From Chapter 1 of
The Day the World Discovered the Sun
by Mark Anderson
Just Outside Riga, Russia (Present-Day Latvia)
February 7, 1761
The screech of metal sliding over rock announced that the sleigh was stuck. No one wasgoing anywhere. Cacophonous chatter among the Russian sleigh drivers broke the final sealon this otherwise quiet early evening. Stepping onto sled runners that had nothing to glide on,Chappe saw little else but dark. With no moon in the sky, two sources of dim light cast paleshadows on the patchy snow. To the west, the brilliant Milky Way formed a horizon-to-
horizon hoop framing Chappe’s entire world. And off to the southwest beamed Venus, that
tiny beacon. It was setting.
For these travelers, though, the night was just beginning. Chap
pe’s Russian translator,hired sixteen days before in Warsaw, was drunk beyond saving. “We could neither make himlisten to reason nor hold his tongue,” Chappe later wrote of his Siberian journey.
So thescientist was left to deal with the belligerent drivers himself. They quarreled and fumed,although over what Chappe had no idea. The frigid night lent a sense of urgency to anotherwise rather comical situation. Suffering frostbite
was a real possibility if they did not get help. Chappe fortunately did have a multilingual communicator with him: asingle Russian ruble (equivalent to about $75 today). Showing it to his drivers, Chappe
conveyed through gestures and whatever words the group had in common that he’d pay one
of the drivers to go back to Riga and get help. Everyone volunteered. Each volunteer took ahorse and shot off toward town, leaving Chappe and his babbling translator behind with theabandoned sleighs.
By midnight, torches and townsfolk
plus a false start involving more bribes and tornrope
had finally set the party moving again, back on carriage wheels.
As his carriage bumped along, Chappe caught a little sleep through a turbulent night. Thesnow grew heavier, though, and before long they wished they were back on sledges again. Amorning snow squall left the carriages barely moving forward as the horses stopped everyminute. To make matters worse, the baggage carriage overturned into a ditch with atremendous crash. Earlier in the journey, when traveling by coach from Paris to Strasbourg,
his group’s baggage cart suffered a similar calamity. In his wreck outside Strasbourg, Chappe
had jumped out of his carriage to check on the delicate scientific instruments in the cart. Atthe moment, though, the road-weary traveler had no impulse to dive into the snowywreckage. Over an unpleasant din of whinnies, blows, and snorts, horses were settled downand reharnessed, and the carriage was righted. The road widened as the sun sank.
Just outside of Wolmar (today Valmiera, Latvia), the wind, in concert with a hedgerow of trees, had swept out a long line of snow banks. The coachmen carefully drove the horses
through the gauntlet. The road beneath remained rocky as before, although the banks’
smooth-blown surfaces fleetingly suggested fewer potholes in the road than there actuallywere. Then everything sank. As suddenly as a musket shot, the startled horses and leadcarriage fell into a snowed-over sinkhole. Once Chappe and his companions recovered fromthe shock, they looked around to see the entire stagecoach had been buried. Only an opening
in the vehicle’s roof allowed the battered passengers to exit. The horses struggled to keep
their heads above the snow, their eyes wide with panic.
The driver of the baggage carriage
which remained outside the sinkhole
jumped downand unhitched his team. The once quiet Russian roadside now echoed with a brace of shouts,