August 17, 2017

Astronomy Video of the Week: Hunting for the Oldest Eclipse

Totality from the 1914 eclipse over Sweden.

(Credit: N. Nordenstrom)

An astronomical mystery came our way this past week.

If you’re like us, you’re gearing up to meet the shadow of the Moon in just 10 short days. While interest in the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse crossing the United States runs high, we wondered: what’s the oldest video of an eclipse featuring totality that is readily accessible online?

After numerous challenges and queries to the astronomical community, we came up with this old film seeming to show the total solar eclipse of August 21st, 1914 over Sweden.

Unfortunately, the team hosting the site declined to share the video with us for YouTube and a wider audience… on YouTube, the oldest video including totality seems to be this fine footage featuring the January 24th, 1925 total solar eclipse over New York City courtesy of British Pathe:

Now, video technology dates back to the 1880s… surely, someone must have tried to capture totality during solar eclipses in those early decades? More than likely, those early efforts have yet to be digitized, or are poorly indexed on ye ole web. Searching “total solar eclipse” of YouTube currently yields a flood of videos running the gamut from astrology and conspiracy theories to actual real science, a tough challenge to sift through to find anything of true historical value.

Back to the Swedish 1914 video. This eclipse occurred over war torn Europe during the opening months of World War I. We actually wrote about this eclipse and how the war foiled early efforts to measure Relativity from Crimea. Sweden was neutral during the war, and witnessed a fine spectacle just past local noon.

Now, there’s a cryptic statement at the end of the description of this video, claiming “the eclipse of this film is a fool in any case”. We ran this by a Swedish friend of ours in the event that Google translate was missing a nuance, and this does indeed seem to be the case…

The trouble is, if it is indeed a fake, it’s a good one. To the experienced eye, the footage showing totality and the corona of the Sun does indeed look real. Note the similarity of the 1925 footage above and the 1914 video in question. Also, timings given for the partial phases of the Sun are correct.

Plus, it’s tough to shoot totality, as exposure times drop dramatically when the Sun is eclipsed. More than likely, the very first attempts to make a video of totality weren’t successful. A sequence towards the end of the clip does show the partial eclipse superimposed over the crowd viewing it… is this what the commentator is alluding to?

Or perhaps, the totality footage is spliced from a different eclipse. There were indeed total solar eclipses over Europe in 1912 and 1905 leading up to 1914. Apparently, video was indeed shot during the April 17th 1912 total solar eclipse over Costa Lobo, Portugal, though it hasn’t made its way to the web…

The book Catchers of the Light mentions astronomer Nils Nordenmark (also listed in the opening credits of the video) and his successful attempt capturing the 1914 eclipse.

Another thing worth noting is the solitary sunspot seen on the disk of the Sun during partial phases of the eclipse in the video. Any sketches of the solar disk from or around August could cinch this… tantalizingly, Mount Wilson observatory didn’t start doing daily sunspot sketches until a few years later in January 4th, 1917.

So for now, the title of oldest eclipse video featuring totality remains a mystery, an enigma that I’ll open up to the larger audience. It’d be great to put this one to bed in time for the Great American Eclipse… any takers?


U.S. Postal Service to Issue Changeling Total Solar Eclipse Stamps

A mind-bending stamp.

Credit: USPS.

Ready for the Great American Eclipse? If you’re like us, you’ve been planning on where you’ll be meeting totality on August 21st, 2017 for going on a decade now. It’s the big ticket celestial show of 2017 for sure, maybe the decade (we’re assuming, of course, that a killer comet or alien invasion isn’t on tap for our unsuspecting planet in 2018 through 2020).

Just last month, the U.S. Postal Service got in on the act, with the announcement of a release of a Forever Stamp commemorating the total solar eclipse on June 20th. The first-day-of-issue ceremony takes place at the Art Museum in Laramie, Wyoming, which lies on the eclipse path of totality. Ceremony participants will catch a rare spectacle of June 20th, as a sunbeam meets a silver dollar embedded in the museum floor, an event which only occurs during the June summer solstice. We’ll note if they carry the event live.

And check out this amazing video simulation of the Moon’s umbral shadow gliding across the contiguous United States on August 21st from west to east courtesy of umbraphile Michael Zeiler:

Fly over the Great American Eclipse from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

The eclipse stamps are printed using thermochromic ink, and will change from totality to an image of a Full Moon when heated, say, by the owner’s thumb, then revert to the eclipsed Sun once again upon cooling. The photo depicts the total solar eclipse snapped from Libya on March 29th, 2006 by Fred Espenak.

Here’s a cool idea; mail a letter/postcard to yourself or a friend on August 21st, 2017 for a one of a kind “postal cover” postmarked with the date of the eclipse… maybe this could become a tradition for eclipse-chasers on subsequent expeditions.

This will be an eclipse for the ages for sure… be sure to pre-order your USPS Eclipse Stamps now, they’re sure to sell out quick!