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The Cowboy, The Wizard, and the Eclipse of 1878

Eclipse glasses were sold out everywhere. Hotels along the path of totality have been booked for months. Both scientists and civilians are anxiously awaiting the moment when the moon passes in front of the sun and provides an amazing glimpse at the solar corona. People flock to the places that might provide the best views. The date could have been August 21, 2017…or July 29, 1878.

A group of scientists with their telescopes in Rawlins, Wyoming, for the 1878 eclipse. Thomas Edison is second from the right.

Among the young scientists, journalists, and others that streamed west to prepare for the 1878 eclipse, which cut southeast across the United States from Montana to Texas, was the thirty-one-year-old inventor from New York, Thomas Alva Edison. Edison had already achieved some prominence as an inventor for his automatic repeater and significantly improved telegraphic devices, but it was his 1877 invention of the phonograph that had provided him both fame and the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Edison’s latest invention, the tasimeter, was designed to detect changes in the temperature of the sun’s corona, and astronomer Henry Draper had invited Edison to Rawlins, Wyoming, to test the device during the upcoming eclipse.

Thomas Alva Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park.

Rawlins was a rail stop founded near a natural spring. As a rail hub, it served Fort Steele, 13 miles to the east. Stage lines from Rawlins lead north towards Lander and south towards Colorado. As a rail hub located directly in the path of totality, Rawlins became the center of the American scientific world during July of 1878. The rail hub also served as a base of operations for Texas Jack, who often lead parties from Rawlins south into what is now the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and north into Thunder Basin National Grassland and the Big Horn Basin. Jack was also in Rawlins that July, having recently completed a series of shooting exhibitions with Doctor Carver and now preparing to lead German Count Otto Franc von Lichtenstein on a months-long trek across the wilds of Wyoming. For the facts of the meeting between Texas Jack and Thomas Edison, we’ll turn to Edison’s own journals:

"There were astronomers from nearly every nation. We had a special car. The country at that time was rather new; game was in great abundance, and could be seen all day long from the car window, especially antelope. We arrived at Rawlins about 4 P.M. It had a small machine shop, and was the point where locomotives were changed for the next section.

The hotel was a very small one, and by doubling up we were barely accommodated. My room-mate was Fox, the correspondent of the New York Herald. After we retired and were asleep a thundering knock on the door awakened us. Upon opening the door a tall, handsome man with flowing hair dressed in western style entered the room. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was somewhat inebriated. He introduced himself as `Texas Jack’ Omohundro and said he wanted to see Edison, as he had read about me in the newspapers.

Both Fox and I were rather scared, and didn’t know what was to be the result of the interview. The landlord requested him not to make so much noise, and was thrown out into the hall. Jack explained that he had just come in with a party which had been hunting, and that he felt fine. He explained, also, that he was the boss pistol-shot of the West; that it was he who taught the celebrated Doctor Carver how to shoot. Then suddenly pointing to a weather-vane on the freight depot, he pulled out a Colt revolver and fired through the window, hitting the vane.

The shot awakened all the people, and they rushed in to see who was killed. It was only after I told him I was tired and would see him in the morning that he left. Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn’t sleep any that night. We were told in the morning that Jack was a pretty good fellow, and was not one of the `bad men,’ of whom they had a good supply.”

Indeed, Edison and Fox tried to find Texas Jack now that they had been assured by locals, but Jack had already set out to start his trek. Edison’s tasimeter failed, though locals near Rawlins hold that he was fishing nearby with his bamboo fishing pole when he first hit upon the idea of using bamboo filament in incandescent light bulbs.

Texas Jack, circa 1878.

Count Otto Franc recorded in his own journal that he and Jack spent the morning of eclipse trout fishing in what is now the Medicine Bow National Forest near the Colorado border. “We caught some trout and went back to camp,” Franc wrote, “and while cooking the fish the Eclipse sets in and we have a very good view of it, Jack calls it a damned humbug and put-up job, because our tent and blankets caught fire while we were looking at the sun, we lost a blanket, burned holes in the tent and some blankets and besides burned our hands in trying to extinguish it."

Otto Franc, 1890.

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