The total eclipse of August 1868 was known as “The King of Siam’s eclipse” because amateur astronomer King Mongkut/Rama IV of what is now Thailand and an predicted it two years in adgvance withm gvreater accurancy than European scientists. The event was a truly international effort. Angelo Secchi was to head an expedition to the East Indies, and nine others were organised: two French, one in India and one in Siam; two German, in Aden and India; three English, in India and Celebes,today Sulawesi; one Austrian in Aden; and one Dutch, also in Sulawesi.
Not to be left out, Father Pedro Bertran, Prefect of Studies at the Ateneo, decided to launch an expedition consisting of Frederico Faura, Jaime Nonell and Juan Ricart. Betran got the support of Manila City Council and other government offices which were to rustle up funds and a Spanish Navy warship to transport them and their instrument to the necessary location. Assured of support, Betran ordered sets of instruments from Paris.
In an all-too-familiar tale of short-sightedness, the press took a dislike to the project, Manila City Council removed its support and the Spanish Navy walked away. But the stars smiled on the effort.
“World-class” is a weasel-word much used by advertisers and PR folk in the Philippines to sell dreary multi-storey condominiums, built over a once-beautiful city, from which Manila’s moneyed classes can look down upon lesser orders toiling below. Back in the 19th century, however, Manila could boast a centre of excellence that could rightfully be called world-class, one plugged into, and contributing to, global scientific trends and saving Filipino lives – the Manila Observatory.
Those who make the pilgrimage to F. Sionil Jose’s La Solidaridad bookshop will be familiar with Padre Faura street, which bears but the faintest of traces of past glories, like a maiden aunt long gone to seed behind too much pancake makeup and inappropriate lipstick peeking from behind the curtains. Formerly called Calle Observatorio, it was at the Ateneo Municipal on this road that Manila Observatory became famous after more modest beginnings within Intramuros, the Walled City.
Though one would get no sense of that history walking around the Robinson’s Shopping Mall in Ermita where Ateneo once stood.
Worthy though Padre Federico Faura’s claim to fame, another director of the observatory deserves commemoration – a man who cared more about using science to save lives than war, put his life on the line to protect the observatory and had his citizenship revoked – Padre Jose Algue.
Anyone familiar with the Philippines is familiar with blackouts, power outages, or, in Filipino English ‘brownouts’, a term intended, prehaps to soften the blow of sudden darkness. Equally, one becomes familiar with the yelps of joy when lights go back on and people can resume the serious business of karaoke.
Imagine how much more magical it would have been when the first electric lights shone in the streets of Mania, switched on with much pomp and ceremony. Few history books mention that day but an American businessman working with Peabody & Co left a first-hand account that captures the excitement and wonder of the day.
Electricity arrived in Manila in the late 1880s, at least for the very wealthy who could afford private electrical installations. For everyone else, it was coconut oil, kerosene, gas or candles.
If you wanted to take a look at electric lights you could pop over to the wharves at the mouth of the Pasig leading to the Bridge of Spain. There was also an electric light on the bridge to guide vessels after sunset.