Jeffrey R. Charles
© Copyright 1996, 1997 Jeffrey R. Charles. All Rights Reserved.
The Magical Allure of Eclipses
A total solar eclipse is a rare event, occurring an average of only about once every few hundred years from a given place on earth. Rare is the day that one be fortunate enough to observe a total solar eclipse from home. Accordingly, relatively few people had witnessed these awesome spectacles until the time that improved means of transportation made getting to them an easier task. Two centuries ago, twenty miles was considered a good day's travel for most people. Today, many think nothing of getting in their car and driving twice that distance to work or shopping. In the last few decades, it has become possible to travel to pracically anywhere in the world in a few hours or days. With the increased availability of efficient travel, people no longer had to wait for an eclipse to come to them. Today, the practice of mounting an expedition to the path of totality has become synonymous with observing eclipses.
Researchers were the first to travel to eclipses. It has only been during the last 150 years or so that real advances were made in eclipse research. Only then did people in the western world realize that an eclipse could be used as a tool for studying the sun itself. Until the invention of the coronagraph in the 1930's, eclipses provided the only way to see the solar corona. Up until the advent of space flight, eclipses of the sun were utilized in many areas of astronomical research. One experiment of note confirmed Einstein's theory of relativity by detecting the shift in a star's apparent position which was caused by the sun's gravity well. As astronomical knowledge increased and newer tools were utilized, observing eclipses gradually became less important in various areas of research.
While eclipses are still useful for some astronomical and atmospheric research, the vast majority of those who travel to a modern day eclipse do so purely for recreational purposes. Many can now afford the luxury of traveling to an eclipse just to experience and enjoy it. Eclipse times can now be predicted to within a second or two, and the path of an eclipse can be predicted to an accuracy of few hundred meters. Today, we can easily find out when and where a total solar eclipse will occur. All we have to do is get there.
The necessity for travel to an eclipse usually means that the expedition will provide many memorable experiences. This is particularly true when traveling overseas, where each expedition will expose you to different people and cultures.
Large commercial eclipse expeditions are utilized by many eclipse chasers for the convenience and security they provide, but many of these expeditions isolate the traveler from much of the local culture and some are over scheduled and relatively expensive. Mounting one's own expedition and traveling alone or in a very small group can provide a greater sense of freedom and increase one's exposure to a foreign culture. This can make an expedition rich with experiences, good or bad, depending on the local culture or who you meet. Some of these cultural encounters can affect how you will experience the eclipse itself.
Most who travel to eclipses have found that a successful eclipse expedition begins with good planning well before departure. For some, the expedition will not really end until the last picture of the eclipse is processed. Each eclipse expedition is an adventure: an adventure to remember for a lifetime. In my expeditions, I have been in hot weather, cold weather, terrestrial locations ranging from the seashore to 4,800 meters in elevation, and in conditions ranging from mud houses to luxury hotels. I've been seriously ill from local conditions, hassled by foreign airline employees, pressured by possible political operatives, and run through unfamiliar airports to catch connecting flights. I've also spoken to thousands of foreign kids at schools, been swarmed by dozens of appreciative students, become acquainted with people of unforgettably good character, and seen many interesting sights. None of these things can be experienced by sitting in one's living room, but this series of journals will seek to impart some sense of the excitement of world travel and the wondrous nature of a total solar eclipse.
These journals will cover many aspects of my own eclipse expeditions, from initial planning, to interacting with other cultures, to observing the eclipse, to reducing data and having film processed after returning home. Those planning their first expedition may find this information useful, since they will likely have to consider many of the same issues I have faced in my experience. This journal is about the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979. It begins with a brief look at the perceptions of eclipses I'd had before I got to see one first hand.
My First Impressions of a Total Solar Eclipse
I will start with my first exposure to information about a total solar eclipse, and how I was impressed by it. I was born at a very young age. When I was still young and in the second grade, I was hospitalized to my tonsils were removed after having endured repeated bouts of tonsillitis. Removal of infected tonsils seemed to be in vogue with doctors in the mid 1960's, so there I was. While I was in the hospital, my parents gave me a book, titled "Our Sun" which was about the solar system. In this book, there was a single multiple exposure photograph showing the sequence of a total solar eclipse. It showed the partial phases on either side, and totality in the middle. It did not show much corona detail, and the sky was a normal blue color on the photograph. This gave me the incorrect impression that it would not be particularly dark during a total solar eclipse. (I figured the corona must be very bright or something. Hey, I was only a kid in the second grade!) The book had very little text, and total solar eclipses were never covered much in school, so the subject did not particularly impress me. We had partial eclipses in our part of the country from time to time, but none of them were deep enough to cause a dramatic drop in the ambient light.
In 1969, our family moved from Kansas City, Missouri to Estes Park, Colorado. While in junior high, I saw a movie in school called "Why Man Creates". Much of this rather esoteric movie focused on a comparatively individualistic ping pong ball, but it also included a brief shot of a total solar eclipse that showed enough corona detail to impress me. From that point on, I knew I would want to see a total solar eclipse if I had the opportunity.
At Last, an Opportunity to See a REAL Total Solar Eclipse!
In January, 1978, I moved to Greeley, Colorado to begin work as a photogrammetrist and darkroom technician. While reading a magazine the next November, I saw an advertisement for a total solar eclipse expedition to Montana. The eclipse was to occur on Monday, February 26, 1979. Prior to reading this, I had not even known that a total solar eclipse would occur in the U.S. any time in the foreseeable future. The path of totality was going to be less than 800 km away from where I lived, so I decided to go to see the eclipse. I started to read about eclipses and became more interested. Eclipse material seemed scarce, and I wished that more was available. By the time my employer had its Christmas party, I had become so interested in the eclipse that it was a major part of my conversation.
The upcoming eclipse also caused me to have renewed interest in amateur astronomy. My brother and I had shared a 60 mm aperture refractor telescope while we were growing up, but by the time we grew up and moved away from home, my interest in astronomy had diminished to the point that I let my brother keep the telescope. I sort of had my own telescope anyway: I had kludged together an eyepiece from old movie camera and projector lens optics, which I used behind my 400 mm camera lens, which was one of those inexpensive ones that had been dubbed a "girl watcher" lens by its manufacturer. I decided to try and use this lens with a teleconverter to photograph the eclipse.
The day after Christmas, and exactly two months before the eclipse, there was a morning occultation of the planet Venus by the moon. Now a "real" telescope would come in handy. I started experimenting with some of my optics so I could I take long focal length photos of the occultation. I ended up modifying a 2x Komura tele-converter so it would work at 7.5 x, allowing me to use my 400 mm camera lens at an effective focal length of 3,000 mm on a medium format camera. The pictures came out pretty well, so I knew the lens would be adequate for shorter focal length pictures of the eclipse.
Eventually, my dad and my brother also decided to go to the eclipse. Our first choice for an eclipse site was Helena, Montana, but we were going to choose a site closer to Billings if weather conditions permitted.
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Preparing for the 1979 Eclipse
I had arranged to get at least eclipse day off work. I wanted more days off without pay to prepare for the eclipse, but my supervisor had not allowed it. He even told me that I still had to squeeze in 80 hours of work during the two week period that included eclipse day, which was consistent with his earlier policies, since I had not been allowed to miss putting in 80 hours of work per two week period, even in cases when I had been sick for extended periods of time. This lack of true time off minimized my preparation time before the eclipse.
For some reason, these limitations on time off did not always apply to those (even new employees) who were willing to become beer drinking buddies with my supervisor on Friday afternoons and evenings. Sometimes while I was working, I could overhear him and one of his drinking buddies arguing in ridiculously slurred voices, usually after they'd had 4 to 8 cans of beer. It would be comical, but repeatedly seeing it happen during work hours began to get old after a while, especially on occasions when it started as early as 3:30 on Friday afternoon.
I did not know anything about photographing the corona at an eclipse, so I briefly called David Baysinger at Gates Planetarium in Denver. He was very helpful in providing exposure values for the corona. I wanted to take both black and white and color pictures, but with totality lasting well under three minutes, there would be no time to change film, so I rented a 300 mm lens to use with a tele-converter on an additional camera.
I had read that the umbra may become visible within one minute of totality, so I decided to try to photograph it with a 16 mm full frame Minolta fisheye lens and SR-T 101 camera. A week or so before the eclipse, my brother and I practiced taking totality pictures, he with the 60 mm refractor telescope and me with my camera lenses. Though I practiced using my equipment, I did not practice packing it and setting it up. This later caused problems when I set up my equipment in the cold weather and unfamiliar surroundings at the eclipse site.
The 1979 Eclipse Expedition Begins
We left Estes Park on Saturday, February 24. That night, we stayed in Sheridan, Wyoming. The next day, we stopped to see the Custer battlefield after entering Montana. Upon reaching Billings, we decided to head north. We found a suitable eclipse site several kilometers south of the eclipse center line and just south of the small town of Grassrange, Montana. We stayed in a small Grassrange hotel. It had been made from an 8 foot wide mobile home, but it was cheap!
While in Grassrange on the evening of February 25, we used stars to verify the infinity focus of our lenses, and my Soligor tele-converter literally fell apart without warning. Fortunately, I had brought enough small tools to partially fix it, but it would not quite allow focus to infinity with my rented 300 mm f/4.5 lens after I put it together. I laid my equipment out on the bed and loaded film in some of my cameras, and I soon discovered that I had brought way too much stuff!
A Dream to Eclipse All Others
We went to bed at about 11:30 p.m. That night, I had a dream about waking up and finding no one else in the hotel room. It was dark outside, and I noticed the time was 9:30 a.m. I thought to myself: "Gee, it sure seems dark outside for this late in the morning". Then, I realized that the eclipse must be happening! I frantically got up, and with my heart racing from anxiety, I rushed outside and looked a little to my right, only to see that totality was just ending! I woke up right after that, relieved to find it was only a dream! It was my first eclipse dream ever.
February 26. The Morning of the Eclipse
We got up at 5:30 the next morning and left the hotel at about 7:00. We first drove toward the center line to see if we could find a site there, but the snow was plowed so high that there was no where to pull off, so we went back to the original site we had selected the day before, arriving there a little after 7:30. The morning started out with only very thin clouds, but they gradually thickened. Undaunted, we began to set up our equipment. It was cold, so things went slow. I knew that I would not finish setting up all of my equipment before first contact, the beginning of the partial phase of the eclipse, so I focused on seeing to it that my 4" x 5" camera was properly set up for my sequence picture.
The Eclipse Begins!
First contact occurred on schedule at about 8:16. The eclipse was not going to wait for anyone. At first contact, I began taking eclipse sequence shots on my 4" x 5" camera every 8 minutes or so. This distracted me in setting up my other equipment, but I still got everything together well before totality.
A man toward the northwest of us had set up his binoculars to project the partial eclipse on a screen. He also had a poodle which was wearing small sunglasses. The dog was certainly a novel sight at an eclipse! Toward the southeast, the thin clouds in front of the sun had thickened to the point that a 22 degree radius ice crystal ring was visible around it. I took wide angle pictures of this when the sun was about 77%, 82%, and 92% eclipsed.
A few minutes before totality, the sunlight had become decidedly dimmer than usual. I carried my wide angle camera over toward the northwest edge of our site in order to take unobstructed photos of the approaching umbra. My brother also came over to the same area to take pictures of the umbra as it covered a mountain range toward the northwest. The umbral boundary was not obvious at the time. All I could see was a slight degree of general darkening in the west and southwest. The diffuse boundary of the umbra eventually became visible in the sky as it moved over a mountain range to the northwest. It was getting decidedly darker in the west, where it appeared to be almost as dark as it sometimes would look under a distant thunderstorm.
The width of the darkness was now easily approaching 90 degrees. Its top boundary was very indistinct, but I could still tell that it was now a good 10 or 12 degrees above the horizon. I took my first picture about 70 seconds before totality. My light meter read that the exposure was 1/15 second at f/4 with ASA 100 film. Before long, the ambient light began falling very rapidly, fast enough to perceive in real time, which was something I had not anticipated. Soon thereafter, my brother noticed pronounced darkening on the snowcapped peak of a distant mountain toward the southwest. At this, he grabbed his tripod and ran over to his telescope. I stayed where I was, mesmerized by the changing light around me and the approaching darkness. This was an exciting, sock knocking off experience! Totality was only seconds away!
As I continued to look toward the west and take umbra approach photos, the light began to dim at a faster pace, then all of the direct light disappeared, and with it, and of the harsh shadows that had been cast by it. It was not really dark, but it was dim enough to make reading difficult. The exposure for ASA 100 film was about 2 seconds at f/4! I looked over toward the sun for a few seconds and saw that it was totally eclipsed! It did not look at all like the pictures of totality I had seen. The corona only extended out to 1/3 of a solar radius or so, and the moon was not black; not even close. Instead, it appeared to be the same brightness as the dark gray sky surrounding the corona. Another thing that struck me was an illusion that the moon looked somewhat bigger than usual. The extreme inner 1/6 radius or so of corona initially had a harsh look to it and appeared to be a little dimmer than a full moon. The outer part of the corona was much dimmer, and I doubt I would have noticed it if I had not looked for it. It was obvious that the corona was behind thin clouds, but I was awe struck!
A Great Shadow Show
What I saw next really surprised me. As I began walking back toward my other cameras and had reached a point about half way there, I looked away from the eclipse to check my footing when something fantastic caught my eye. Toward the east and northeast, just above where my cameras were set up, I could see the slightly feathered leading edge of the lunar shadow, or umbra, very clearly. It moved toward the horizon with a very smooth, even motion. It was obvious that is was moving eastward and not downward, and it was also obvious that it was something very big that was moving very fast! It was an impressive, beautiful sight!
There was some yellow color just below the umbra, with a little yellow-orange toward the right. As the umbra continued to move, the yellow color just below it began to replace some of the blue color lower in the sky, as though it were "eating up" the blue color. Slightly toward my right, the yellow color had faint and diffuse vertical lines in it, making it look like it was "raining" yellow color. Directly in front of me, I could see white sunlit clouds through the color in the sky. They looked harshly lit and bright. I had not expected to see anything like this! Wow!... I mean, WOW!! Aye aye aye! Cool! Awesome! ...WOW! (Well, you get the idea!) Click here to see a wide angle (180 degree) composite photo and drawing of the umbra.
The color of the sky immediately above the umbral boundary was a very low saturation gray-blue, especially toward the left. The saturation gradually decreased with altitude to the point where virtually no blue tint was visible from about 7 degrees above the boundary and higher. The sky well above the boundary was very slightly darker toward the right, then slightly lighter farther to the right. Some low saturation blue was also visible near the horizon farther toward the right, just below the eclipse. The area occupied by the moon still appeared to be exactly the same shade of gray as the sky immediately surrounding the corona.
I was very taken in by all of this, but it did not even occur to me to take time away from my corona photography (which I had not even started yet) and photograph the umbra! I did make a sketch of the umbra later that day, and I was eventually able to use it in making a color drawing which shows the general appearance of the scene, but it would have been far better to have just taken a picture!
I finally began taking corona pictures with my cameras. As I was near one of my cameras, I saw the umbra again. It had moved to twice as close to the horizon as it was before, and its boundary appeared sharper, having a definition of about one degree. Its motion could still be seen as well. The colors below it had changed to a deeper yellow with some orange and reddish orange, particularly toward the right. In the middle of my view, the yellow became dull from about 1 or 2 degrees below the umbral boundary and below, changing to a dark (though not nearly as dark as above the umbral boundary) gray-blue below that. The only place where normal blue sky could be seen was toward the left, in the bottom half or more of the sky below the boundary. Toward the right and left, (though less pronounced on the left) but not in the middle, there was a faint, thin ruby red to reddish orange line of light clinging to the edge of the umbra. The white clouds were still visible, and some of them were now visible through the umbra itself!
I was so excited that I was almost in a daze. Between observing the umbra and taking corona pictures, I only cast an occasional glance toward the sun. As I continued to shoot the corona with the 300 mm and 2x converter, a tiny point of the sun's disk reappeared and the sky immediately around it brightened. This was the diamond ring effect, but it seemed to be happening very quickly, perhaps because the thin clouds were scattering light. In only a few seconds, the corona became completely undetectable. The point of light rapidly lengthened into a thin crescent, but with very few of the Baily's beads I had expected. Totality was over. Too soon! But it was splendid!
After taking two diamond ring shots, I went over to my Minolta with the 16 mm fisheye and took two shots of the retreating umbra. I could not see the umbra or the color any more, but it did come out in the picture. My first thought was that I wanted to see another eclipse, so I wondered: "When is the next one?"
Soon, we started dismantling and packing our equipment. Shortly after fourth contact, a cold front blew through and it started to get rather cold and windy. We left the site by noon or so. On the way back, I made some sketches of the eclipse and the appearance of the umbra, then, I looked through some astronomy magazines to see if I could learn anything about future eclipses. That night, we stayed in Casper, Wyoming and watched the eclipse again on the TV news. It was exciting to see, but somehow, it just wasn't the same as seeing it in person. After returning home, I had my pictures developed. I later compared my wide angle terrestrial photos with my exposure notes and was able to come up with a light curve for the eclipse. The pictures of the lunar umbra which I had taken with my 16 mm fisheye lens were better than I had expected, particularly in the case of two shots I had taken just after totality.
Lessons Learned from the 1979 Total Solar Eclipse
The 1979 eclipse was a learning experience for me. I had brought a lot of equipment to the eclipse, weather was cold, and I had become excited (or blown away, or whatever) during totality. As a result, I had taken the vast majority of my photos incorrectly. I even completely forgot to use some of my equipment! In other words: I wasn't adequately prepared! For example:
In spite of all this, I did at least get acceptable corona shots with two of my cameras and my wide angle umbra shots came out well; however, I did not LOOK at the eclipse as long as I should have. By contrast, my brother brought only two cameras: One with a normal lens, and one for his 60 mm f/11.6 Jason telescope. His original corona photos were far better than mine! I knew that I would have to do things differently at a future eclipse. For one thing, I determined to practice my eclipse photography procedures to such an extent that I could perform them even if I was only functioning on "autopilot".
When is the Next One?
I knew I wanted to see another eclipse, and I knew I really wanted to see one bad. As soon as totality had ended, my first thought was "when is the next one?!", so I began to research the matter. The next eclipse would occur the next year, and most of the related tours were to India. After more research, I was disappointed to find that most eclipses that would occur during the rest of the century were only observable from distant places. Most total solar eclipses occur in relatively remote parts of the world, so traveling to them can be quite expensive. It is not uncommon for the cost of such an expedition to be in excess of $1,000 per minute of totality. Some eclipse expeditions cost the equivalent of half a year's wages for me at the time. Back then, my job paid little more than minimum wage, so going on any of the next few expeditions was out of the question. The annular eclipse of May 30, 1984 was intriguing because the sun would be more than 99.9 percent covered, but even this was not totality. The July 11, 1991 total solar eclipse in Mexico seemed like the only affordable eclipse left in century. Its long duration also meant that it would also cost fewer bucks per minute of totality, but 1991 was a long way off. I wondered if there may not be an alternative to traveling to see total eclipses.
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I had it bad for eclipses. In fact, I had eclipses on the brain, so I experimented with ways to try and see the solar corona without spending lots of bucks. At the time, I did not know any better, so I tried experimenting with occulting disks behind some of my lenses in order to try and see and photograph the inner corona. Of course, I never saw any trace of either the corona or prominences. I wondered if I could see any of the inner corona if I put an occulting disk in FRONT of the lens, since this would minimize flare. The concept presented problems: an occulting disk or sphere would have to be quite large and relatively distant in order to be in reasonable focus at the same time as the sun and to prevent obscuration of the inner corona.
Creating an "Eclipse" with Airborne and Terrestrial Objects
One evening, I began trying to think of options for occulting objects. An opaque blimp or balloon would be nice, since these could be used when the sun was high, but who has those!
I was still thinking about other possibilities for occulting objects as I was driving to work in Greeley, Colorado the next morning. While driving west on 20th street, I noticed the spherical water tower next my place of employment which was near Ames College and the intersection with 59th avenue. When I was about a mile away from work, I noticed that the water tower looked to be about the same angular diameter as the sun. I thought to myself: "Hmm... This could work!" My present position was almost due east of the water tower, so I looked beside the road to see if there were any suitable sites to watch the sun set behind the tower. I was delighted to discover that there were empty fields on either side of the road! I arrived at work, filled with excitement.
Sunset would be only a few minutes after work, so I went home during lunch to grab my solar filter, camera, telephoto lens, and tripod. I had told a couple of people at work about my plans to chase the shadow of the water tower, and I could tell that they did not see any sanity in it. Most of them did not know why one would want to see the solar corona in the first place, let alone making a deliberate effort to see it. By now, my coworkers were used to my occasional eccentric ideas. Only a year before, I had asked some ladies at work if I could have their empty chrome "Sheer Energy" L'eggs eggs for use in upgrading an axial strut wide angle reflector attachment I had made for my camera. By comparison, chasing the shadow of a water tower must have seemed rather tame!
When I went outside after work, the weather was still clear. The project was a go! I took a mischievous look at the water tower, then got in my car and headed off. About a mile east of the water tower, I found a place to park. It was early March, so the "eclipse" would occur just to the north of the road. From this location, the top of the water tower was at about a 3 degree elevation angle. I moved to a location that would position the water tower toward the lower right of the sun. There were some trees and power lines in the way, but the water tower was still visible through them. As the sun approached the tower, I could tell that I was not quite in the right place for a central "eclipse", so I fine tuned my position.
The "Eclipse" Begins
Finally, the partial "eclipse" began. Only two minutes to go until the sun was totally covered! I looked through my mylar filter as the sun grew to a thin crescent. Finally, the last of the crescent disappeared. Totality! (Well, sort of anyway.)
I removed the mylar filter from my camera lens and took a picture, then I looked up at the silhouetted tower. Unfortunately, there were too many tree branches to allow a good view. What light I could see around the tower appeared to be a uniform orange color. No prominences. No corona. Less than 10 seconds after the sun had disappeared behind the tower, a bright sliver of light appeared next to the lower right edge of the sphere. The "eclipse" was over.
I knew that I had a chance of intercepting the tower's shadow again if I moved farther away from it, but the tree limbs between me and the tower were too thick to make it worthwhile. In addition, the orange sky color meant that the atmospheric conditions surely were not good enough to allow any solar features to be seen. With the sun that low, conditions may never be right anyway, but I decided to try it again under more favorable conditions. After I left the site, I inspected the field on the south side of the road. The view of the water tower was clear from there, but it would be several weeks before the sun would be far enough north to cast the water tower shadow there.
By April, conditions were right for using the field south of the road. After work, I drove out to the field, set up my camera, and waited. There were some clouds over the distant Rocky Mountains, but there was a small gap in them around the top half of the tower sphere. It turned out that a phone pole was in front of the tower when I was at the correct position, but the clouds made for a nice sunset, so I took some pictures anyway. One of them shows the partially "eclipsed" sun right at the top boundary of the clouds.
A few days later, I tried again. This time, the sky was clear and there were no obstructions. I positioned myself in the field and anxiously waited for the "eclipse". Soon, the partial phase began as the sun moved behind the distant water tower. My pulse began to quicken, almost like it had a couple of months before at the real eclipse! The feeling had some similarity to how I'd felt when I had asked a very special gal out on a first date about a year before; reminiscent of even an unrelated feeling I'd had years before when I almost fell over backwards in a rocking chair, but in a good kind of way.
When the sun was almost covered by the tower, I noticed an elongated shadow on the ground well in front of me and to my right. It looked about three meters wide, and its edge was surprisingly well defined. In addition, I could actually see it moving toward me! I stepped over toward the right of my tripod, where the shadow soon reached my feet and began covering me up. I quickly stepped back over to my camera, and the sun disappeared just as I got there. Totality!
The sky around the tower had a slight yellow tint this time, and both sides of the tower sphere seemed to be silhouetted with a razor thin bright line. There was not as much radial brightening in the sky immediately surrounding the tower as I had expected. Neither the corona or prominences were visible, but I was having a blast anyway! In seconds, the sun reappeared, with a slight amount of glare which caused a very muted diamond ring effect. This was great!
Without even giving it a second thought, I grabbed my tripod and ran eastward to catch the shadow again. I could see the shadow retreating away from me and soon knew that getting another picture was hopeless, but I knew I could at least SEE the event again, so I set the tripod down. I continued running until the shadow of my head merged with that of the tower, then I turned around. I saw the "eclipse" again, but a thin crescent of the sun reappeared in only a second or two, so I jogged backwards to position it behind the tower again. As I kept going backwards, I noticed that it was harder and harder to keep myself in the shadow. The shadow was narrowing as my distance from the tower increased. I put my arms out to the side so I could see the shadow on them. This allowed me to position myself without looking at the tower and the unsafe sun. Soon the shadow was only half a meter across, and soon after that, the tower became ablaze with a thin annular sun. That was it for this eclipse, but it had been fabulous!
As soon as I looked away from the tower, I noticed that some curious motorists had stopped in the nearby road. From the way they were looking at me, I had no doubt that I was the center of their attention. One of them just shook his head and drove off. Such is life when one has "eclipses on the brain"! When I got back to my car, the tower's shadow was still clearly visible on the ground several hundred meters away. This was surprising, since only a penumbral shadow remained.
I intercepted the tower's shadow on other days, even taking 8 mm movies on one occasion, but few of these other "towering experiences" were as rewarding as that one evening in April of 1979. That was the day I discovered an umbral shadow which could actually be observed moving along the ground; the time I saw several "eclipses" in a single day!
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The water tower provided its share of sights and memories, but these pale in comparison to a real total solar eclipse. Partial eclipses, even when caused by the moon instead of a water tower, don't even come close. A total solar eclipse, (one caused by the moon), is the ultimate (as far as "safe" occupations go anyway!)
At the 1979 total solar eclipse, I had witnessed the impressive motion of the umbral boundary across the sky. This was the most impressive part of the eclipse for me, for it was all around me. It was much more than a mere sight; it was an experience! For me, it was far more impressive than the corona, though my impression of the corona may have been very different if it had not been behind thin clouds.
At future eclipses, I wanted to be sure and photograph any similar umbra related phenomena. Better yet, I wanted to be able to predict where these phenomena would occur so I could plan to photograph it in advance. The duration of totality is too short to allow a lot of spontaneous camera pointing. I did not have any idea how to predict where and if colorful umbra related phenomena would occur, and I could not find any new material on the subject. Even if I had found more material, I do not know if I would have blindly trusted it. The umbra looked far different than in any description I had read. In addition, my photos had shown that the umbra would have been visible well in advance of the one minute before totality that was mentioned.
It was possible that the umbral effects I observed may have been the exception rather than the rule, but since I saw the phenomena once, similar phenomena were bound to occur at at least some future eclipses, and if the effects were going to happen, I wanted to see them! Observation of umbral effects during totality may have been neglected by most previous eclipse writers due to the obvious appeal of the solar corona. Indeed, it turned out that no one else I talked to at the eclipse site had seen the umbral effects at all; most of them were looking exclusively at the corona! It is likely that I only saw the umbra by accident of the fact that I happened to be walking northeast toward my cameras during the early seconds of totality. I had not PLANNED to look for the umbral boundary during totality, but I was certainly glad I saw it!
I decided to take several 360 degree panoramas at the next eclipse I observed. This would be the best way to be sure that all of the visible phenomena were photographed. In order to select potential eclipses sites with optimum conditions for panoramic umbra photos, I plotted several future eclipse paths from data in Canon of Solar Eclipses.
The Long Dry Spell
A few months after the 1979 eclipse, I lost my job in Greeley, Colorado after becoming ill. This particular bout of a sore throat and fatigue had started with remarkable swiftness while I was working in the poorly ventilated darkroom on a Monday morning. This bout was so bad that I soon had a fever and could hardly function by the next day. Accordingly, I called in sick and stayed home for two or three days in a row. I had never been allowed to stay home from work (even without pay) due to illness before, but I was repeatedly getting sick and figured it would not get better unless I finally got some rest. My second or third day at home, my supervisor repeatedly called me and said that he would fire me if I did not come in the next day. Having a 102 degree fever, I came in to work late the next morning and he let me go anyway, telling me that my performance had slipped. I knew it had not slipped as much as he'd claimed because I was still carrying a greater work load of work than most of my fellow workers, even though I had been sick a lot of the time.
After investigating the matter, I found that I had not actually been let go due to performance. This did not surprise me. My supervisor's superiors (and even one owner of the company) told me that they had to cut back on their work force, and that racial quotas are why I had been cut rather than the lone minority worker in my department. They even invited me to come back if the company started doing better again! Even though I had only worked there a year and a half, I got severance checks for nearly month. These were mostly due to sick pay which I had never been allowed to use!
I suspect that much of my illness had been caused or exacerbated by inhaling chemical fumes in the poorly ventilated darkroom at work, since my throat had hurt almost constantly over the previous year, being so raw at times that I would cough up blood. I did not know about things like Workman's Compensation back then. It certainly would have been applicable to my situation! My doctor at the time had not taken my throat and fatigue problem seriously, which had undoubtedly also contributed to its getting worse.
Fortunately, I was able to switch doctors when I moved away from Greeley and back to my former home town of Estes Park. By this time, I was in very bad shape. In addition to the throat and fever problems, I had contracted Mononucleosis and had an inflamed spleen. Once this was diagnosed, my new doctor confined me to bed for several weeks, so I had to move back in with my folks. I had a slow recovery, so I was not able to work full time for quite a while. This being the case, I obviously could not afford to go on any eclipse expeditions or withstand the physical rigors of such an endeavor. It looked like my next eclipse would be a long way off.
While bedridden, I wanted to go outside and look through my telescope, but my condition would not allow it. I did manage a few peeks and photos through the window with my telescope, eventually utilizing a long box that would fit between the open window and a telescope on or beside my bed. The box and some blankets were required to keep my room from getting cold during the winter. I would have done this more, but even the occasional small hole to the outside I used for the front of my telescope had a somewhat radical effect on the amount of our heating bill! I also spent some time thinking of new gadgets than would make astronomical observation and photography easier, even coming up with some ideas for telescopes having inside eyepieces that were accessible to a person lying in bed! It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and I believe it!
Anticipating the Next Eclipse
Meanwhile, the day of my next eclipse drew closer. On July 11, 1991, there would be a total solar eclipse in neighboring Mexico. The path of totality passed over a few major cities. This could make travel to the eclipse relatively inexpensive. From some locations, this eclipse would offer over six minutes of totality, more than twice as long as the duration totality at the 1979 eclipse! I looked forward to the day of the great eclipse with the anticipation a little kid has before Christmas.
Continued in: Between Eclipses. An Astrophotographer's Journal.
Or jump directly to the next eclipse journal at: Part 2: The Big One: July 11, 1991.
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Steps to a Successful Eclipse Expedition, by Jeffrey R. Charles
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