Staring at the Sun, as It Disappeared

By Anonymous

Watching a total eclipse is an emotional experience. “No language will ever be adequate to describe the divine beauty of this phenomenon,” the astronomer Willem Jacob Luyten wrote in The New York Times in January 1925. “If you have seen it, the magnificence of the corona will forever stay in your memory with ineffable accuracy as the most overwhelming spectacle that nature affords.”

Luyten, an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory at the time, was describing a total eclipse of the sun. Such eclipses happen somewhere in the world every 18 months or so, but the odds are slim that any of us will ever find ourselves in what’s known as the “path of totality”: the full shadow of the moon. Luyten went up in an airplane so he could observe it from the air.

ImageStaring at the Sun, as It Disappeared
Six stages of the total solar eclipse. 1925.CreditUnited News Pictures/The E.W. Scripps Company
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As described in the original caption, “One of the city’s ordinarily industrious bootblacks takes time out to view the eclipse.” Aug. 31, 1932.CreditThe New York Times
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A group of Broadway stars taking in an eclipse matinee. Aug. 31, 1932.CreditThe New York Times

This year, there will be one total solar eclipse, and it will occur on July 2. But unless you’re an umbraphile — the technical term for an eclipse lover — who lives in South America or is willing to travel there, you won’t be able to experience the eclipse in its full majesty. In fact, the next time people in New York City will be able to stand in the path of totality will be 2079. To tide us over, we dug through the archives looking for pictures of eclipses from decades past.

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The camera of the Hayden Planetarium-Grace expedition was set up on the summit of a hill near Casma, Peru. Circa June 8, 1937.CreditThe New York Times
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Members of the Tokyo Asahi scientific party at Okoppe, Hokkaido, with instruments to record the sun’s darkening. Circa June 19, 1936.CreditThe Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
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Watching an eclipse in Central Park. July 10, 1972.CreditLibrado Romero/The New York Times

A quick refresher for the astronomy-challenged: During a total solar eclipse, the moon passes between Earth and the sun, aligning so perfectly that it entirely obscures our view of the star. A partial eclipse is less of a thrill because the sun, moon and Earth don’t align exactly and the sun is only partly covered by the moon. During an annular eclipse, the moon is too far away from Earth to fully obscure our view of the sun.

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This “Dictionary of Eclipse Terms” ran in The Times on Jan. 25, 1925.CreditThe New York Times
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Looking at an eclipse through your fingers, as this person did in Central Park, is not advised. July 20, 1963.CreditJohn Orris/The New York Times
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Viewing in front of the Hayden Planetarium, as these people did, is an appropriate locale. July 20, 1963.CreditJoe Schifano/The New York Times

If you have ever been in totality, the desire to stare directly at the sun is magnetic and all celestial terminology seems deficient. The temperature drops quickly and significantly. In just a few minutes, the day darkens to night and returns again to day.

People in New York City last witnessed a total eclipse of the sun nearly a hundred years ago, in January 1925. Wall Street stayed quiet, its opening postponed to allow traders to watch the totality. Across New England special trains were put in service so the public could get to better viewing locations. Along the path of totality, scientists urged people to use stopwatches to help calculate the exact path of the moon.

A few years later, in 1932, some New Yorkers got to watch a partial eclipse from the top of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. People around the city stared through film, smoked glass or colored glasses and even peeked through their fingers. (These are not safe ways to observe an eclipse, and proper glasses should be used to protect your eyes.) On that same day, in Detroit, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera looked skyward from the top of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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Diego Rivera, far right, and Frida Kahlo, second from right, viewing an eclipse from the roof of the Detroit Institute of Arts. At the time, Rivera was working on the Detroit Industry Murals. Aug. 31, 1932.CreditCourtesy Detroit Institute of Arts, Research Library & Archives
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Students at Stephen Knight Elementary School in Denver using viewing boxes to catch a partial eclipse. Feb. 26, 1979.CreditDenver Post/Getty Images
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A crowd gathered on the top of the Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest structure, to see the sun all but disappear behind the moon. Aug. 31, 1932.CreditThe New York Times

This year’s July 2 eclipse will touch only one small island in the South Pacific before reaching South America, crossing the Chilean Andes and arriving in the suburbs of Buenos Aires in the evening. In Buenos Aires, if the sky is clear and the vantage point well chosen, the city will be an apt place to watch the eclipse, and see today what Dr. Luyten experienced in 1925. “With everything on earth plunged into darkness,” he wrote, “with everything taking on unnatural colors and strange aspects, with the birds going to roost and nature in general presenting the appearance of readiness to collapse and give up the struggle for existence, the wonderful radiance of the solar corona was the last straw on which the fate of humanity seemed to balance.”

Jessie Wender is a photo editor of Past Tense, an archival storytelling initiative based on photographs rediscovered as The Times digitizes millions of images from its archives. She was previously a photo editor at The New Yorker, National Geographic and Apple. You can follow her on Instagram @jmwender.