The Sky’s Gone Out: Solar Eclipses and History

Image showing the progression of a solar eclipse as the Moon slowly moves in front of the Sun.
The progression of a solar eclipse on August 1, 2008 in Novosibirsk, Russia. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Preparations are in full swing across the United States for the total solar eclipse of 2017.   Overpriced hotel rooms are getting sparse along the path.   Some have been sold out for years.    The US Department of Transportation says that approximately 200 million people (a little less than 2⁄3 the nation’s population) live within a day’s drive of the path of this total eclipse and has recommended that law enforcement in each state prepare now.   Indeed, the last time a total solar eclipse traversed the U.S. in 1918, car registrations numbered only a little over 5.5 million.  Today, that number stands at over 253 million…  Traffic accidents and delays are quite likely and estimated traffic maps have already been created to help watchers plan.

So, why all the hubbub?   It’s not like this is the first time the Moon has passed between the Earth and the Sun.     According to NASA, during the 5,000-year period from 2000 BCE to 3000 CE, Earth will experience 11,898 eclipses of the Sun including 3173 total eclipses.   It’s not exactly a rare event, yet the last total solar eclipse that you could see at all in the US was 1991 and then only partly.    The last time the primary eclipse path went over the US was 1979 (which only brushed the NW briefly).   The last time the US had a coast-to-coast eclipse was 1918!    I guess it is not too surprising that the anticipation and excitement are palpable.

Headling from the Oregonian Newspaper from June 1918

Headling from the Oregonian Newspaper from June 1918.

 

Speaking of which, the 1918 eclipse was seen in Oregon.   In fact, because viewing conditions were thought to be so good, the U.S. Naval Observatory received a special grant from Congress to observe the eclipse from Baker, Oregon.   Baker made the day a holiday so that people could take time from work and see this once in a lifetime spectacle.

The front page of the Oregonian Newspaper the following day had several stories about the eclipse, including one that read:

 

 

    “Despite knowledge that nature was just doing the expected,
it was impossible to throw off a feeling that this was a solemn occasion,
that the weird darkening of the Sun was the working of a supernatural power
and that the end of time had come.”

 

To see the issue yourself,
visit http://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83045782/1918-06-09/ed-1/seq-1/

What is surprising to me is how, not 100 years ago and in full knowledge of the cause of the event, that the supernatural was still invoked.   As I’m nearing 50 and my grandparents were alive then, I’d like to say that it was not really that long ago…   Surely, we were past that way of thinking….    Of course, the article directly underneath the eclipse story on the front page was the story of Dr. Isabelle Grey – the first woman admitted to the Army service as an officer (though still not permitted to wear rank insignia) – so perhaps our thinking then was not as ‘modern’ as I’d like to believe…

Cartoon showing a US Marine punching the Kaiser and "showing him a total eclipse" from the Oregonian, June 1918
As it was 1918, there were a few other things happening in the world at the time. This cartoon was also on the front page of the Oregonian on June 09, 1918.

So…,

What is it about eclipses that evoke such a visceral response from humans?    Why are eclipses so often correlated with tragedy?     Is that correlation accurate or just an artifact of placing events onto phenomenon?     How many astrologers were actually beheaded because of an eclipse?   How many kingdoms fell?   Did rulers actually hide and perform penance to the ‘gods’ during eclipses?    Did one really stop a war?

I’ve been pouring over journal and web articles on this topic and, in preparation for the “Great American Eclipse of 2017” [the hyper-cheesy marketing for this is what has made it terrifying for me…], I will explore this and related questions through a series of blog posts on the history of eclipses.

Next up:   The “first” recorded eclipse?:  A surprisingly difficult question…