A List of Notable Eclipses Through the Years

In celebration of the upcoming eclipse crossing North America on April 8th, I’ll be posting one eclipse-related post per day. You can see the full list of posts here.

May 3, 1715 - Known as Halley’s Eclipse after Edmond Halley of comet fame, who successfully predicted this eclipse for the first time in human history. London was in the path of totality.

June 16, 1806 - Known as Tecumseh’s Eclipse. A possibly apocryphal story states that a dispute arose between future president William Henry Harrison (who was then governor of the Indiana territory) and Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, was a prophet and Harrison, attempting to discredit the Indians, challenged him to make a prediction. In response, Tenskatawa said:

Fifty days from this day there will be no cloud in the sky. Yet, when the Sun has reached its highest point, at that moment will the Great Spirit take it into her hand and hide it from us. The darkness of night will thereupon cover us and the stars will shine round about us. The birds will roost and the night creatures will awaken and stir.

…and apparently he was right! It’s possible Tecumseh learned about the eclipse from frontier eclipse chasers in the area and relayed the information to his brother.

July 8, 1842 - English astronomer Francis Baily observed this eclipse from Italy and noted beads of bright light between the moon and sun visible seconds before totality. These are now known as Baily’s Beads and are among the easiest phenomenon to observe during any total solar eclipse.

July 28, 1851 - This was the first eclipse to ever be photographed. Julus Berkowski, a daguerreotypist, took the following photo on commission for the Royal Prussian Observatory at Königsberg.

first eclipse photograph

August 18, 1868 - Also known as The King of Siam’s eclipse named after King Mongkut of Thailand, the titular king in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I.

Mongkut was an interesting figure: He lived the first half of his life as a Buddhist monk, but then ascended the throne at age 47. While a monk, Mongkut studied both astrology and western astronomy and he successfully predicted the location and duration of the 1868 eclipse which passed over the Wakor village in Thailand.

There’s also this story about him trying to send elephants to America that I’ll just link here. Read it—I promise it’s worth it.

May 17, 1882 - When a group of astronomers observed this eclipse in Egypt they noticed a comet right next to the sun. The comet would not have been observed if not for the eclipse.

eclipse plus comet

August 19, 1887 - Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (the father of the periodic table) ascended in a hot-air balloon in order to observe this eclipse.

May 29, 1919 - Sir Arthur Eddington used this eclipse to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

June 29, 1927 - Virginia Woolf wrote about this eclipse. Some excerpts:

But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over — this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out.

After totality:

We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.

She closes with the line “Then — it was over till 1999,” referring to the next time an eclipse would be visible over the United Kingdom.

July 20, 1963 - Probably the first eclipse to be featured in a comic strip. (See also, the subsequent few strips).

The run ends with this strip:

don't sue me

which unfortunately might be representative of the experience for some of us in Texas this Monday.

November 12, 1966 - The first eclipse to be observed by a human from space (by the crew of the Gemini XII mission; they didn’t see totality—suckers).

June 30, 1973 - A commercial cruise was chartered to travel from New York City to Dakar specifically to observe totality in the middle of the Atlantic. Attendants included Neil Armstrong, Isaac Asimov, and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who was just 15 years old at the time.

From an observer:

Never have I seen assembled in one location as many cameras and telescopes. The decks of Canberra looked like Tripod National Forest. No one knows the exact figure, but I would estimate the value of the scientific equipment brought on board to be between two and three million dollars.

July 11, 1991 - This eclipse passed through much of Central America, and anthropologists Victoria Bricker and her husband Harvey Bricker contend that the Mayans predicted it to within a day. This claim is credulously duplicated in lots of news articles online, but I’m quite skeptical. As I mentioned in this post the Mayans could predict lunar eclipses, but could not predict solar eclipses (for any reasonable definition of the word “predict”).

August 21, 2017 - The first Great American Eclipse (and the first and only total solar eclipse observed by the author).