The basis for what follows is something I’ve been curious about for awhile now; however, for this week’s post I decided I ought to delve into the matter to see what, if anything, there is to it. I’m not sure what I expected to learn, but what I did took me very much by surprise. I suppose you could say it’s “out of this world”, and “eclipses” – never mind. Let’s just get on with it.
In late August of 1781, just days prior to the American Revolution’s decisive Battle of the Capes (a battle that dealt a death blow to the British cause), Joseph Peters of Halifax penned a letter to Caleb Gannett, who was then serving as the recording secretary for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of the oldest learned societies in the United States, the Academy had been founded not long before, on May 4, 1780, by John Adams and James Bowdoin, along with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine (other members would come to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, and go on to number such future luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking). Its founding fathers established it with the intention of serving the need for new knowledge and cutting-edge ideas in what was hoped would be a new republic. They hedged their bets on that count – what with war still being waged – but won.
But I digress.
In Peters’ letter to Gannett, he relates how he had been approached by a “Mr. Winslow” (possibly Edward Winslow, or Joshua Winslow, both of whom were known to be in the Halifax area at the time), who bore an earlier letter from Gannett requesting him (Winslow), if able, to gather data on a solar eclipse predicted for October 27, 1780. It appears that Winslow had then gone to Peters in search of information which Peters, to his dismay, was in no position to provide on account of not having himself “any kind of apparatus for observations of that sort”; nor did he know of any in Halifax, “these things, however useful, as well as pleasing, being very little attended to in this place”.
As luck would have it though, after Peters was approached by Winslow (whom he sent away empty-handed), he was delivered of precisely the data requested courtesy of a friend of his who had endeavoured to derive accurate calculations of that very eclipse. Writes Peters to Gannett:
…the observation was made with a reflecting telescope, two feet long, and compleatly [sic] fitted for the purpose. A clock was regulated with great accuracy, by means of double altitudes of the sun, taken on several days before and on the day of the eclipse. The observers were deficient only in a micrometer to measure the quantity.
Off by a mere micrometer, the calculations ranked as possibly the most accurate. And all thanks to the work of two studious astronomers, and “Islanders” to boot: Dr. John Clarke, and Thomas Wright.
But let’s rewind things a bit.
Thanks to the work of Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame), by the first part of the 18th century it had become possible to accurately predict the occurrence and track of an eclipse. That’s how it had been determined that such an event would transpire on Friday, October 27, 1780, the totality of which would track over a large part of Maine and areas of the Maritimes. For those of scientific inclination, it was an event not be missed. Clarke and Wright were two such individuals.
Before putting in at Charlottetown sometime in the 1770s, Dr. John Clarke had actually received his formal schooling at Harvard, and it was likely escalating tensions in the Thirteen Colonies that had prompted him to relocate to British-held St. John’s Island. He lived at the corner of King and Queen Streets, and his house is known to have doubled as an early courthouse and government meeting place.
Thomas Wright, on the other hand, is a figure we’ve met on a number of occasions. Educated in London, he came to North America around 1758, where he spent some time apprenticing as a surveyor in Georgia before returning to England. In 1763, he was tapped to assist Captain Samuel Holland, surveyor general of the Northern District of North America, in the mapping of the Island (the end result of which was that gargantuan map I wrote about previously). The rest, as they say, is history. He would go on to be appointed the Island’s first surveyor general in 1773, as well as a senior councillor and judge and, as you’ll recall, was taken hostage by American privateers in November 1775 alongside acting governor Phillips Callbeck.
Based on the studiousness of their approach, Clarke and Wright obviously knew well in advance about the predicted eclipse in October 1780, and were determined to apply their combined scientific prowess to its observation. Were they experts? It’s difficult to say, although we do know that it wasn’t Wright’s first foray into astronomy. In 1767, following his work with Holland in surveying St. John’s Island, he successfully observed the transit of Venus while in Quebec. In any event, as they set about getting their equipment in order (somewhere in Charlottetown), like-minded counterparts in an America ravaged by warfare had their eyes trained on the heavens as well. And whether anyone realized it or not, while British troops and American colonists tore at each other on bloodstained battlefields, a battle of a different sort was about to be waged – a battle for astronomical supremacy.
Well, sort of.
Now, it wasn’t just the timing of the eclipse that was interesting, smack dab as it was in the middle of one of the most crucial conflicts in human history, but the track of it as well: best visible in parts Maine, and in the Maritimes – basically, it straddled the border between to warring factions.
There were many in the colonies (US) itching to flex their muscle in the name of science, perhaps the highest profile of which was Harvard University. The pre-eminent educational institution of the day, it was so keen that it dispatched Samuel Williams, a charter member of the Academy, to observe the event in what would constitute one of America’s first major scientific expeditions as an independent country. After crunching some numbers and going over the data, Williams decided the best bet for his expedition was to head to Penobscot Bay in Maine. Of course what with the war and all, it would be a risky venture: the further north he went, the more hostile the territory became. To help allay any fears, he managed to secure assurances that his party would be allowed to carry out its work unmolested, and as far as we know, said assurances of immunity were honoured.
The expedition, however, proved a flop.
For reasons as yet debated, Williams erred, and while the Harvard group did witness the eclipse, what it missed out on was the all-important totality of it – that’s what people had been after, and that is precisely what Clarke and Wright managed to scientifically observe in all its two-minute glory. (The failure of the Harvard expedition constituted something of a national embarrassment, and was the reason, it seems, that Gannett had written to Winslow, hoping that someone in our neck of the woods had managed to do better. In that, he was rewarded.)
In the end, it was the Americans who won the war (for independence); but it was the British, by virtue of being in the right place and at the right time, and thanks in no small measure to the precision of Clarke and Wright, who won the “battle” of the solar eclipse of 1780.
We’ll take it.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – A decided lack of photographs this week. My bad.