Total Eclipse of the Collections

Total Eclipse of the Collections

By Charles Doran

The phenomenon of an eclipse has always sparked intrigue and fascination. Many early civilizations saw eclipses as a sign of impending doom. They have inspired medieval mathematicians to calculate the movement of celestial objects and predict future occurrences.

Total Eclipse of the Sun. The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual, 1882.

A fantastic example of such a work, gifted by Robert Garrett and fully digitized, is Astronomical miscellany, Garrett MS. 99. This manuscript in Latin text and possibly of French origin contains scientific tables and diagrams; two diagrams (fol.2r & fol.136r) depict an eclipse.

So, how rare is it to see an eclipse while standing in the same location? From a given location on the earth you will see a total solar eclipse approximately every 375 years; as such, we usually travel to view or study an eclipse.

Princeton solar eclipse expedition party near Denver, Colorado, July 1878. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box 132.

In 1878, Étienne Trouvelot, a French astronomer and artist, accompanied Professor William Harkness and others to Creston, Wyoming Territory to study the total eclipse on July 29. (Meanwhile, a Princeton expedition was taking in the view near Denver, Colorado.) Several years later in 1882, Charles Scribner’s Sons published “The Trouvelot astronomical drawings manual,” which included a portfolio of fifteen chromolithographs depicting various astronomical events including the 1878 eclipse at Creston. Trouvelot was also a member of the French expedition to view the solar eclipse of May 6, 1883 at Caroline Island.

In 1900, Charles A. Young, professor of astronomy at Princeton (1877-1905) and the first Director of Princeton’s Observatory, led the Princeton solar eclipse expedition to Wadesboro, North Carolina. Also attending this expedition was a young protege, Henry Norris Russell, Princeton’s Class of 1897, and later Director of Princeton’s Observatory from 1912 to 1947. In the Henry Norris Russell Papers, we find an excellent selection of images from the expedition including Russell with a telescope and of the 1900 eclipse itself. Additional images and field notes on both the1878 and 1900 eclipses are available in the Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection, including a photo of the entire expedition party.

Today, eclipse chasers plan vacations around being centered within the path of totality all for a maximum viewing period of approximately 7.5 minutes, the longest possible duration for a total solar eclipse. This year, the eclipse will have a maximum viewing period of 4 minutes and 28 seconds, depending on the location. The path of totality will traverse North America starting over Mexico and stretching to Maine.

Map of the anticipated path of the 2024 total solar eclipse. Image courtesy of NASA.

If you happen to be one of those eclipse chasers but are unable to visit a locale within the path of totality, maybe you can plan a visit to Special Collections instead to view the above materials and so much more!