Historical Observations of Solar Eclipses
  • Ancient History
  • 17th - 20th Century
  • Total Solar Eclipses in the United States

As best as we can determine, the earliest record of a solar eclipse occurred over four millennia ago. In China, it was believed that the gradual blotting out of the sun was caused by a dragon who was attempting to devour the sun, and it was the duty of the court astronomers to shoot arrows, beat drums and raise whatever cacophony they could to frighten the dragon away.

In the ancient Chinese classic Shujing (or Book of Documents) is the account of Hsi and Ho, two court astronomers who were caught completely unaware by a solar eclipse, having gotten drunk just before the event began. In the aftermath, Zhong Kang, the fourth emperor of the Xia dynasty ordered that Hsi and Ho be punished by having their heads chopped off. The eclipse in question was that of Oct. 22 in the year 2134 B.C.

In the Bible, in the book of Amos 8:9, are the words, “I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the Earth in the clear day.” Biblical scholars believe this is a reference to a celebrated eclipse observed at Nineveh in ancient Assyria on June 15, 763 B.C. An Assyrian tablet also attests to the event.

A solar eclipse even stopped a war.

According to the historian Herodotus, there was a five-year war that raged between the Lydians and the Medes. As the war was about to move into its sixth year, a Greek sage, Thales of Miletus foretold to the Ionians that the time was soon approaching when day would turn to night. On May 17, 603 B.C. the sun faded away just as Thales had alluded that it would. So believing that it was a sign from above, the combatants called a truce, which was cemented by a double marriage, for, as Herodotus wrote: “Without some strong bond, there is little of security to be found in men’s covenants.”

And giving new meaning to the term, “Scared to death,” is the timid emperor Louis of Bavaria, the son of Charlemagne, who witnessed an unusually long total eclipse of the sun on May 5, A.D. 840, which lasted for over five minutes.  But no sooner had the sun begun to emerge back into view, Louis was so overwhelmed by what he had just seen that he died of fright!

Astronomers have learned much by studying eclipses and by the 18th century, observations of solar eclipses were recognized as providing veritable treasure troves of astronomical information, though sometimes getting that information wasn’t easy.

Samuel Williams, a professor at Harvard, led an expedition to Penobscot Bay, Maine, to observe the total solar eclipse of Oct. 27, 1780. As it turned out, this eclipse took place during the Revolutionary War, and Penobscot Bay lay behind enemy lines. Fortunately, the British granted the expedition safe passage, citing the interest of science above political differences.

And yet in the end, it was all for naught.

Williams apparently made a crucial error in his computations and inadvertently positioned his men at Islesboro — just outside the path of totality — likely finding this out with a heavy heart when the narrowing crescent of sunlight slid completely around the dark edge of the moon and then started to thicken!

During a total solar eclipse, a few ruby-red spots may seem to hover around the jet-black disk of the moon. Those are solar prominences, tongues of incandescent hydrogen gas rising above the surface of the sun. During the total eclipse of Aug. 18, 1868, the French astronomer Pierre Janssen trained his spectroscope on the prominences and discovered a new chemical element. Two English astronomers, J. Norman Lockyer and Edward Frankland, later named it “helium,” from the Greek helios (the sun). The gas was not identified on Earth until 1895.

And because sunlight is blocked during a total eclipse, some of the brighter stars and planets can be observed in the darkened sky. Under such conditions astronomers were able to test part of Einstein’s now-celebrated general theory of relativity. That theory predicted that light from stars beyond the sun would bend from a straight path in a certain way as it passed the sun. The positions of stars photographed near the sun’s edge during a total eclipse on May 29, 1919, were compared with photographs of the same region of the sky taken at night; the results strongly supported Einstein’s theory.

Our modern technology now allows astronomers to make most of the observations that once had to await an eclipse. But a total eclipse of the sun will always remain among the most impressive of natural spectacles and is a sight that will always be remembered.

The total solar eclipse of June 8, 1918 crossed the United States from Washington State to Florida. This path is roughly similar to the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse and was the last time totality crossed the nation from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The total solar eclipse of September 10, 1923 just grazed the southwestern corner of California, crossing Point Concepcion, the Channel Islands, and San Diego. Bad weather thwarted most observers in this area.

The total solar eclipse of January 24, 1925 was seen by perhaps millions of people in the New York metropolitan area and the northeastern United States. It was a brilliantly clear but very cold day in New York. This eclipse was notable for the number of observatories fortuitously placed in the path as well as the airplanes and dirigible dispatched for a better view.

The total solar eclipse of August 31, 1932 crossed over northeast Canada and the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and a small part of Massachusetts. Many people took trains to New England to witness this spectacle.

A total solar eclipse crossed over the northwest United States  and Canada on July 9, 1945 as the second World War was winding down. Newspapers of the day splashed eclipse news along with news of bombing raids on Japan.

The total solar eclipse of June 30, 1954 began at sunrise in Nebraska and traversed South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin before crossing Canada on its way to Scandinavia, Europe, and South Asia.

The total solar eclipse of October 2, 1959 began over Massachusetts. The late Professor Donald Menzel of Williams College hired an airplane to view the eclipse with some of his students. One student, Jay Pasachoff, went on to become a prominent solar astrophysicist and credits this experience as a defining moment in launching his career studying the Sun’s corona.

The northeast corner of the United States was again visited by the Moon’s shadow on July 20, 1963. This eclipse is a plot device in a novel by Stephen King, Gerald’s Game.

The total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970 crossed the state of Florida and much of the Atlantic seaboard. Many of today’s veteran eclipse chasers began their pursuit with this eclipse as it was accessible to many on the East Coast.

The last total solar eclipse within the contiguous 48 United States was on February 26, 1979. Many of those who travelled to see this eclipse were successful but only because of relocating under partly cloudy skies.

The total solar eclipse of July 11, 1991 was the last to touch any of the 50 United States. Many flew to Hawai’i for this eclipse and sadly most were disappointed by unseasonably cloudy weather on the Kona coast of the Big Island. Many others flew or drove to the tip of Baja California and were rewarded with excellent views of an extremely long duration eclipse, up to 6 minutes and 53 seconds.

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