Photograph taken during the solar eclipse in Spain in 1860.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

In 1860, at the dawn of astronomical photography, a total eclipse event occurred in which the shadow of the moon passed over North America, Spain and North Africa. There was great excitement throughout the scientific community and many astronomers traveled to witness the event. Warren De La Rue (1815-1889) was one of these, a pioneer solar photographer, he produced these iconic images of the 1860 totality in Spain.

Two photographs taken during the solar eclipse in Spain in 1860.
Figures 58 and 59, from Spectrum analysis: six lectures, delivered in 1868, before the Society of Apothecaries of London, p. 208, taken during a solar eclipse in Spain in 1860. National Library of Medicine

This reproduction of the image appears in Spectrum analysis: six lectures, delivered in 1868, before the Society of Apothecaries of London, published in 1869. The author, Henry E. Roscoe, PhD, FRS, provides a detailed description of these images, and discusses his hopes for what may be discovered with another new technology, the spectroscope, during the total eclipse that would occur in India in August of 1869:

“By the kindness of the eminent astronomer, Mr. De la Rue, I have here (Figs. 58 and 59), photographs of the most interesting phenomena observed at the last total eclipse. This diagram is a copy of a photograph taken by him during the eclipse of 1860 in Spain. The first one of these was taken immediately after total obscuration, and the second just previous to the reappearance of the sun.

“Now the extraordinary phenomena which are here noticed are to be the subject of very important investigations in August. When an eclipse is total, some wonderful protuberances or red flames are found to dart out from the surface of the sun to the enormous height of some 80,000 or 90,000 miles. The examination by the spectroscope of the light which these very singular flames give off is a matter which we all must look forward to with the greatest interest. Spectroscopes have been sent out to various parts of India under the care of very able observers, with particular instructions as to the examination of the lines which these flames give off. Whether these flames are gaseous, whether they give the spectra of bright lines, and, if so, with the lines of what substances these are coincident, are questions to which we may hope soon to have satisfactory answers.”

Even today, when we can view the sun from space, the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was cause for excitement among scientists and ground-based studies of the event abounded alongside observations from aboard the International Space Station.

The scale of the eclipse made it an historic occasion, in which people from all walks of life participated, coming together to experience this awesome phenomenon across the nation. Today’s proliferation of media will provide a rich account of the event to future historians of science. So here Circulating Now contributes to the historical record the personal observations and photographs of NLM staff and contractors who recently took leave from their work, along with millions of others, to witness the once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse of 2017.

Douglas Atkins: Viewing Location in Charleston, South Carolina
Earlier this summer, I tuned into a National Public Radio interview of science writer/correspondent David Baron. He had recently written a book called American Eclipse and was speaking about his experiences as an eclipse chaser (at times referred to as an “umbraphile”), who had encountered several of these unique celestial phenomena from different parts of the globe. What he described seemed almost spiritual. David Baron’s use of words such as “surreal,” “primal transcendent,” “indescribable,” and “awe inspiring” captured my attention. I felt excitement, wonder, and an almost anxiety-producing need to experience this once in a lifetime occurrence.

Viewing location in Charleston, South Carolina
Viewing location in Charleston, South Carolina

I completed travel plans with a friend, Alex Chao, to journey to Charleston, South Carolina, on the “path of totality,” to witness a total solar eclipse over the city in the early afternoon hours of August 21, 2017.   On the day of the eclipse, we staked out an area adjacent to the Charleston Battery overlooking the Charleston Harbor to the east, and a series of very stately antebellum homes to the west.

I saw many hundreds of others who converged on Charleston to see the eclipse looking skyward towards the sun wearing darkened solar- filtered glasses.

Viewing location in Charleston, South Carolina
Viewing location in Charleston, South Carolina

Occasionally the sun would appear in a small patch of blue sky and with our filters Alex and I could see exactly how much of a bite had been taken out of the sun, courtesy of the moon’s shadow. I was primarily interested in the ambience the eclipse created in the sky, the ocean, and the land. As more of the sun’s surface became covered in shadow, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up intensity. It’s remarkable how bright the surrounding area of sea, sky, and land remained even with approximately 95% of the sun covered by the moon’s shadow.

Silence from the crowd turned to cheering as the sun’s surface, now completely covered in shadow, was no longer able to cast waves of light. We had a window of opportunity to look at the eclipse safely for about 90 seconds. I glanced up only for about five seconds, but I’ll never forget it; particularly the streams of light that emanated from the perfectly round circle of darkness.

Abigail Porter: Viewing Location in Fossil, Oregon

My husband David, 16-year-old daughter Emma, and I traveled to Fossil, Oregon (population: 446) in the north central part of the state to watch the solar eclipse on August 21 from within the “path of totality.”

View of total eclipse in Fossil, Oregon
Fossil, Oregon

We were guests at Wilson Ranches Retreat, a 9,000-acre working ranch just outside of Fossil. On Monday, the skies dawned clear and dry. Our ranch hosts drove approximately 20 of us by four-wheel drive to a high point on their property, in the path of totality. Atop a broad plateau mountaintop covered with sagebrush and grasses we had an unobstructed view of the sun to the east, as well as Mount Hood and Mount Adams to the west.

View of sun through a telescope
View of the Sun through a Telescope

During totality, which lasted approximately 90 seconds, the temperature dropped, bright stars became visible (notably Venus), and the mountains in the distance were first shrouded in darkness and then soft light. The sun’s corona was fully visible to us during totality, shimmering and glowing bright white against the larger-looking black circle of the moon, allowing us to also see the “Bailey’s beads” and the “diamond ring” phenomenon.


Sarah Eilers: Images from Asheville, NC and Richmond, VA

NLM Staff Witnessed the Partial Eclipse over Bethesda, MD:

NLM staff viewing eclipse from the front steps. Photograph by Allison Fisher
NLM staff viewing eclipse from the front steps. Photograph by Allison Fisher
John Rees using a pinhole to view the eclipse. Photograph by Christie Moffatt.
John Rees using a pinhole to view the eclipse. Photograph by Christie Moffatt.

Thanks to Contributors from the History of Medicine Division at National Library of Medicine:

Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs

Douglas Atkins is a Technician for the Prints & Photographs collection

Abigail Porter is a contract Exhibition Development Coordinator in the Exhibition Program

Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals

Christie Moffatt is Manager of the Digital Manuscripts Program



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