CSU alum: 1878 eclipse gave birth to high-altitude astronomy

As the nation gears up for the rare sight of a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, a Colorado State University alumnus has written a book chronicling the hordes of visitors who descended on Colorado for a high-altitude view of a similar totality in 1878.

photo of Steve RuskinSteve Ruskin, who graduated from CSU with a degree in history in 1994, is the author of America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists, and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever. It chronicles the influx of astronomers and others who flocked to Colorado, Wyoming and Texas 139 years ago to view the eclipse, some from the top of Pikes Peak.

People arrived in Colorado Springs by the trainload in advance of the celestial event on July 29, 1878.

“Hotel owners were renting out local barns and having people use pool tables for beds,” Ruskin said, adding that areas in the upcoming eclipse’s path have also seen lodging book up fast. “The ones who are late making plans may end up sleeping on the sidewalk under a blanket, just like in 1878.”

Langley’s trip

One astronomer, Samuel Langley (for whom Langley Air Force Base in Virginia is named), managed to transport a huge brass telescope and related instruments to the top of Pikes Peak. The fragile equipment was carried up the 14,000-foot mountain using boxes hanging from poles that were strapped onto donkeys, Ruskin said. The team endured altitude sickness and blizzard-like conditions during the weeklong trip to see the three-minute natural wonder.

book cover imageHe became interested in writing about the historic eclipse more than a decade ago when he was digging through Colorado Springs newspaper archives and came across frenetic accounts about the swarms of people who inundated the city for the occasion.

“It made me realize that the 1878 eclipse was really the beginning of high-altitude astronomy,” said Ruskin, who wrote an article about it for Colorado Heritage Magazine in 2008. “It was the first time so many astronomers congregated in one high place for an event like this. After that, they began pushing for high-altitude observatories.”

And, naturally, Ruskin plans to watch the upcoming eclipse from a place where he can see it in its entirety. He’ll drive to Wyoming, where hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to temporarily increase that state’s population by 50 percent.

It’s estimated that about one-third of the nation lives within a day’s drive of the area in which the phenomenon will be fully visible: a 70-mile-wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. It could become the highest-traffic day in U.S. history.

Academic roots

Ruskin became fascinated with the history of science after transferring to CSU from the Colorado School of Mines, where he realized he preferred history to engineering.

“I was interested in the way science developed, so that led me to the study of the past,” he said. “I’ve always loved seeing how we got to where we are. My parents questioned the move at first. They asked, ‘What will you do with that degree?’”

But his history degree has paid off: The award-winning historian of astronomy has authored a previous book and more than 50 articles, chapters and reviews. Ruskin was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to serve as a visiting researcher at Cambridge University in England, and he is an alumnus of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. He is also the moderator of the long-running history of astronomy listserv HASTRO-L, and is on the Board of Advisors for the National Space Science & Technology Institute.

The Colorado Springs native credits several CSU faculty, including Professor Emeritus Thomas Knight, with much of his success.

“Tom took me under his wing and provided some independent study to prepare me for graduate school,” Ruskin recalls. “He and Diane Margolf helped me understand what it took to write a research paper in graduate school. I couldn’t have done it without the support of the CSU faculty. The history faculty was world-class — I had a great experience at CSU.”

Ruskin went on to earn a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame after his undergraduate education at CSU.

About the eclipse

According to Ruskin, the entire eclipse will last about three hours, but it will be in “totality” — when the moon completely blocks the sun — for only about two and a half minutes, which is the only time experts say it’s safe to remove one’s eclipse glasses and view it with the naked eye. More information about the eclipse, including a map, can be found at greatamericaneclipse.com, and Ruskin recommends a NASA site for advice on eclipse viewing safety.

CSU’s Little Shop of Physics is also offering safety tips and eclipse-viewing activities.

Learn more about Ruskin and his book on Facebook or firstgreateclipse.com. The Department of History is part of CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.