As far as historians can tell, humankind has been tracking and marveling in solar eclipses for thousands of years.
The ancient Chinese recorded what was likely an eclipse as early as the year 2134 B.C., according to a NASA history of the celestial phenomenon. Not long before that, it’s said that a Chinese emperor beheaded two of his astronomers for failing to predict another eclipse.
In 647 B.C., a Greek poet described the awe of solar eclipse in frank terms: “There is nothing beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.”
More than 2,300 years later, British poet James Milton described the event in more despairing terms in his epic poem, Paradise Lost: “As when the Sun, new risen, looks through the horizontal misty air, shorn of his beams, or from behind the Moon, in dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds on half the nations and with fear of change perplexes monarchs.”
Along with fears of imminent apocalypse, eclipses have sparked scientific discoveries, literary works and innumerable tall tales.
Rebecca Hein, a former columnist for the Star-Tribune who contributes articles for WyoHistory.org, took a deep dive into the history of the three most recent eclipses that have passed through Wyoming for the State Historical Society. With the help of the Natrona County Public Library, she read dozens of books, news articles and first-person accounts of previous eclipses in the Cowboy State. She answered a few questions below, about her research for the Star-Tribune. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When was the last time a total eclipse passed Wyoming, and what was the fanfare like for that event?
The last time that I researched for my article was June 8, 1918. That eclipse attracted some of the best astronomers in the entire nation and possible the entire world along with their correspondingly wonderful equipment. A man named George Ellery Hale — he was a brilliant guy who had been an associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago — and he raised money from some of the major observatories and hauled some of their equipment. One of them was the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory near Los Angeles. And they had a 30-inch mirror and a telescope there that they hauled on the train to Wyoming for this eclipse. Hale was very well-known and then there were a number of other ones that came out and camped in little tiny places, really just telegraph stations and railroad stops. They camped there and slept out in the weather. One group had a railroad car to sleep in and the others had to sleep in tents. They brought their equipment and studied things. Another well-known astronomer, Edward Emerson Barnard, was known as “the keenest-eyed astronomer in history” and came to Wyoming and took a great photo of solar prominences, which extend off the sun’s surface.
Who are some other notable scientists who’ve traveled to Wyoming for eclipses, and what did they do while they were here?
The July 29, 1878, eclipse attracted Thomas Edison. He wasn’t really here to view the eclipse, though, he was here to test something he invented called a tasimeter. He hoped it would be a device for sensing heat at a very, very sensitive level — like the heat from a star way out in outer space. But it didn’t perform the way he hoped. Of course, that didn’t stop the media from being attracted to him and the party that he traveled with. That party included a man named Henry Draper. He was an American and one of the first people to really get into astrophotography. He wanted to photograph the corona during totality. There’s three minutes of opportunity with something like that and he hauled all of the photographic equipment he needed and of course a bunch of telescopes as well. With four telescopes and everything they needed back in the day for photography, that added up to nearly a ton of stuff they hauled on the Union Pacific Line. Draper really wanted to get a look and a photograph of the corona because there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about it at the time. Sometime before 1878 — I’m not sure how long before — it still had not really been proven that the corona was part of the sun. Draper really wanted to do that and he had the resources and institutional support to be able to spend the incredible amount of money and effort and time to haul this stuff out. The other guy that was with him, J. Norman Lockyer, was British and he had studied the sun a lot during eclipses and otherwise. His biggest accomplishment was that he discovered helium in the sun before it was known to exist on Earth.
In your research, did you come across any information about eclipses that occurred before the arrival of white settlers in the West?
In 1834 there was an eclipse that crossed what is now Wyoming through approximately the northeast corner. And I have some reason to conclude that only Indians and mountain men saw it because those were the only people who were here then. There was no railroad to get people there. But I looked just in case an eminent scientist or somebody decided to try to get out here. (Scientists) went everywhere in the world and it didn’t matter whether conditions were primitive or travel was difficult. They went where the eclipse was. But there was basically only press in the eastern part of the United States and if some white person traveled out here for that eclipse, they didn’t report on it. So I can’t say for certain that nobody made an expedition of any kind, but there isn’t any record of it that I could find. Among the Native Americans, my editor did point me to a book that keeps track of the Winter Count kept by the Lakota. That’s where they kept track of their years by notable events and unusual events. So if there had been a solar eclipse in their records, this book would have found a record of it in the Winter Count. There was no record of the 1834 eclipse but there was something about a partial eclipse that may have been in what is now South Dakota.
How is the fanfare and experience of this year’s eclipse compare with the previous eclipses?
There will be more of a crowd of ordinary people. There was also no such thing as eclipse glasses back then. The newspapers talk about taking a piece of ordinary window glass and smoking it so then you have a barrier between your eye and the sun. Of course, it was a rather inexact procedure and there’s no record of how successful it was or not. But smoked glass turns up in nearly every newspaper report and every eyewitness account. In 1918, I did notice that the paper was saying you could put a pin hole in a piece of paper and look at it that way. So that was known back then. I don’t know how many people are going to do that this time or how prevalent the eclipse glasses are going to be, but that’s going to be a big difference. People kind of made their own eclipse glasses and it was more by guesswork — it seems to me to be a little bit iffy. But they did it.
— Elise Schmelzer, Star-Tribune