“The Dark Day”

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“The citizens of this Metropolis were all agog yesterday afternoon,” wrote the editors of the New York Times on August 8, 1869, describing the total solar eclipse of the previous day. One of the first popularized celestial events in the US, the eclipse crossed America diagonally from Alaska to North Carolina, leaving a shadow across the nation, on what Times editors dubbed “the dark day.” Watch parties were held on rooftops across the sun’s path, with people viewing its rays through bits of stained glass, smoked glass (created by holding glass over a candle flame), opera glasses, and small telescopes. Although the eclipse was only partial in New York, the Times reported that the obscuration began at noon and lasted more than two hours. It was one big party.

This photo is from the collection of Edward Goodfellow C1848 G1851, who spent his career at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (a precursor to today’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). After graduating from Penn, he started working at the USC&GS, where he began as a clerk, and then eventually worked his way up to executive assistant. He was also editor of the USC&GS’s publications, such as bulletins, annual reports, and appendices.

Goodfellow’s fieldwork included determining longitudes of places such as Galveston, Texas, and traveling on the agency’s eclipse expeditions. On the Labrador Solar Eclipse expedition of 1860, he described collisions with icebergs and submerged rocks, but also the fishing industry off Nova Scotia and the lives of Alaska Natives. This photo from his collection is from the August 7, 1869, eclipse, an event which he also worked on.

The USC&GS sent an expedition to the Chilkat Valley in southeastern Alaska, led by astronomer George Davidson. Davidson collaborated with the Tlingit people, an Indigenous group living there, to find the prime viewing spot. The USC&GS also sent observers to St. Louis and three other points in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It is unknown which location this photo is from.

“One of the most intriguing discoveries made was that the spectrum of the solar corona had a mysterious green line in it,” reports Old Farmer’s Almanac (“History of U.S. Eclipses,” November 17, 2023). “This green line was in the same spectral position that was produced by iron in the laboratory, but how could iron be present in the corona? The mystery was not solved until 1941, when the corona was proved to include ionized atoms of iron, as well as nickel, calcium, and the rare gas argon, all at a temperature of a million degrees.”

Goodfellow spent his career at the USC&GS, minus a short stint as captain of the 45th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, in 1864, during the Civil War. He resigned from his post due to ill health.

He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1871, was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and cofounded the Cosmos Club, a private social club for men interested in science, in Washington, DC.

Goodfellow died on May 7, 1899, at the age of 71, in his DC apartment, of accidental asphyxiation. He left behind his wife and daughter. —NP

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