Eastern Michigan's strange connection to Thomas Edison, 1878 solar eclipse

Posted at 9:00 AM, Aug 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-21 16:59:27-04

It’s a tale of a fictitious planet, a band of astronomers and a telescope borrowed from Eastern Michigan — then known as Michigan State Normal College.

In 1878, scientists were still puzzled by the strange orbit of Mercury. Unlike earth it’s orbit is oblong, and wobbles as it circles the sun — at the time the knowledge of curvature of gravity, or even theories of it, were nonexistent.

That’s how a group of astronomers ended up on a mission to search for what had been theorized to be an undiscovered planet called “Vulcan” in the fields of Rawlins, Wyoming in 1878.

The solar eclipse offered a rare opportunity for research, and it was believed that during a three minute window of totality for the solar eclipse that they’d be able to prove the existence of Vulcan.

Thomas Edison was along for the trip — attempting to measure the heat of the sun’s outer layer with a new invention.

At the time he wasn’t a household name as he is now, but would have been among the handful of men who peered through the brass Alan Clark refractor that now sits inside the Eastern Michigan University observatory offices.

“Oh, it’s a remarkable instrument,” noted the observatory’s director, Norbert Vance.

The telescope was originally lent from Eastern Michigan to a University of Michigan professor James Watson.

It was later returned and luckily survived a fire at the original Eastern Michigan observatory inside Sherzer Hall in 1989.