard in progress. He barely started the process of tuning the instruments when the henhouse began to swing in a menacing way. At one point, the vibration of the room was so daunting that any effort to regulate the current by the Whetstone’s bridge was made impossible.

“Fox,” Edison shouted. “I need some help here. We need to fix this damn henhouse, before it fall on our heads.”

“How sir?” d Fox, helpless like a child.

“With lumbers and nails, for Chris’s sake. We ought to find something in town to prop up these walls. Hurry.”

They both left the premises, and in less than an hour, with the support of dozens of passers-by, who were eager to help the illustrious inventor, the henhouse’s structure was reinforced and a fence was built from logs found in the area.

Meanwhile, in the sky, the first contact of the moon with the sun had already started. The immense lunar disc was covering the face of the crescent sun little by little. Fox excitedly alternated between pacing around the tasimeter and adjusting innumerous time his telescope. They were about one hour before the second contact, or, less technically speaking, the total eclipse.

The tasimeter’s sensitivity was irritating. A small vibration in the ambient was enough to move its pointer in erratic movements. The needle did not deflect to the point of origin as one would expect from a reliable instrument, but instead, it would describe several arcs, up and down, without method or regularity. When aimed at a source of heat, the needle moved a little bit forward then stopped, then moved more quickly; this was an indication of non-linear and slow detection. In vain, Edison adjusted and readjusted the tasimeter without luck.

The gale now had the force of a tornado. It hit with so much fury against the walls of the henhouse that it dangerously shook the telescope, making any sort of measurement impossible. A rigging of wire and ropes soon partially overcame the difficulty, and once more the instruments were ready for work.

The moon at this time already covered 80 percent of the solar disc, and the sky just turned dark. Fox, confused, continued oscillating between his telescope mounted at a corner close to the henhouse doorway and Edison’s tasimeter. The inventor was exasperated by his assistant’s behavior, because each of Fox’s movements resulted in the devilish instrument being misadjusted.

“God damn! Stop jumping like an idiot. Don’t you see that I’m having problems!”

Fox listened and promised to stay quiet, but at the same time Edison knew his assistant couldn’t fulfill his promise as the great moment approached.

While Edison was busy with his instruments, interesting things were happening on the ground. It was not the gathering of instruments, but their surroundings, that suddenly was overcome by a strange fluctuation of light rippling across the walls and floors at jogging speed. They looked like the graceful patterns of light that flicker or glide across the bottom of a swimming pool on a sunny day. Fox was at the entrance of the henhouse, where there was a shadow of a poplar tree. He was staring, mesmerized, at the hundreds of crescent-shaped sunbeams dancing on the floor. Even the powerful Edison could not remain immune to this phenomenon.

“These are shadow bands, Fox, created when the crescent of the remaining sun becomes very narrow so that only a thin shaft of the sunlight enters the atmosphere of earth. When the sun narrows from a disk to a sliver, the light from the sliver twinkles in the form of shadow bands dancing across the ground, and this varies with the wind speed. But don’t pay too much attention to the ground. The best is about to happen in the sky. In a few minutes the Baily’s beads, the diamond ring, and at last, the corona will be seen.”

Fox no longer heard Edison. He seemed consumed by much more powerful forces, and he did not have any more control over himself. He moved to his telescope and adjusted its lenses for the n-th time. As the moon almost overlapped the sun, the sun stayed more visible to the viewer. The only place that the solar light reached earth was through the valleys and irregularities on the edges of the lunar surface. Such brilliant points at the outmost part of the sun’s atmosphere were known as the Baily’s beads, after Francis Baily, the nineteenth-century English astronomer.

Within only a few remaining seconds until the second contact, Baily’s beads were reduced to a unique and solitary sphere with a glowing diamond, a giant diamond ring. And then, as the moon advanced, the diamond ring became engulfed. The disc of shadow triumphed at last.

It was the total solar eclipse!

Meanwhile, the winds continued to hammer strong against the shed’s wall, making balancing the instruments impossible. An atrocious wind, minutes before, had once more blown a cloud of dust and debris around the henhouse. Edison was furious, because he could not zero the instrument for the totality. The solar corona became visible, a brilliant, phantasmagoric halo behind the black lunar disk.

Far outside, the strong penumbra had spread against Rawlins’s sky and the majority of the American West. It was not a total darkness, since the solar corona had an opaque light that resembled the whiteness of a full moon. It was sufficiently dark to see Venus and Mercury and some surrounding stars. Edison stood there completely immune to the spellbinding game of the stars in the sky.

Even Edison could not foresee that at two minutes before the totality, when the wind magically stopped blowing, and the tasimeter was finally equilibrated, and the corona’s radius of light concentrated in the small aperture of the equipment, he would not be sure that he finally had the experiment set right. There had been so much commotion and disturbance in the henhouse that the success of the operation was in doubt.

Because Edison was an inexperienced astronomer, he entirely overlooked that a solar eclipse, when total, can induce strange things in the animal psyche.

Who would have thought that the great inventor did not guess that in that temporary darkness, the hens, which had not objected to his intrusion during the day, would return chaotically to the henhouse during what they perceived to be night? With so many strange obstacles at their doorway, such as a telescope and tasimeter, and also a funny little man, who looked more like a devilish boy trying to protect his toy, the hens urgently flew over the paraphernalia to land on their roosts, far above. They didn’t care that their return in disarray caused an irreversible deflection of the tasimeter’s needle, ruining completely the possibility of any sort of measurement.

There was no sun, it was dark, and the hens needed to roost.

Willer de Oliveira

Willer is a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he earned his PhD in materials science and engineering from Virginia Tech. He has coauthored six technical US patents and his scientific papers have been published in the Journal of Polymer Science and Macromolecules, among other scientific publications. His creative writing has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Brazzil and the New American Review.

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