America in the Shadows

The nation’s dogged attempts to chase eclipses follow its own haphazard maturation.

A flag waves in the dark, with a full eclipse in the background
Alexey Rotanov / Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The forecast started darkening over the weekend. By almost all accounts, the weather on Monday should have been fine throughout the country; nationwide, late August is usually clear midday, though the odds of clouds increase as you move farther east and later into the afternoon. But after weeks of optimistic outlook, thunderstorms loomed.

“It does not look as good for eclipse viewing,” a meteorologist in the National Weather Service office in eastern Missouri wrote Saturday afternoon. Soon, things also did not look good in western Missouri, or in much of Nebraska, or in parts of Tennessee and South Carolina. For millions of people on the path of this “Great American Eclipse,” August 21 could turn out to be a great American bummer.

It would not be the first time.

Since the dawn of the republic, American scientists, artists, and curiosity-seekers have chased immersion in the moon’s shadow, and have been beset by misfortune. Monday’s eclipse is the first one exclusive to what is now the U.S. landmass since two years after independence, but several eclipses have swept through a few states in the generations that followed.

To witness them, Americans have trudged behind enemy lines, up mountains, into oppressive heat, and across the frontier. Their dogged attempts to do science, and to bask in the glory of the sun’s corona, have echoed the unsteady progress of the nation. Eclipse hopefuls have been foiled by events as perilous as war and as pedestrian as cloudy weather. Every time, things have gone wrong, and people have tried again.

* * *

Though millions of Americans are hopping in their cars and driving down interstate highways to witness Monday’s eclipse, the conjunction of the Earth, moon, and sun was not always so easy to find, let alone to observe. The first total eclipse visible from the newly independent nation crossed from Baja California to the shores of New England on June 24, 1778. Future president Thomas Jefferson looked forward to it—but “we were much disappointed in Virginia generally on the day of the great eclipse, which proved to be cloudy,” he wrote. “In Williamsburgh, where it was total, I understand only the beginning was seen.”

Two years later came what can be called the first American eclipse expedition. A Harvard College math professor named Samuel Williams set off to observe a total solar eclipse on October 27, 1780. Totality, the path where the moon’s shadow completely blocks the sun and bathes the land in darkness, would be visible from Penobscot Bay in Maine. But that was behind enemy lines, with the Revolutionary War in full force.

John Hancock, then speaker of the House in the Massachusetts legislature, came to Williams’s aid, recalls Barbara Ryden, an astronomy professor at Ohio State University. Hancock wrote to the British commander in Maine, requesting special permission for Williams and his party so science could proceed even in a time of war. Williams and his team were permitted to sail to Penobscot, but restricted to an island three miles offshore.

As Williams prepared to watch totality, observing the eclipse through glass that had been stained black using smoke, he saw the narrow sliver of sun begin to vanish, and at 12:31 p.m., it became “broken or separated into drops.” These droplets of light, which result from rays of sunlight streaming through valleys and craters on the moon, would come to be called Baily’s beads, for English astronomer Francis Baily, who also saw and described them 56 years later. Williams would not get credit for their discovery—partly because, after the drops appeared, the crescent sun didn’t completely vanish as expected: It grew in size again. Williams had just barely missed totality. He was using an inaccurate map, and he was 30 miles too far south.

Nine years later, Benjamin Banneker would find better luck. A free black man who had taught himself astronomy and math in his youth, Banneker successfully predicted a solar eclipse on April 14, 1789, contradicting other prominent astronomers. His work impressed Jefferson, who recommended Banneker for the surveying team that marked the boundaries of Washington, D.C. Banneker was producing an almanac at the time, and in 1791, he sent Jefferson a copy, enclosing a letter in which, as he writes, he could not help but implore the then-secretary of state to find some way to help the multitudes of enslaved black Americans.

Other founders were as enthralled by eclipses as Jefferson. On April 3, 1791, John Quincy Adams climbed Beacon Hill in Boston to watch a blazing annular eclipse, in which the moon is too far away to completely block the sun and leaves a “ring of fire.” “Hurt my eyes much by observing this Eclipse without a glass,” Adams wrote in his diary, according to Carleton University engineering professor Robert Morris, who has researched Adams and his eclipse fancy in as-yet-unpublished work. The injury persisted for months. On August 27, Adams wrote, “Eye very sore.” The next day: “At home all day ... My eyes sadly afflicted.” On August 29: “Almost blind.”

Even after he recovered, Adams continued seeking the moon’s shadow. In 1806, he was rewarded with a remarkable eclipse, and made some of the most comprehensive recorded observations of phenomena that would not be explained for another generation. A total eclipse was to sweep through Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts on June 16, 1806, and Adams prepared a viewing party with the Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy. The group enjoyed five minutes of totality in the heart of Boston. Adams chronicled the event in his diary, reporting that he saw “a feeble luminous circle, not equally light in every part”—the corona—as well as the sun’s chromosphere, which astronomers would not formally describe until 1868. And he saw the “diamond ring,” the first beams of light emerging through valleys on the moon.

“Never since my existence have I seen anything like the brightness of the first beam which he [the sun] shot forth upon his return,” he wrote. “I know not the philosophical reason why the first rays of reviving splendor should be so much more dazzling than the last beams of expiring glory, but such was the fact.”

The scene stuck with Adams all his life, and he would go on to observe several other eclipses. As a septuagenarian, he wrote a sonnet about the April 25, 1846, eclipse: “Celestial source of life and light on Earth! / What envious rival intercepts thy rays?” it begins.

* * *

In 1878, 30 years after Adams’s death, another American eclipse would cross the country. The United States was at an intersection between two ages: still emerging from Reconstruction, not quite on the cusp of modernity. That eclipse was a chance for fledgling American science to prove its worth. Astronomers were determined to put the United States on the intellectual map, says journalist David Baron, the author of American Eclipse, which focuses on that event.

“This was a time when the United States was definitely being noticed on the global stage as an industrial power. We were being taken seriously in terms of economic output and technology. But in pure science, we were not taken seriously,” Baron told me. “Even today, we don’t think of ourselves as a scientific nation in the 19th century. It’s the European scientists who have gotten all the fame.”

American astronomers and scientists like Simon Newcomb, James Craig Watson, Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and others were determined to change that. Baron’s book tells the stories of the setbacks they faced, from the time a railroad porter lost Mitchell’s luggage—which almost torpedoed her all-women expedition—to Watson’s mistaken “discovery” of planet Vulcan. Despite their struggles, American astronomers succeeded on many fronts, not least in their attempt to engage their citizenry in the scientific enterprise, Baron writes.

He sees a link between the 1878 eclipse and this one. “In 1878, we were trying to rise up and take on the rest of the world in science. The eclipse helped us to do that. Today, the great fear is we are losing our edge in science,” Baron told me. “We need a boost to remember the excitement of studying science. I think the eclipse could have that effect.”

After 1878, the next great attempt at American eclipse science came on the heels of World War I, and one of the most monumental discoveries in the history of science: Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

In 1915, Einstein published mathematical evidence that massive objects can warp the fabric of space-time, and he even suggested a test: If he was right, the enormous gravitational influence of the sun would appear to bend the light of background stars, so they seemed shifted from where they ought to be. A total eclipse would mask the sun’s light, so these seemingly relocated stars would be visible.

The next solar eclipse was in February 1916, not enough time to mount an expedition to see starlight askew—especially with Europe embroiled in war. That made the solar eclipse of June 8, 1918, the best chance to test whether Einstein was right. That eclipse swept from Oregon to Florida, and astronomers dubbed it the Great American Eclipse of 1918. It was another chance for American scientists to win themselves glory.

Scientists fanned out in Denver; Baker City, Oregon; and various towns in Wyoming. But the weather would stymie their efforts. In Baker City, the U.S. Naval Observatory expedition even brought a painter, Howard Russell Butler, to capture the corona. But clouds interfered with their measurement of the stars. Denver was almost completely socked in.

“Total Eclipse of the Sun, June 8, 1918” by Howard Russell Butler

The astronomer Edwin B. Frost, of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, had spent a week retrofitting a 20-inch telescope at the Chamberlin Observatory of the University of Denver with a special spectrograph and a star camera, which astronomers hoped to use to photograph the stars in the sun’s vicinity. This would let them “test the Einstein theory of relativity by accurate measurements of the star placements before, during, and after the eclipse,” Frost wrote.

It was not to be. “Dense clouds covered the sky all afternoon and no glimpse was had of the eclipse,” read a report in Popular Astronomy magazine. American scientists could not pull it off.

Instead, confirmation came the following year, led by the British astronomer Arthur Eddington. He observed a total eclipse from a remote island off the coast of West Africa, and dispatched a backup team to Sobral, Brazil. He viewed the Hyades, a star cluster, and noticed its light appeared slightly warped from where astronomers predicted it ought to be: Einstein was right. “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” blared a headline in The New York Times. The British had done it.

* * *

Another Great American Eclipse would not happen for a century. The last time any eclipse touched the U.S. mainland was in 1979, once again over Oregon, apparently a blessed territory when it comes to eclipses. The country was still limping after more than a decade of war on foreign soil. It was in the throes of disunion following a massive political scandal, and the resignation of a president.

ABC News covered the eclipse live, as it again plans to do so Monday. “May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace,” the anchor concluded.

America is not quite at that point. But the eclipse can be a wondrous, unifying moment yet.

Though many people, including Baron, say their lives have been changed by a total eclipse experience, this eclipse is not going to change the nation’s politics. We are still divided. Clouds still gather on the figurative horizon. But for just a few minutes, during a road trip on a summer day, it will be easy to set that aside and just take in one of the strangest sights it is possible to behold on Earth: The sun will darken, and then it will come back, and Americans can watch it, together, just as they always have.