A contemporary painting depicts the solar eclipse of August 19, 1887, near Berlin. At the time, eclipses offered the only chance for astronomers to see and study the Sun's hot outer atmosphere, the corona, so they went to great lengths to observe these rare events. In 1887, an American expedition to Japan was met with cloudy skies, while an observer in Russia climbed skyward in a hot-air balloon.
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Since the late 19th century, the science and technology of astronomy have made great leaps forward. But one thing hasn’t changed much: the weather. Clouds can still ruin a night of stargazing. In the 19th century, though, they could do more than just blot out a few hours of observations — they could ruin months of planning and cost the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In August of 1887, for example, Amherst astronomer David Todd led an expedition to Japan to view a total solar eclipse. Such events offered rare glimpses of the Sun’s corona — its hot but faint outer atmosphere — as well as explosions of hot gas from the Sun’s surface.
Todd spent months planning the expedition. He and his crew spent a month in transit, traveling from Boston to Vancouver via railroad, then to Yokohama via steamship. Todd then spent several weeks more scouring the country for a good viewing site. The group set up several large Sun-watching telescopes, plus several smaller telescopes and cameras.
A nearby volcano belched fire and smoke on the night of August 18th, but all was clear by the following morning — the day of the eclipse.
An hour before the eclipse began, though, clouds arrived. Except for one short break, they remained overhead until after the eclipse was done — leaving the expedition with little to show for its months of work.
An astronomer in Russia found a way to avoid the clouds — a risky one — and we’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012