Looking to the Sky: Solar Eclipse 2017

“Thousands of residents stood with necks craned and peered wide-eyed through smudged glass as the moon sped between the sun and earth, gradually shutting off the bright morning light. From President Coolidge to the urchins with bundles of papers under their arms, the city marvelled at the awesome but magnificent sight.”  - The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 1925.

If you take away the obvious differences (Coolidge is President, paperboys on the streets), I imagine a similar scene taking place during our upcoming solar eclipse on August 21. As in 1925, Washington, D.C. is outside the “path of totality” but will still be able to witness a partial eclipse, with the moon covering about 80% of the sun. (In 1925, it was 95% covered.)  I expect many will step outside, myself included, and turn their eyes to the sky to witness the phenomenon firsthand. (I plan to wear specially made glasses, rather than relying on “smudged glass,” as mentioned in the article.)

President and Mrs. Coolidge both stood on the White House lawn on a freezing day in January 1925 to view the partial eclipse during as it began, as seen below. They watched in the cold for a short while, and after the President returned to work, he used his darkened glass plate (which was likely a developed photographic glass plate) to view the eclipse at its peak from inside the White House.

Pres. & Mrs. Coolidge viewing eclipse of sun, 1/24/25. Photo by National Photo Company, [19]25 January 24. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.12900

Pres. & Mrs. Coolidge viewing eclipse of sun, 1/24/25. Photo by National Photo Company, [19]25 January 24. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.12900

Other prominent Washington, D.C. officials took the time to view the 1925 eclipse, such as Postmaster General Harry New and Gen. John A. LeJeune, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. Most relied on a piece of darkened glass for viewing, as depicted in these photos.

The wheels of the great government machine and of private business marked time today while thousands of employees and the departmental heads viewed the eclipse. Postmaster General New snapped as he was watching the eclipse with the aid of a photographic plate. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1925 January. ttp://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44777

The wheels of the great government machine and of private business marked time today while thousands of employees and the departmental heads viewed the eclipse. Postmaster General New snapped as he was watching the eclipse with the aid of a photographic plate. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1925 January. ttp://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44777

General John A. LeJeune, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, viewing the eclipse in front of the Navy Department at Washington. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1925 January. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44780

General John A. LeJeune, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, viewing the eclipse in front of the Navy Department at Washington. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1925 January. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44780

Not satisfied with a casual look with the naked eye, astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory lined up with their telescopes to get a better view of the 1925 eclipse:

Astronomers at Naval Observatory viewing eclipse of sun, 1/24/25. Photo by National Photo Company, [19]25 January 24. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.12896

Astronomers at Naval Observatory viewing eclipse of sun, 1/24/25. Photo by National Photo Company, [19]25 January 24. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.12896

And of course, many are not content to simply watch a solar eclipse, but endeavor to capture and document the event. The eclipse on January 24, 1925 was photographed and filmed from the dirigible U.S.S. Los Angeles by a team formed by the U.S. Naval Observatory and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Some members of the team posed with one of the specially designed cameras destined for the airship in the photo below.

Scientists of Naval Observation with special camera to photograph eclipse of sun, 1/7/25. Photo by National Photo Company, [19]25 January 7. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.26572

Scientists of Naval Observation with special camera to photograph eclipse of sun, 1/7/25. Photo by National Photo Company, [19]25 January 7. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.26572

Flown into Washington, D.C. in order to be christened by President Coolidge in November 1924, the U.S.S. Los Angeles took a tour over the nation’s capital a few months before its eclipse expedition. In the photo below, the airship is above the National Mall, with the U.S. Capitol in the background.

ZR-3 Los Angeles. Photo by National Photo Company, [1924 Nov.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40794

ZR-3 Los Angeles. Photo by National Photo Company, [1924 Nov.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40794

Capturing natural phenomena through a camera lens was nothing new, however. The usefulness of photography in their work was recognized by scientists almost immediately after its invention. By the 1850s, photographers began documenting eclipses for scientific study. A volume of photos in the Prints and Photographs Division’s collections systematically shows the incremental phases of the solar eclipse of May 26, 1854. An example of one of the photos is featured below on the left. For comparison, on the right is a photo taken in New York during the January 1925 eclipse.

 
[Photograph of the solar eclipse of May 26, 1854, taken at West Point, no. 16] from Bartlett's photographs of solar eclipse of May 26, 1854, taken at West Point. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17397

[Photograph of the solar eclipse of May 26, 1854, taken at West Point, no. 16] from Bartlett’s photographs of solar eclipse of May 26, 1854, taken at West Point. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17397

 Diamond ring of the solar eclipse - Jan. 24, 1925. Photo by Frederick W. Goetz, copyrighted 1925 July 13. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a50267

Diamond ring of the solar eclipse – Jan. 24, 1925. Photo by Frederick W. Goetz, copyrighted 1925 July 13. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a50267

Celestial events such as solar eclipses are studied and documented by scientists and armchair astronomers. Witnessing the totality is an event which drives people to travel thousands of miles. Photographers study methods for capturing images of the moon blocking the sun. But even if you aren’t going to such lengths, all you really have to do on August 21 to see something remarkable is take a few minutes, and look to the sky – with proper eye protection, of course!

Learn More:

 

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