View of a solar eclipse from an Apollo 12 mission lunar orbit. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

A Total Eclipse of the Sun: Totality throughout Time

Sorry Bonnie Tyler, this isn’t a total eclipse of the heart–but this month we will see a particularly special total eclipse of the sun! On April 8, 2024, the eclipse’s path will begin in Mexico and travel northeast across the United States from Texas to Maine, eventually exiting North America on the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, completely blocking the face of the sun and darkening the sky for an average period of around 3.5 to 4 minutes. With the sun approaching the peak of its activity cycle, the 2024 eclipse will be larger and likely have more outflows and spike-like structures compared to the Great American Eclipse of August 2017.

As a resident of the Natural State, it’s hard to miss the multitude of local advertisements, merchandise, and watch parties dedicated to the event. After all, Arkansas has only been in the path of totality two other times–in 1834 and 1918! According to the Arkansas House of Representatives, the 2024 solar eclipse is anticipated to become the largest tourism event in Arkansas history. A projected number of up to 1.5 million visitors will be traveling to the Natural State for the show, and an additional 500,000 Arkansans are expected to travel into the path of totality. Fun fact–Hot Springs National Park, located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is one of only two official national parks positioned in the path of totality.

But why are we so drawn to these cosmic events? Solar eclipses have captivated us from the very beginning and have been referenced across a wide range of media for centuries. A glimpse into the archives or at protected monuments across the globe can help us understand how people experienced totality throughout time.

Early Observations

When you think of historians at work, you probably envision people poring over files and objects in various archives, libraries, or other repositories. However, history can be found almost anywhere. National parks, monuments, and historic sites offer us a unique wealth of information about the past and what events people considered important.

At the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument, located in what is now County Meath, Ireland, a series of petroglyphs depicting a series of circles and spirals may depict the oldest recorded solar eclipse in history. Historians and Archeoastronomers believe the positions of the sun, moon, and horizon correspond to an eclipse that occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE. Scribes in Ancient China documented eclipses for centuries as omens foretelling the future of Emperors. In the 1980s and 90s, their records allowed a team of astronomers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to successfully study changes in the Earth’s rotation and calculate the rate of the Earth’s spin. A perfect example of the power of history and science!

In the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a petroglyph located in Chaco Canyon may be one of the earliest recorded observations of an eclipse in what is now the United States. Scientists and historians theorize that the petroglyph, a filled circle with outstretching squiggles and a smaller filled circle to the upper left, represents a solar eclipse and the planet Venus. By using NASA’s rotational data and astronomy, scientists have stated the arrangement of celestial bodies in the petroglyph took place on July 11, 1097, during the height of Chaco culture in the area.

This Petroglyph located in Chaco Canyon is believed to be one of the first known recorded observations of a solar eclipse in North America. Courtesy Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Watch Parties

This month’s total solar eclipse is estimated to become one of the most watched celestial events in history, with an estimated 31.6 million Americans living in the path of totality (compared to 12 million in 2017.) According to Forbes Magazine, it will be similar to 50 Super Bowls simultaneously occurring across the United States–and just like game day events, eclipse watch parties have been around for centuries.”

Thomas Jefferson’s observation of the September 17, 1811, solar eclipse from his Monticello estate. Courtesy National Archives and Records Collection

Thomas Jefferson’s observation of the September 17, 1811, solar eclipse from his Monticello estate. Courtesy National Archives and Records Collection.

Although more science than party-oriented, President Thomas Jefferson documented his observation of the September 17, 1811, “Constitution Day” eclipse from his home at Monticello. From March 1811 until the event, Jefferson wrote several of his friends and colleagues regarding plans for observation and hope for good weather. Jefferson was known to be a diligent weather observer, so it’s no surprise he recorded a very thorough description of the eclipse in one of his many volumes of Weather Records. Jefferson noted the times for all segments of the eclipse and calculated the entire duration to have lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes, and 34 seconds. For several months after the eclipse, Jefferson exchanged observations and mathematical calculations with his friends in a 19th century “virtual” watch party.

Astronomy professor Maria Mitchell and her all-female student team during their 1878 solar eclipse expedition in Colorado. Courtesy Vassar College Archives and Special Collections.

Astronomy professor Maria Mitchell and her all-female student team during their 1878 solar eclipse expedition in Colorado. Courtesy Vassar College Archives and Special Collections.

On July 29, 1878, the first female astronomer in the United States held her own eclipse watch party near Denver, Colorado. Maria Mitchell, an astronomy professor at Vassar College, led a team of all-female Vassar graduates 2,000 miles from New York to Colorado to study the solar eclipse. Apart from two astronomers’ wives, the “Vassar girls” were the only women on an expedition to study the eclipse in the area and later became an inspiration for many regarding women’s rights and access to higher education.

Tools for Today

Today you can purchase eclipse glasses almost anywhere! Gas stations, grocery stores, online…you name it! The glasses come retrofitted with a black polymer film to filter out the sun’s rays and allow the public to safely view the eclipse. Please don’t look directly at the sun without them! In the past, most eclipse viewing apparatuses used a piece of smoked glass to dim the sun’s light but did nothing for the harmful infrared radiation. It wasn’t until the 21st century with mass-produced viewing glasses like the Eclipse-O-Scope and others that protective films became popular and allowed a wider population to safely view the eclipse.

Left: An eclipse viewer dated for the February 12, 1831, eclipse. Right: One of the first mass-produced solar eclipse viewers available to the public. Manufactured for the August 31, 1932, solar eclipse. Courtesy Williams College.

Left: An eclipse viewer dated for the February 12, 1831, eclipse. Right: One of the first mass-produced solar eclipse viewers available to the public. Manufactured for the August 31, 1932, solar eclipse. Courtesy Williams College.

Similarly, people have attempted to get that “perfect shot” of totality since photography was literally invented. On July 28, 1851, a photographer named Johann Julius Berkowski captured the first “photographic” image of a total solar eclipse at the Royal Observatory in Prussia. Using a refractor and an 84-second exposure, Berkowski captured a single daguerreotype of the eclipse. Although the daguerreotype could not be mass-produced, the Royal Observatory had an engraving of the image made, and Berkowski made multiple daguerreotype copies before the original image was lost.

One of J.J. Berkowski’s daguerreotype copies of the total solar eclipse of July 28, 1851. Courtesy Linda Hall Library.

One of J.J. Berkowski’s daguerreotype copies of the total solar eclipse of July 28, 1851. Courtesy Linda Hall Library.

Experience Totality!

After the April 2024 eclipse, the next total solar eclipse that will be observable from the lower 48 states will be on August 23, 2044. That’s a 20-year head start to prep for another incredible cosmic event! If you’re not making the trek into the path of totality, the good news is that a partial eclipse can be seen for those across the contiguous United States and Hawaii.

 

Works Consulted:

Arkansas House of Representatives. “Preparing for the 2024 Solar Eclipse.” Arkansas House of Representatives. 21 December 2023. https://www.arkansashouse.org/news/post/21317/preparing-for-the-2024-solar-eclipse

Ashworth, Jr., William. “Scientist of the Day: Julius Berkowski.” LindaHall.org. 27 July 2021. https://www.lindahall.org/about/news/scientist-of-the-day/julius-berkowski/

Bell, Danna. “Thomas Jefferson and the 1811 Constitution Day Eclipse.” Library of Congress. 15 August 2017. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2017/08/thomas-jefferson-and-the-1811-constitution-day-eclipse/

Bevis, John. “XVIII. Observation of the Eclipse of the Sun, April 1, 1764.” The Royal Society Publishing Company. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstl.1764.0020

Blatchford, Ian. “Symbolism and Discovery: Eclipses in Art.” The Royal Society Publishing Company. 28 September 2016. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsta.2015.0211

Carter, Jamie. “Eclipse 2024 Will Be Like ’50 Super Bowls Happening at the Same Time.’” Forbes Magazine. 19 December 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiecartereurope/2023/12/19/it-will-be-like-50-super-bowls-happening-at-the-same-time/?sh=6a74e998497b

Grabowski, Amelia. “Total Eclipse of the Sun, Partial Eclipse of Inequality.” National Museum of American History. 26 July 2018. https://americanhistory.si.edu/explore/stories/total-eclipse-sun-partial-eclipse-inequality

Mansky, Jackie. “A Brief History of Eclipse Chasers.” Smithsonian Magazine. 3 August 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/brief-history-eclipse-chasers-180964063/

National Park Service. “Eclipses in American History.” NPS.gov. 24 August 2017. https://www.nps.gov/articles/eclipses-in-american-history.htm

Wilson, Teresa. “This Month in Astronomical History: Solar Eclipse of 1878.” American Astronomical Society, Historical Astronomy Division. 3 July 2017. https://aas.org/posts/news/2017/07/month-astronomical-history-solar-eclipse-1878

Cover Image: View of a solar eclipse from an Apollo 12 mission lunar orbit. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

A Strategic Guide for Digital Exhibit Creation Ebook - Download Now!
author avatar
Stephanie Webster

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

9 − three =