A Brief History of Eclipse Chasers

They also go by umbraphiles, coronaphiles, eclipsoholics and ecliptomaniacs

A Brief History of Eclipse Chasers
Astronomers Studying an eclipse painted by Antoine Caron in 1571. Public Domain

In the summer of 1972, 834 passengers and one cat embarked on a voyage into darkness.

Scientists—amateur and professional—set sail from New York on board the 23,000‐ton luxury liner Olympia with a course charted to a specific point in the open Atlantic Ocean.

They were on their way to witness a total eclipse of the sun, which would start in Siberia and travel across Canada, ending over the Atlantic Ocean, and in front of their eyes, that June.

The ship sought clear skies in the path of totality, the zone where the new moon lines up perfectly between the Earth and the sun, blocking the path of the sun’s rays to the Earth’s surface.

The temperature dropped 25 degrees in the 15 minutes leading up to the eclipse. Passengers waiting on the deck kept their eyes affixed to the horizon. When it finally came, the sun’s corona dazzling like a ring of fire, the ship’s band played “You Are My Sunshine.”

The Olympia’s voyage may have been the first cruise dedicated to putting people in the path of the eclipse, but the voyagers aboard the Olympia were embarking a tradition centuries old: eclipse chasing.

Call them umbraphiles, coronaphiles, eclipsoholics, ecliptomaniacs or just eclipse-chasers, around the world, humans with a cosmic fascination have been following solar eclipses as early as they were able to chart and predict the patterns of the sun and the moon.

NASA reports that ancient observers took note of solar eclipses at least as far back as 2500 BC, as evidenced by surviving records from ancient Babylon and China. As early as 8 BC, Chinese astrologers were able to start making accurate predictions of total solar eclipses, writes astronomer and scholar Anthony Aveni, and by the 9th century AD, professional eclipse watchers were tasked with recording exact happenings in Baghdad and Cairo. Five hundred years later, Aveni notes, one intrepid observer even kept a record of his trip traveling from Aleppo to Cairo to time the 1433 solar eclipse. (It lasted 4 minutes and 38 seconds.) 

While ancient societies including the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Chinese and the Maya had developed the ability to predict solar eclipse patterns, it wasn't until 1715 that astronomer Sir Edmond Halley, employing Isaac Newton's law of gravity, allowed people to predict exactly where eclipses would occur and how long they would last. Following Halley’s breakthrough, a new level of accuracy opened up traveling possibilities for eclipse chasers.

But even after Halley, mistakes were often made. Infamously, during the Revolutionary War, a Harvard Professor named Samuel Williams led a group to enemy lines to observe the total solar eclipse of 1780. The English agreed to let his expedition through, but ultimately the risky trip was for naught—the professor had calculated the path of totality wrong and the group ended up just outside of its range and missed the show.

By the 19th century, chasing eclipses was considered “nothing new for astronomers,” according to the American Astronomical society. And by the solar eclipse of 1878, the U.S. Congress had even earmarked $8,000 for the U.S. Naval Observatory to make expeditions into the Rocky Mountains, which were on the eclipse's path, crossing from Russia to the Gulf of Mexico. (“And go they did,” the society quipped, “with railway companies even giving a discount to scientists traveling west.”)

One important early figure in the modern age of eclipse chasing was a late 19th century American writer and editor from Massachusetts named Mabel Loomis Todd, writes historian John Dvorak. Todd’s husband, David Peck, was an astronomy professor at Amherst College, and the couple traveled the world to experience the daytime blackouts. But while they often had poor luck with weather, which obscured the skies, Todd always managed to make the best of the situation.

“Her boundless curiosity, unrelenting resilience and unflagging spirit of adventure made her a traveler who embraced every opportunity,” the Amherst Historical Society writes. “[H]er innate drive and ambition ensured that even as these astronomical expeditions were for David almost always clouded and missed professional chances, for Mabel they were occasions to shine.”

She chronicled her travels crossing continents and oceans in search of a few rapturous minutes of sky, and became one of the most well-known eclipse chasers of her time, enthralling audiences with her observations of the awe-inspiring scenes printed in magazines and newspapers. She later chronicled the history and science of total solar eclipses in a book.  (“I doubt if the effect of witnessing a total eclipse ever quite passes away. The impression is singularly vivid and quieting for days, and can never be wholly lost,” she wrote, after observing the total solar eclipse over Japan in 1887.)

By the mid 19th century, technology had advanced enough that photographing the solar sight became possible. While the medium couldn’t quite capture the physical sensation of viewing a total solar eclipse, the quest to document the phenomenon inspired many to try. The first correctly exposed photograph of the solar corona was taken in 1851 by skilled daguerreotypist Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski. Waiting at the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia, he attached a small refracting telescope to a Fraunhofer heliometer to get the shot.

Less than 10 years later, wealthy amateur astronomer Warren de la Rue traveled to Spain with a similar intent, but a much larger budget to take 40 glass negatives during the brief window of totality.

“Sparing no expense, he pieced together a complete photographic darkroom laboratory at his carefully chosen station in the field. It included a water cistern, a series of sinks, shelves for a dozen chemicals, tables, and a drying apparatus. Adjacent to the darkroom he built a house with a retractable roof for the instrument to give him access to the sky,” writes Aveni. He was rewarded with the first images of a solar eclipse to be photographed by a Kew Photoheliograph, a camera and telescope hybrid.

Technological advancements also helped chasers view eclipses more safely. As the sun can only be viewed by the human eye safely during the few seconds or minutes of a total solar eclipse, early eclipse chasers were in danger of damaging their retinas if they did not wear protective eye gear. (Indeed, famous solar observers paid the price for trying looking at the sun with their bare eyes, like a 22-year-old Isaac Newton who blinded himself for three days when he tried looking at the sun in a mirror.) Back in the tenth century, though, a revolutionary Arab mathematician and scientist named Alhazen of Basra first described one method to safely view an eclipse. Rather than look directly at the sky, he managed to capture the shape of the sun during an eclipse on a wall by making a small hole in the window shutters opposite it. According to NASA, Alhazen's pinhole method remains "[t]he safest and most inexpensive" way to view a total solar eclipse today.

For those wanting a direct view, a popular historical method was peering through smoked glass. While this approach may have prevented the physical discomfort of looking directly at the sun, it did nothing to prevent damage-causing infrared radiation. It wasn't until the 21st century that safe solar-eclipse viewing glasses became widely available. In addition to the darkened shades, these glasses include a thin layer of radiation-blocking chromium alloy or aluminum, allowing eclipse chasers to view the sun without fear.

The world has come a long way since the first eclipse chasers.

Unlike ancient travelers, modern technological breakthroughs have allowed humans to venture to all corners of the world to catch the solar show and view it safely. The March 7, 1970 total solar eclipse even found its way into Carly Simon's hit "You’re so Vain," where she sings, "you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia / To see a total eclipse of the sun."Little did she know, one year after the song premiered in 1972, a group of astronomers would board the first prototype of the Concorde to peer at the June 30, 1973 solar eclipse from an altitude of 55,000 feet. Since then, astronauts have even been able to witness the sight from space.

The eclipse trail is now gearing up for the Great American Eclipse in August, the first solar eclipse whose path of totality spans from coast to coast in the continental United States since 1918. Based on conservative estimates, the once-in-a-lifetime event is estimated to attract between 1.85 million and 7.4 million people. Whether they're attending an Eclipse festival or taking in the sight from a high-altitude skydive, as the path of totality crosses the country from Oregon to South Carolina, eclipse chasers will turn their eyes to the sky—just as their counterparts did centuries prior—all for the sake of taking in the stunning celestial sight.

Editor's note, August 4, 2017: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the 1973 Concorde flight traveled to an altitude of 55,000 miles rather than 55,000 feet. We regret the error.

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