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America’s First Eclipse Chasers

Stories of Science, Planet Vulcan, Quicksand, and the Railroad Boom

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  • © 2023


  • Combines the popular genres of scientific expeditions and the history of the American West
  • Explains in a nontechnical way the science and study of total eclipses of the Sun
  • Draws on previously unpublished primary historical sources

Part of the book series: Springer Praxis Books (PRAXIS)

Part of the book sub series: Popular Astronomy (POPULAR)

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About this book

In 2017, over 200 million Americans witnessed the spectacular total eclipse of the Sun, and the 2024 eclipse is expected to draw even larger crowds. In anticipation of this upcoming event, this book takes us back in history over 150 years, telling the story of the nation’s first ever eclipse chasers.

Our tale follows the chaotic journeys of scientists and amateur astronomers as they trekked across the western United States to view the rare phenomenon of a total solar eclipse. The fascinating story centers on the expeditions of the 1869 total eclipse, which took place during the turbulent age of the chimerical Planet Vulcan and Civil War Reconstruction.  

The protagonists—a motley crew featuring astronomical giants like Simon Newcomb and pioneering female astronomers like Maria Mitchell—were met with unanticipated dangers, mission-threatening accidents, and eccentric characters only the West could produce. Theirs is a story of astronomical proportions. Along theway, we will make several stops across the booming US railroad network, traveling from viewing sites as familiar as Des Moines, Iowa, to ones as distant and strange as newly acquired Alaska.

From equipment failures and botched preparations to quicksand and apocalyptic ‘comets’, welcome to the wild, western world of solar eclipses.

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Table of contents (20 chapters)


“The pioneering spirit pervades this enjoyable romp through the American mid-west. I highly recommend it. It is richly illustrated ... . There is a  very good collection of portraits of individuals, observing locations, charts, and  drawings and photos of the eclipse. ... It can either be read from cover to cover or just dipped into at random, as the chapters are self-contained. It is an engaging work, always informative and comprehensive ... .” (Richard McKim, The Observatory, Vol. 144 (1299), 2024)

Authors and Affiliations

  • Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, USA

    Thomas Hockey

About the author

Thomas Hockey received his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a PhD as New Mexico State University’s first-ever graduate in Astronomy and the History of Astronomy. He is the author or editor of ten books, including the award-winning Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (Springer).

Hockey is a veteran of eight total solar eclipses. He lives between the past and future:  His house is on the path of 1869’s rare, transcontinental, total eclipse, and he looks forward to taking his students to the path of the similar solar eclipse of 2024.   

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