The last time a total solar eclipse crossed Wyoming was in July of 1878. Eclipse enthusiasts visiting Wyoming this time may have heard a local legend about Thomas Edison having conceived of the electric light filament while in Wyoming during this 1878 eclipse. Actually, the story is a bit more than legend, as there as monument to the event on Wyoming Highway 70 high above Battle Lake in the Sierra Madre. Its inscription reads... “ Thomas A. Edison camped near this spot in 1878,...It was here that his attention was directed to the fiber from his bamboo fishing pole which he tested as a suitable filament for his incandescent electric lamp…”

Historians evaluating this claim recently label the story doubtful. In fact, Edison himself reveals it to be completely false. In a brief for the Supreme Court in the famous 1892 interference case of the electric filament he writes, “About January or February 1880, we were carbonizing everything we could get hold of, trying to get a carbon that would be durable under commercial conditions. I took an ordinary palm leaf fan from the table, took off the outer bamboo rim, and gave it to my assistant to cut into burners and try in the lamps….”There was no bamboo fishing pole and the place of invention was Menlo Park, New Jersey, not Battle Lake.

An interesting question to pursue is where the false story came from. The historian Philip Roberts suggests the story may originate with R. M. Galbraith, a retired Union Pacific employee, in recollections he made in 1922 -- 44 years after the event. But Galbraith’s recollections fit the historical record well and make no mention of the myth.

More likely the story began with the state Historic Landmarks Commission itself. One of the commission members, John C. Thompson, was also a journalist and editor of the Wyoming Tribune newspaper in Cheyenne. Thompson wrote a regular column in the newspaper titled “In Ol’ Wyoming.”

While he could have produced the tale all by himself, the imaginings of old-timers may have helped him. Beware the amateur historians.



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