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It’s been said that witnessing an event born of the natural world makes poets of scientists and scientists of poets. Americans will experience a total solar eclipse on Monday, April 8, 2024. Perhaps this will be your first? Maybe you are already an eclipse hunter and travel from place to place to witness these events. People have been tracking and predicting lunar and solar eclipses for thousands of years. While tracking the Sun’s movement in the sky is simple, the moon’s movements can be more complicated. Solar eclipses occur due to a unique set of astronomical circumstances when the moon passes in front of the Sun. Experiencing a solar eclipse is noteworthy because of the physical changes during totality; the sky will abruptly darken during daytime, shadows may appear differently, often crescent-shaped, and certain regions may experience a slight but perceptible drop in temperature. Exploring the Clements Library’s vast collection offers us a unique opportunity to delve into the multitude of human experiences and interpretations of eclipses throughout history. 

“Photograph of Solar Eclipse, taken with Curtis Schmidt Telescope; HS4176.” In the digital collection Bentley Historical Library: Bentley Image Bank
Detail of Phonetic Almanac, and Register of the Spelling and Writing Reform, 1853
Almanacs: for “New, Useful, and Entertaining Matter”

In the 19th century, annually published almanacs had become well-established reference manuals and contained a variety of useful information, including information pertaining to lunar and solar eclipses for that year. Within the Clements Library’s holdings are some almanacs that contain these yearly calculations for how many eclipses will take place within that particular year, what time of day each one will take place, the duration of the event, etc. These astronomical predictions within almanacs gave subscribers information about where and when to accurately view eclipses in ways that were astonishingly erudite for the time. One unusual almanac that was published during the antebellum spelling reform of the 19th century is highlighted below. This almanac makes use of Comstock’s phonetic alphabet that allows reading to be more accessible.

Astronomy and space has captivated the minds of young people for as long as we have looked to the stars. Ormond P. Loomis, a precocious young teenager of Columbia, Connecticut, kept detailed astronomical calculations amongst his other schoolwork in 1829. Some of the educational content found in his all encompassing schoolwork are calculations for a perpetual almanac, where he drafted up calendars and created an exercise to see what day of the week certain dates would be into the late 19th century. Amongst the different penmanship exercises, there are also various scientific observations; notes on the theories of gravity and falling bodies, and two loose illustrations of “geometrical constructions of eclipses” for the years 1831 and 1836. Despite the fact that some of these illustrations were likely copied from another text it highlights a young person’s penchant for learning about the arts and sciences.

 1836 eclipse projection drawn by Ormond Loomis from the Loomis family papers

Tens-Qua-Ta-Wa or The One That Opens The Door : Shawnese Prophet Brother of Tecumthe / Painted for Gov. Lewis Cass by J.O. Lewis at Detroit 1823.

Astrological warnings and prophecies

At times in history, eclipses and other natural phenomena have been earmarked as prophetic warnings and harbingers of doom. In 1806 the Shawnee Indians, led by the war chief Tecumseh, occupied land that is on the border of present day Ohio and Indiana. During this time William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor of Indiana, eager to be the head of westward expansion, had a notable conflict with recently united tribes led by Tecumseh. Through a kind of prophetic guidance, Tenskwatawa (the one that opens the door), brother to Tecumseh, was preaching a return to traditional Indian values and abstinence of European American culture. The tribes united by Tecumseh stood as a major barrier to Harrison. Harrison realized the united tribes threatened his efforts and claimed that, “If he (Tenskwatawa) is really a prophet, ask him to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves.” Tenskwatawa rebuffed Harrison claiming, “Fifty days from this day there will be no cloud in the sky. Yet, when the Sun has reached its highest point, at that moment will the Great Spirit take it into her hand and hide it from us. The darkness of night will thereupon cover us and the stars will shine round about us. The birds will roost and the night creatures will awaken and stir.” When the solar eclipse of June 16, 1806 occurred, it reinforced the unification of the tribes and further complicated matters for Harrison.

Existential musings: Why we look to the sky

Scientists still continue to study every eclipse because it offers us another way to observe the Sun under unusual conditions. The 1806 solar eclipse, sometimes dubbed Tecumseh’s eclipse, was observed by José Joaquín de Ferrer, a Spanish astronomer (and umbraphile for his day) after traveling to view the eclipse in upstate New York. In 1809, Ferrer first coined the term corona when detailing the sun’s crown-like aura during totality.

It is a unique experience when people of all different kinds can be unified at once by something. Ancient peoples who experienced this phenomenon documented these events through art via petroglyphs and within their own texts. These days we are aided by modern technology and people will be able to make photographs with cell phones and livestream on April 8 during peak totality. Eclipses will come and go, but we will take what we experience during those few moments during totality with us long after.