Time Machine: The total solar eclipse of 1918

Though partial in Iowa, 'rim of the sun was vast circle of leaping flames'

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Total solar eclipses happen almost every year, but the shadows often fall on the ocean or less populated areas of the earth.

They differ from annular eclipses, like the one that crossed the southeastern United States in 1994. In an annular eclipse, the sun is not completely blocked, and a ring of fiery light from the sun is still visible.

In a total solar eclipse, the moon blocks the sun entirely, resulting in darkness like night over the course — the totality — of the eclipse.

Total solar eclipses seldom traverse the continental United States, as will happen Monday. The path of totality will extend from Salem, Ore., to Charleston, S.C.

The last time the United States saw an eclipse like Monday’s was almost a century ago — on Saturday, June 8, 1918.

Coverage of the event was a brief respite from news of the world war that dominated newspaper pages.

‘baker eclipse’

In 1918, as the moon blocked the sun, its shadow began at sea, south of Japan. It reached the United States near South Bend, Wash., moving toward Baker, Ore., then Denver, concluding at Orlando, Fla., as the sun was setting. It took 47 minutes to pass from coast to coast.

Eighty U.S. cities saw the halo or corona around the moon as well as red streamers flaring from one side.

At the time, the phenomenon was named the “Baker eclipse” after the U.S. Naval Observatory in Baker, Ore., where more than 50 photo plates were made during the event.

Even though light, hazy clouds were present at the beginning of the eclipse, Professor J.C. Hammond, the head of the observatory party, declared, “We secured fine results undoubtedly. The thin clouds hindered little if any.”

Congress appropriated $2,500 for naval observers to take pictures in Oregon.

partial in Iowa

Iowans’ view of the eclipse was partial, reaching the 80 to 90 percent range. Council Bluffs saw 88 percent of the sun covered; Des Moines, 85 percent; Cedar Rapids 83 percent.

The Gazette offered viewers a timeline under a heading, “Eat Supper Early; See Eclipse Today.”

Noting that the starting time was 5:20 p.m., the article advised, “Eclipse can be viewed through smoked or colored glasses.” Viewing the eclipse with the naked eye was dangerous and would cause blindness.

Smoked glasses were created by holding ordinary window glass over the flame of a candle or lamp wick until it was covered with soot. Eclipse viewers then held the sooty glass over their eyes.

“Smoked glasses and colored goggles were called into play by hundreds of Cedar Rapids folk Saturday afternoon,” The Gazette reported.

At 5:20 p.m., the moon’s shadow began to appear over the sun in Cedar Rapids. By 6:26, more than 80 percent of the sun was hidden, and the atmosphere felt like the approach of a storm.

“A few local residents with powerful telescopes disclosed the sun spots, relatively cool, and it is said that as the shadow passed over the two largest visible of these, there was an evident movement of gas rays,” The Gazette reported.

“Shadowed against the field there were observed lunar mountains, approximately five miles in height. Silhouetted against the white field of the telescope, the mountain appeared no larger than a pinpoint. By the telescope, the rim of the sun was a vast circle of leaping flames.”

IOWANS LOOK UP

People climbed to the roofs of their homes and office buildings to watch the eclipse, while pedestrians below bumped into each other as they gazed skyward.

“The moon commenced to creep over the sun from the lower right-hand side,” the Manchester Democrat reported. As the eclipse progressed, “a peculiar twilight haze was cast over this section of the country.”

In Webster City, a talented amateur photographer, Clo Scriven, took a photo with her Kodak camera from the riverbank at 6:35 p.m., when the eclipse was at its zenith, while Professor Hammond was taking photos with a 65-foot camera in Oregon.

The Davenport Times Democrat said, “During the height of the eclipse, birds gathered in their (nighttime) roosting places, and chirped sleepily, emerging after the moon’s shadow disappeared.”

The Des Moines Register reported a “greenish glare” before the eclipse started. “Weather conditions were ideal. ... Hundreds stood on downtown street corners and craned their necks to see the moon’s shadow gradually sweep across the face of the blazing sun. Roof parties were popular ... and elevator operators were kept busy shooting the members of office forces to the top floor while phones went unanswered and business generally came to a standstill.”

Downtown restaurant patrons were observed calmly eating their suppers, apparently unaware “that a spectacle was being staged in nature’s arena that they wouldn’t get another chance to see until 2017.”

The next total solar eclipse viewable in the United States will be April 8, 2024.

‘SPLENDID SPECTACLE’

Back in Washington State in 1918, Mrs. Clarence Braneman, a friend of Mrs. S.N. Parsons of Marion, traveled a hundred miles by train from her home in Seattle to a steep bluff near Chehalis, Wash., along with hundreds of others to observe the phenomenon.

“When we were disposed comfortably with our smoked glasses on the warm hillside, quite a disk was over the sun, moving eastward,” she wrote later to her Iowa friend. “The disk became larger and larger. All at once, it was dark and a chill fell. We could not see each other’s faces. Down in the town, a dog bayed long and dismally, a rooster crowed and was answered by a dozen.

“Electric lights appeared everywhere. The man behind us said, ‘By George, I came two hundred miles for two minutes of this, and it’s worth it.’

“The moon looked like a great luminous pearl with a magnificent corona of opal lights flashing out in every direction. ... It was a splendid and never-to-be-forgotten spectacle.”

A NEW STAR

The moon continued moving at 3,000 miles per hour, and the eclipse ended at 7:23 p.m. Iowa time.

Amazing though it was, the eclipse was nearly eclipsed by the discovery of a new Eagle (Aquila) star, officially named Nova Aquilae, in the southeastern sky.

The brilliant, blue-white star that appeared in the developed photographic plates of the eclipse was also discovered during the darkness by several observers. It was afterward observed rising shortly after sunset and sitting high in the southeastern sky by 10 p.m.

Several scientists viewed the discovery as more important in the astronomical world than the eclipse.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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