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Non-Fiction: 'A Day on the Moon' by James Naysmyth and James Carpenter (1874)


We well know what are the requisite conditions of life on the earth; and we can go no further for grounds of inference; for if we were to start by assuming forms of life capable of existence under conditions widely and essentially different from those pertaining to our planet, there would be no need for discussing our subject further: we could revel in conjectures, without a thought as to their extravagance. The only legitimate phase of the question we can entertain is this: can there be on the moon any kind of living things analogous to any kind of living things upon the earth? And this question, we think, admits only of a negative answer.... 

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After this disquisition upon lunar uninhabitability it may appear somewhat inconsistent for us to attempt a description of the scenery of the moon and some other effects that would be visible to a spectator, and of which he would be otherwise sensible, during a day and a night upon her surface. But we can offer the sufficient apology that an imaginary sojourn of one complete lunar day and night upon the moon affords an opportunity of marshalling before our readers some phenomena that are proper to be noticed in a work of this character, and that have necessarily been passed over in the series of chapters on consecutive and special points that have gone before. It may be urged that, in depicting the moon from such a standpoint as that now to be taken, we are describing scenes that never have been such in the literal sense of the word, since no eye has ever beheld them. Still we have this justification—that we are invoking the conception of things that actually exist; and that we are not, like some imaginary voyagers to the moon, indulging in mere flights of fancy. Although it is impossible for a habitant of this earth fully to realise existence upon the moon, it is yet possible, indeed almost inevitable, for a thoughtful telescopist—watching the moon night after night, observing the sun rise upon a lunar scene, and noting the course of effects that follow till it sets—it is almost inevitable, we say, for such an observer to identify himself so far with the object of his scrutiny, as sometimes to become in thought a lunar being. Seated in silence and in solitude at a powerful telescope, abstracted from terrestrial influences, and gazing upon the revealed details of some strikingly characteristic region of the moon, it requires but a small effort of the imagination to suppose one’s self actually upon the lunar globe, viewing some distant landscape thereupon; and under these circumstances there is an irresistible tendency in the mind to pass beyond the actually visible, and to fill in with what it knows must exist those accessory features and phenomena that are only hidden from us by distance and by our peculiar point of view. Where the material eye is baffled, the clairvoyance of reason and analogy comes to its aid.

Let us then endeavour to realize the strange consequences which the position and conditions of the moon produce upon the aspect of a lunar landscape in the course of a lunar day and night.

The moon’s day is a long one. From the time that the sun rises upon a scene till it sets, a period of 304 hours elapses, and of course double this interval passes between one sunrise and the next. The consequences of this slow march of the sun begin to show themselves from the instant that he rises above the lunar horizon. Dawn, as we have it on earth, can have no counterpart upon the moon. No atmosphere is there to reflect the solar beams while the luminary is yet out of actual sight, and only the glimmer of the zodiacal light heralds the approach of day. From the black horizon the sun suddenly darts his bright untempered beams upon the mountain tops, crowning them with dazzling brilliance while their flanks and valleys are yet in utter darkness. There is no blending of the night into day. And yet there is a growth of illumination that in its early stages may be called a twilight, and which is caused by the slow rise of the sun. Upon the earth, in central latitudes, the average time occupied by the sun in rising, from the first glint of his upper edge till the whole disc is in sight, is but two minutes and a quarter. Upon the moon, however, this time is extended to a few minutes short of an hour, and, therefore, during the first few minutes a dim light will be shed by the small visible chord of the solar disc, and this will give a proportionately modified degree of illumination upon the prominent portion of the landscape, and impart to it something of the weird aspect which so strikes an observer of a total solar eclipse on earth when the scene is lit by the thin crescent of the re-appearing sun. This impaired illumination constitutes the only dawn that a lunar spectator could behold. And it must be of short duration; for when, in the course of half an hour, the solar disc has risen half into view the lighting would no doubt appear nearly as bright to the eye as when the entire disc of the sun is above the horizon. In this lunar sunrise, however, there is none of that gilding and glowing which makes the phenomenon on earth so gorgeous. Those crimson sky-tints with which we are familiar are due to the absorption of certain of the polychromous rays of light by our atmosphere. The blue and violet components of the solar beams are intercepted by our envelope of vapour, and only the red portions are free to pass; while on the moon, as there is no atmosphere, this selective absorption does not occur. If it did, an observer gazing from the earth upon the regions of the moon upon which the sun is just rising would see the surface tinted with rosy light. This, however, is not the case; the faintest lunar features just catching the sun are seen simply under white light diluted to a low degree of brightness. Only upon rare occasions is the lunar scenery suffused with coloured illumination, and these are when, as we shall presently have to describe, the solar rays reach the moon after traversing the earth’s atmosphere during an eclipse of the sun.

This atmosphere of ours is the most influential element in beautifying our terrestrial scenery, and the absence of such an appendage from the moon is the great modifying cause that affects lunar scenery as compared with that of the earth. We are accustomed to the sun with its dazzling brightness—overpowering though it be—subdued and softened by our vaporous screen. Upon the moon there is no such modification. The sun’s intrinsic brilliancy is undiminished, its apparent distance is shortened, and it gleams out in fierce splendour only to be realised, and then imperfectly, by the conception of a gigantic electric light a few feet from the eye. And the brightness is rendered the more striking by the blackness of the surrounding sky. Since there is no atmosphere there can be no sky-light, for there is nothing above the lunar world to diffuse the solar beams; not a trace of that moisture which even in our tropical skies scatters some of the sun’s light and gives a certain degree of opacity or blueness, deep though it be, to the heavens by day. Upon the moon, with no light-diffusing vapour, the sky must be as dark or even darker than that with which we are familiar upon the finest of moonless nights. And this blackness prevails in the full blaze of the lunar noon-day sun. If the eye (upon the moon) could bear to gaze upon the solar orb (which would be less possible than upon earth) or could it be screened from the direct beams, as doubtless it could by intervening objects, it would perceive the nebulous and other appendages which we know as the corona, the zodiacal light, and the red solar protuberances: or if these appendages could not be viewed with the sun above the horizon they would certainly be seen in glorious perfection when the luminary was about to rise or immediately after it had set.

And, notwithstanding the sun’s presence, the planets and stars would be seen to shine more brilliantly than we see them on the clearest of nights; the constellations would have the same configurations, though they would be differently situated with respect to the celestial pole about which they would appear to turn, for the axis of rotation of the moon is directed towards a point in the constellation Draco. The stars would never twinkle or change colour as they appear to us to do, for scintillation or twinkling is a phenomenon of atmospheric origin, and they would retain their full brightness, down even to the horizon, since there would be no haze to diminish their light. The planets, and the brighter stars at least, would be seen even when they were situated very near to the sun. The planet Mercury, so seldom detected by terrestrial gazers, would be almost constantly in view during the lunar day, manifesting his close attendance on the central luminary by making only short excursions of about two (lunar) days’ length, first on one side and then on the other. Venus would be nearly as continuously visible, though her wanderings would be more extensive on either side. The zodiacal light also, which in our English latitude and climate is but rarely seen and in more favourable climes appears only when the sun itself is hidden beneath the horizon, would upon the moon be seen as a constant accompaniment to the luminary throughout his daily course across the lunar sky. The other planets would appear generally as they do to us on earth, but, never being lost in daylight, their courses among the stars could be traced with scarcely any interruption.

One planet, however, that adorns the sky of the lunar hemisphere which is turned towards us deserves special mention from the conspicuous and highly interesting appearance it must present. We allude to the earth. To nearly one-half of the moon (that which we never see) this imposing object can never be visible; but to the half that faces us the terrestrial planet must appear almost fixed in the sky. A lunar spectator in (what is to us) the centre of the disc, or about the region north of the lunar mountains Ptolemy and Hipparchus, would have the earth in his zenith. From regions upon the moon a little out of what is to us the centre, a spectator would see the earth a little declining from the zenith, and this declination would increase as the regions corresponding to the (to us) apparent edge of the moon were approached, till at the actual edge it would be seen only upon the horizon. From the phenomena of libration, the earth would appear from nearly all parts of the lunar hemisphere to which it is visible at all to describe a small circle in the sky. To an observer, however, upon the (to us) marginal regions of the lunar globe, it would appear only during a portion of the lunar day—being visible in fact only in that part of its small circular path which happened to lie above the observer’s horizon: in some regions only a portion of the terrestrial disc would make its brief appearance. From the lunar hemisphere beyond this marginal line the earth can never be seen at all.

The lunar spectator whose situation enabled him to view the earth would see it as a moon; and a glorious moon indeed it must be. Its diameter would be four times as great as that of the moon itself as seen by us, and the area of its full disc 13 times as great. It would be seen to pass through its phases, just as does our satellite, once in a lunar day or a terrestrial month, and during that cycle of phases, since 29 of our days would be occupied by it, the axial rotation would bring all the features of its surface configuration into view so many times in succession. But the greatest beauty of this noble moon would be seen during the lunar night, in considering which we shall again allude to it; for when it is full-moon to the earth it is new-earth to the moon. At lunar midnight this globe of ours is fully illuminated; as morning nears, the earth-moon wanes, its disc slowly passing through the gibbous phases until at sunrise it would be just half-illuminated. During the long forenoon it assumes a crescent which narrows and narrows till at midday the sun is in line with the earth and the latter is invisible, save perhaps by a thin line of light marking its upper or lower edge, accordingly as the sun is apparently above or below it. In the lunar afternoon an illuminated crescent appears upon the opposite side of the terrestrial globe, and this widens and widens till it becomes a half disc by lunar sunset and a full disc by lunar midnight.

The sun in his daily course passes at various distances, sometimes above and sometimes below, the nearly stationary earth. Obviously it will at times pass actually behind it, and then the lunar spectator would behold the sublime spectacle of a total solar eclipse, and that under circumstances which render the phenomenon far more imposing than its counterpart can appear from the earth; for whereas, when we see the moon eclipse the sun, the nearly similar (apparent) diameters of the two bodies renders the duration of totality extremely short—at most 7 minutes—a lunar spectator, the earth appearing to him four times the diameter of the sun, and he and the earth being relatively stationary, would enjoy a view of the totality extending over several hours. During the passage of the solar disc behind that of the earth, a beautiful succession of luminous phenomena would be observed to follow from the refractions and dispersions which the sunbeams would suffer in passing tangentially through those parts of our atmospheric envelope which lie in their course; those, for instance, on the margin of the earth, as seen from the moon. As the sun passed behind the earth, the latter would be encircled upon the in-going side with a beautiful line of golden light, deepening in places to glowing crimson, due to the absorption, already spoken of, of all but the red and orange rays of the sun’s light by the vapours of our atmosphere. As the eclipse proceeded and totality came on, this ruddy glow would extend itself nearly, if not all, around the black earth, and so bright would it be, that the whole lunar landscape covered by the earth’s shadow would be illuminated with faint crimson light, save, perhaps, in some parts of the far distance, upon which the earth had not yet cast its shadow, or off which the shadow had passed. Although the crimson light would preponderate, it would not appear bright and red alike all around the earth’s periphery. The circle of light would be, in fact, the ring of twilight round our globe, and it would only appear red in those places where the atmosphere chanced to be in that condition favourable for producing what on earth we know as red sunset and sunrise. We know that the sun, even in clear sky, does not always set and rise with the beautiful red glow, which may be determined by merely local causes, and will therefore vary in different parts of the earth. Now a lunar spectator watching the sun eclipsed by the earth, would see, during totality and at a coup d’œil, every point around our world upon which the sun is setting on one side and rising upon the other. To every part of the earth around what is then the margin, as seen from the moon, the sun is upon the horizon, shining through a great thickness of atmosphere, reddening it, and being reddened by it wherever the vaporous conditions conduce to that colouration. And at all parts where these conditions obtain, the lunar eclipse-observer would see the ring of light around the black earth-globe brilliantly crimsoned; at other parts it would have other shades of red and yellow, and the whole effect would be to make the grand earth-ball, hanging in the lunar sky, like a dark sphere in a circle of glittering gold and rubies.

During the early stages of the eclipse, this chaplet of brilliant-coloured lights would be brightest upon the side of the disappearing sun; at the time of central eclipse the radiance (supposing the sun to pass centrally behind the earth) would be equally distributed, and during the later stages it would preponderate upon the side of the reappearing sun. We have endeavoured to give a pictorial realization of this phenomenon and of the effect of the eclipse upon the lunar landscape, but such a picture cannot but fall very, very far short of the reality. (See Plate XXII.)

And now for a time let us turn attention from the lunar sky to the scenery of the lunar landscape. Let us, in imagination, take our stand high upon the eastern side of the rampart of one of the great craters. Height, it must be remarked, is more essential on the moon to command extent of view than upon the earth, for on account of the comparative smallness of the lunar sphere the dip of the horizon is very rapid. Such height, however, would be attained without great exercise of muscular power, since equal amounts of climbing energy would, from the smallness of lunar gravity, take a man six times as high on the moon as on the earth. Let us choose, for instance, the hill-side of Copernicus. The day begins by a sudden transition. The faint looming of objects under the united illumination of the half-full earth and the zodiacal light is the lunar precursor of day-break. Suddenly the highest mountain peaks receive the direct rays of a portion of the sun’s disc as it emerges from below the horizon. The brilliant lighting of these summits serves but to increase, by contrast, the prevailing darkness, for they seem to float like islands of light in a sea of gloom. At a rate of motion twenty-eight times slower than we are accustomed to, the light tardily creeps down the mountain-sides, and in the course of about twelve hours the whole of the circular rampart of the great crater below us, and towards the east, shines out in brilliant light, unsoftened by a trace of mountain-mist. But on the opposite side, looking into the crater, nothing but blackness is to be seen. As hour succeeds hour, the sunbeams reach peak after peak of the circular rampart in slow succession, till at length the circle is complete and the vast crater-rim, 50 miles in diameter, glistens like a silver-margined abyss of darkness. By-and-by, in the centre, appears a group of bright peaks or bosses. These are the now illuminated summits of the central cones, and the development of the great mountain cluster they form henceforth becomes an imposing feature of the scene. From our high standpoint, and looking backwards to the sunny side of our cosmorama, we glance over a vast region of the wildest volcanic desolation. Craters from five miles diameter downwards crowd together in countless numbers, so that the surface, as far as the eye can reach, looks veritably frothed over with them. Nearer the base of the rampart on which we stand, extensive mountain chains run to north and to south, casting long shadows towards us; and away to southward run several great chasms a mile wide and of appalling blackness and depth. Nearer still, almost beneath us, crag rises on crag and precipice upon precipice, mingled with craters and yawning pits, towering pinnacles of rock and piles of scoria and volcanic débris. But we behold no sign of existing or vestige of past organic life. No heaths or mosses soften the sharp edges and hard surfaces: no tints of cryptogamous or lichenous vegetation give a complexion of life to the hard fire-worn countenance of the scene. The whole landscape, as far as the eye can reach, is a realization of a fearful dream of desolation and lifelessness—not a dream of death, for that implies evidence of preexisting life, but a vision of a world upon which the light of life has never dawned.

Looking again, after some hours’ interval, into the great crateral amphitheatre, we see that the rays of the morning sun have crept down the distant side of the rampart, opposite to that on which we stand, and lighted up its vast landslipped terraces into a series of seeming hill-circles with all the rude and rugged features of a terrestrial mountain view, and none of the beauties save those of desolate grandeur. The plateau of the crater is half in shadow 10,000 feet below, with its grand group of cones, now fully in sight, rising from its centre. Although these last are twenty miles away and the base of the opposite rampart fully double that distance, we have no means of judging their remoteness, for in the absence of an atmosphere there can be no aërial perspective, and distant objects appear as brilliant and distinct as those which are close to the observer. Not the brightness only, but the various colours also of the distant objects are preserved in their full intensity; for colour we may fairly assume there must be. Mineral chlorates and sublimates will give vivid tints to certain parts of the landscape surface, and there must be all the more sombre colours which are common to mineral matters that have been subjected to fiery influence. All these tints will shine and glow with their greater or less intrinsic lustres, since they have not been deteriorated by atmospheric agencies, and far and near they will appear clear alike, since there is no aërial medium to veil them or tarnish their pristine brightness.

In the lunar landscape, in the line of sight, there are no means of estimating distances; only from an eminence, where the intervening ground can be seen, is it possible to realize magnitude in a lunar cosmorama and comprehend the dimensions of the objects it includes.

And with no air there can be no diffusion of light. As a consequence, no illumination reaches those parts of the scene which do not receive the direct solar rays, save the feeble amount reflected from contiguous illuminated objects, and a small quantity shed by the crescent earth. The shadows have an awful blackness. As we stand upon our chosen point of observation, we see on the lighted side of the rampart almost dazzling brightness, while beneath us, on the side away from the sun, there is a region many miles in area impenetrable to the sight, for there is no object within it receiving sufficient light to render it discernible; and all around us, far and near, there is the violent contrast between intense brightness of insolated parts and deep gloom of those in equally intense shadow. The black though starlit sky helps the violence of this contrast, for the bright mountains in the distance around us stand forth upon a background formed by the darkness of interplanetary space. The visible effects of these conditions must be in every sense unearthly and truly terrible. The hard, harsh glowing light and pitchy shadows; the absence of all the conditions that give tenderness to an earthly landscape; the black noonday sky, with the glaring sun ghastly in its brightness; the entire absence of vestiges of any life save that of the long since expired volcanoes—all these conspire to make up a scene of dreary, desolate grandeur that is scarcely conceivable by an earthly habitant, and that the description we have attempted but insufficiently pourtrays.

A legitimate extension of the imagination leads us to impressions of lunar conditions upon other senses than that of sight, to which we have hitherto confined our fancy. We are met at the outset with a difficulty in this extension; for it is impossible to conceive the sensations which the absence of an atmosphere would produce upon the most important of our bodily functions. If we would attempt the task we must conjure up feelings of suffocation, of which the thoughts are, however, too horrible to be dwelt upon; we must therefore maintain the delusion that we can exist without air, and attempt to realize some of the less discomforting effects of the absence of this medium. Most notable among these are the untempered heat of the direct solar rays, and the influence thereof upon the surface material upon which we suppose ourselves to stand. During a period of over three hundred hours the sun pours down his beams with unmitigated ferocity upon a soil never sheltered by a cloud or cooled by a shower, till that soil is heated, as we have shown, to a temperature equal nearly to that of melting lead; and this scorching influence is felt by everything upon which the sun shines on the lunar globe. But while regions directly insolated are thus heated, those parts turned from the sun would remain intensely cold, and that scorching in sunshine and freezing in shade with which mountaineers on the earth are familiar would be experienced in a terribly exaggerated degree. Among the consequences, already alluded to, of the alternations of temperature to which the moon’s crust is thus exposed, are doubtless more or less considerable expansions and contractions of the surface material, and we may conceive that a cracking and crumbling of the more brittle constituents would ensue, together with a grating of contiguous but disconnected masses, and an occasional dislocation of them. We refer again to these phenomena to remark that if an atmospheric medium existed they would be attended with noisy manifestations. There are abundant causes for grating and crackling sounds, and such are the only sources of noise upon the moon, where there is no life to raise a hum, no wind to murmur, no ocean to boom and foam, and no brook to plash. Yet even these crust-cracking commotions, though they might be felt by the vibrations of the ground, would not manifest themselves audibly, for without air there can be no communication between the grating or cracking body and the nerves of hearing. Dead silence reigns on the moon: a thousand cannons might be fired and a thousand drums beaten upon that airless world, but no sound could come from them: lips might quiver and tongues essay to speak, but no action of theirs could break the utter silence of the lunar scene.

At a rate twenty-eight times slower than upon earth, the shadows shorten till the sun attains his meridian height, and then, from the tropical region upon which we have in imagination stood, nothing is to be seen on any side, save towards the black sky, but dazzling light. The relief of afternoon shadow comes but tardily, and the darkness drags its slow length along the valleys and creeps sluggishly up the mountain-sides till, in a hundred hours or more, the time of sunset approaches. This phenomenon is but daybreak reversed, and is unaccompanied by any of the gorgeous sky tints that make the kindred event so enrapturing on earth. The sun declines towards the dark horizon without losing one jot of its brilliancy, and darts the full intensity of its heat upon all it shines on to the last. Its disc touches the horizon, and in half an hour dips half-way beneath it, its intrinsic brightness and colour remaining unchanged. The brief interval of twilight occurs, as in the morning, when only a small chord of the disc is visible, and the long shadows now sharpen as the area of light that casts them decreases. For a while the zodiacal light vies with the earth-moon high in the heavens in illuminating the scene; but in a few hours this solar appendage passes out of view, and our world becomes the queen of the lunar night.

At this sunset time the earth, nearly in the zenith of us, will be at its half-illuminated phase, and even then it will shed more light than we receive upon the brightest of moonlight nights. As the night proceeds, the earth-phase will increase through the gibbous stages until at midnight it will be “full,” and our orb will be seen in its entire beauty. It will perform at least one of its twenty-four-hourly rotations during the time that it appears quite full, and the whole of its surface features will in that time pass before the lunar spectator’s eye. At times the northern pole will be turned towards our view, at times the southern; and its polar ice-caps will appear as bright white spots, marking its axis of rotation. If our lunar sojourn were prolonged we should observe the northern ice-cap creep downwards to lower latitudes (during our winter) and retreat again (during our summer); and this variation would be perceptible in a less degree at the southern pole, on account of the watery area surrounding it. The seas would appear (so far as can be inferred) of pale blue-green tint; the continents parti-coloured: and the tinted spots would vary with the changing terrestrial seasons, as these are indicated by the positions and magnitudes of the polar ice-caps. The permanent markings would be ever undergoing apparent modification by the variations of the white cloud-belts that encircle the terrestrial sphere. Of the nature of these variations meteorological science is not as yet in a position to speak: it would indeed be vastly to the benefit of that science if a view of the distribution of clouds and vapours over the earth’s surface, as comprehensive as that we are imagining, could really be obtained.

It might happen at “full-earth,” that a black spot with a fainter penumbral fringe would appear on one side of the illuminated disc and pass somewhat rapidly across it. This would occur when the moon passed exactly between the sun and the earth, and the shadow of the moon was cast upon the terrestrial disc. We need hardly say that these shadow-transits would occur upon those astronomically important occasions when an eclipse of the sun is beheld from the earth.

The other features of the sky during the long lunar night would not differ greatly from those to which we alluded in speaking of its day aspects. The stars would be the more brightly visible, from the greater power of the eye-pupil to open in the absence of the glaring sun, and on this account the milky-way would be very conspicuous and the brighter nebulæ would come into view. The constellations would mark the night by their positions, or the hours might be told off (in periods of twenty-four each) by the successive reappearances of surface features on certain parts of the terrestrial disc. The planets in opposition to the sun would now be seen, and a comet might appear to vary the monotony of the long lunar night. But a meteor would never flash across the sky, though dark meteoric particles and masses would continually bombard the lunar surface, sometimes singly, sometimes in showers. And these would fall with a compound force due to their initial velocity added to that of the moon’s attraction. As there is no atmosphere to consume the meteors by frictional heat or break by its resistance the velocity of their descent, they must strike the moon with a force to which that of a cannon-ball striking a target is feeble indeed. A position on the moon would be an unenviable stand-point from this cause alone.

The lunar landscape by night needs little description: it would be lit by the earth-moon sufficiently to allow salient features, even at a distance, to be easily made out, for its moon (i.e. the earth) has thirteen times the light-reflecting area that our’s has. But the night illumination will change in intensity, since the earth-moon varies from half-full to full, and again to half-full, between sunset and the next sunrise. The direction of the light, and hence the positions of the shadows, will scarcely alter on account of the apparent fixity of the earth in the lunar sky. A slight degree of warmth might possibly be felt with the reflected earth-light; but it would be insufficient to mollify the intensity of the prevailing cold. The heat accumulated by the ground during the three hundred hours’ sunshine radiates rapidly into space, there being no atmospheric coat to retain it, and a cooling process ensues that goes on till, all warmth having rapidly departed, the previously parched soil assumes a temperature approaching that of celestial space itself, and which has been, as we have stated, estimated at about 200° below the Fahrenheit zero. If moisture existed upon the moon, its night-side would be bound in a grip of frost to which our Arctic regions would be comparatively tropical. But since there is no water, the aspect of the lunar scenery remains unmodified by effects of changing temperature.

Such, then, are the most prominent effects that would manifest themselves to the visual and other senses of a being transported to the moon. The picture is not on the whole a pleasant one, but it is instructive; and our rendering of it, imperfect though it be, may serve to suggest other inferences that cannot but add to the interest which always attaches to the contemplation of natural scenes and phenomena from points of view different from those which we ordinarily occupy.


Extracted from The Moon: considered as a planet, a world and a satellite by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter (John Murray, 1874). Complete text available here.

Art from the same book, entitled 'Plate 22. Aspect of an eclipse of the sun by the earth, as it would appear as seen from the moon'