A Brief History of Eclipse Chasers

August 6, 2017

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.)

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