On the afternoon of October 22, 1895, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, the engineer of the Granville–Paris Express train, was irritable. He was behind schedule, though it was anyone’s guess why, since the train left Granville at 8:45 a.m., its usual time. Pellerin hated to be late.

Gare Montparnasse station, prior to the derailment

The speed of steam locomotive No. 721 may have been slowed by its cargo. Far from traveling light, the Granville–Paris Express had 131 passengers aboard and was hauling six coaches, three luggage vans, and a post van to Gare Montparnasse terminus.

Pellerin drove the locomotive faster to make up for lost time, and at 4 p.m., Gare Montparnasse came into view. The conductor was doing paperwork, and hadn’t even noticed how fast they were traveling.

Pellerin didn’t brake as soon as usual, which would have made the train even later but he was confident he could stop quickly and safely, thanks to its state-of-the-art Westinghouse air brake. He applied it a moment later, but to his horror, nothing happened.

Pellerin then tried the locomotive brakes but they were ineffective; he was unable to curb the train’s speed. His scrambling caught the conductor’s attention, who realized in a moment that the train was entering the station too fast and that it was too late to apply his own handbrake.

The Granville–Paris Express train ran across the buffer stop on the station platform, crashed through a 23 inch wall, then fell over 32 feet to land on the street.

Photo credit: Levy & fils

The following day, London’s Morning Post ran a story by their Paris correspondent describing “a most sensational accident [that] occurred at 10 minutes past four this afternoon.”

 

 

Incredibly, the accident claimed only one life, and that was of a poor woman selling newspapers near the station. Marie-Augustine Aguilard was struck and killed by falling masonry. Six people had injuries.

The Pall Mall Gazette of London wrote that the train was still suspended over the road two days after the train derailed. “According to the information given before the examining magistrate,” they wrote, “there appears to be no doubt that Pellerin, the driver, was to blame and that he will be tried before the Correctional Tribunal for manslaughter, due to imprudence.”

Four days after the accident, The Star of Guernsey, England wrote, “Pellerin declared yesterday to the examining magistrate that on reaching Dreux and Versailles he asked the stationmaster to provide him with a new engine as the brake upon his own was not under proper control. They are held to be responsible for the accident in so far that they did not reverse the engine in time, and that they broke the rule by relying upon the Westinghouse brake to draw up at the terminus.”

Pellerin was found guilty of driving too fast and fined 50 francs. The conductor was fined for not applying the handbrake; he paid 25 francs.

In 1890, Clément Ader, aviation pioneer, unveiled his new invention to the world, the steam-powered Éole. It was followed by other flying contraptions, like the Avion III.

Ader with his flying machine

Ader was a brilliant man with a vision – or a nightmare – of what flying humans would look like. And his inspiration came from the bat.

Credit: Popular Science
Photo credit: http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/

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The solar eclipse that will occur in a few hours will be seen from the Pacific coast of the United States to the Atlantic. The last time that happened was on June 8, 1918.

On average, the sun was obscured for 2 minutes and 23 seconds, and completely visible again within 5 minutes.

Even then, looking directly at the eclipse was known to damage the eyes, so those who went out to view the phenomenon took smoked glass with them, to watch without damaging their eyesight.

Headline from The Atlanta Constitution

Since ancient times, superstitious people have associated a solar eclipse with violence and bloodshed. The 1918 eclipse occurred near the end of the Great War, and many were watching the Western Front superstitiously. The Detroit Free Press wrote, “In the foreign quarters of the city, women ceased their household work as daylight became obscured, dropped to their knees and prayed.”

The Los Angeles Times marveled at the interest the public showed in the eclipse

The Leavenworth Times reported that a “peculiar yellow tinge” appeared across the landscape when the eclipse started. They advised readers to keep their smoked glass used for eclipse viewing, since they could use it again in 1936.

The Leavenworth paper noted that the chickens in the area refused to roost, whereas the other papers noted that the chickens did roost. Every newspaper I looked at made a point of reporting on how the chickens reacted.

The Tennessean also noted the effects of light and shadow. “The birds sought their nests… and a gloom as deep as the night enveloped the land.” Electric lights were turned on in Nashville, and even the streetcars were burning their headlights.

Solar eclipses had only been studied for about 70 years, one scientist told the Vancouver Daily World. Prior to that, many people regarded them as purely supernatural occurrences.

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette headline

 

It’s amusing to pick up on the faint note of hostility in the way reporters wrote about astronomy predictions. I sympathize with them: too much precision kills the magic!

“Astronomers have figured the thing down to such a fine point that they can predict years beforehand when the next solar eclipse will occur,”  The Leavenworth Times said.

The Vancouver Daily World headline indicates the Canadian reporters were more charitable toward astronomers than their U.S. counterparts

 

The Arizona Daily Star was distinctly smug in an article entitled “SAVANTS FOILED AT DENVER”. Scientists had flocked to Denver, where the sun was to be completely obscured. The Daily Star reported gleefully that due to heavy cloud cover, astronomers “found their elaborate preparations went for naught.”

In another example of this, the Greensboro Daily News of North Carolina reported, “Ultimately twilight, fast followed by a deeper darkness, swept over a strip of the northwest 50 miles wide when the solar eclipse occurred, foretold by men who have reduced the movements of astral bodies down to an exact science.”

The San Francisco Chronicle was the only paper that took photos of excited people watching the eclipse.

Something tells me tomorrow’s papers are going to be more precise and less poetic in their descriptions, and may even omit to report on the behavior of local chickens.

Let’s hope I’ve underestimated them!