100 Years of Eclipse-Chasing Revealed in Quirky Pictures

Take a peek at these vintage images of eclipse viewing from around the world (including the event that made Einstein famous).

Darkness swallows daylight, a sudden chill seizes the air, the sun disappears from the sky—it’s no wonder our ancestors got pretty freaked out by solar eclipses.

Many cultures thought solar and lunar eclipses occurred when the celestial bodies were consumed by supernatural forces, like the fire dogs of Korea, the sky-wolves of the Vikings, or the disembodied head of a Hindu demon.

While the heliocentric model of the universe tied things up a bit, astronomers eventually figured out that solar eclipses are caused by the moon passing between the sun and Earth, and lunar eclipses are caused by Earth passing between the sun and the moon.

Through careful observation, early astronomers learned to predict when eclipses would occur. The Chaldeans of Babylon first recorded the Saros cycle—a period of 18 years and 11.3 days between recurring eclipses—in the seventh century B.C.

However, it’s taken us a very long time to figure out how to truly protect our eyeballs when viewing an eclipse. (Plan ahead for the top seven must-see sky events for 2017.)

This year, sky-watchers are gearing up for the first total solar eclipse visible from the continental U.S. since 1979. Take a look through these photos of historic eclipses from around the world (including the one that made Albert Einstein famous). Then grab some popcorn and a pair of eclipse glasses, sit back, and get ready to watch the "great American eclipse," coming to a sky near you this August.

Members of the British Astronomical Association arrived at Vadsø, Norway, a week in advance of the 1896 eclipse to have enough time to set up their instruments, including this large telescope. Although the mission was a failure—dense cloud cover obscured all 106 seconds of totality, preventing meaningful observation—it provided valuable experience for later expeditions.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALINARI, GETTY IMAGES

A man installs a coelostat near a photographic array in Wadesboro, North Carolina, in preparation for a Smithsonian expedition to observe the May 28, 1900, solar eclipse. By slowly rotating a flat mirror, a coelostat continuously reflects light from a moving eclipse into a telescope to create a stationary image.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BOYER, ROGER VIOLLET, GETTY IMAGES

A group of Russian astronomers prepares to observe the total solar eclipse of January 14, 1907. The site, high in the Tian-Shan mountains of Central Asia, was ideal for observation.
PHOTOGRAPH BY UIG, GETTY IMAGES

This total solar eclipse, visible in the Southern Hemisphere on May 29, 1919, had an outsize contribution to modern physics: In the first experimental test of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington measured the positions of certain stars before and during the eclipse. He found that the positions differed in a way only explained by the sun’s gravity bending the stars’ light like a lens. With this result, Eddington helped paved the way for widespread acceptance of relativity.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SSPL, GETTY IMAGES

Sir Arthur Eddington tested Einstein’s general theory of relativity from Príncipe, an island off Africa’s west coast, during the 1919 eclipse. In case cloud cover ruined the experiment, Eddington also arranged for astronomers to conduct the same observations from Sobral, Brazil, where this telescope was installed. The success of both observations launched Einstein’s theory into the limelight.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SSPL, GETTY IMAGES

On September 10, 1923, a solar eclipse lasting three hours obscured 90 percent of the sunlight over Los Angeles. The watching crowd wore protective glasses but still risked their eyesight: Colour or x-ray film filters visible light but offers no protection against the infrared and ultraviolet radiation that can irreversibly burn retinal nerves.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORBIS, GETTY IMAGES

Children view a 1923 solar eclipse through film protectors in Los Angeles, California. It’s safe to look with your naked eye during totality when the sun is completely covered by the moon. However, arc welder’s glass or special Mylar filters are the only safe ways to gaze at the sun during any other stage of an eclipse.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORBIS, GETTY IMAGES

A multiple-exposure image captures a total solar eclipse on January 24, 1925. Millions of New Yorkers were able to see the total eclipse—if they were above 96th Street. Upper Manhattan, parts of Queens, and the Bronx fell under the moon’s umbra, or deepest shadow, while the rest of the city could only observe a partial eclipse from the penumbra or outer shadow cone. The widely publicised eclipse lasted two and a half hours.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORBIS, GETTY IMAGES

An estimated ten thousand people gathered in zero-degree weather in Westerly, Rhode Island, to view the total solar eclipse of 1925. During an eclipse, the sun’s faint upper atmosphere, or corona, is also visible as a ring of light around the darkened orb.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES L. CALLAHAN, THE BOSTON GLOBE, GETTY IMAGES

Six international groups of scientists travelled to Bencoolen in Sumatra to observe the solar eclipse of January 14, 1926, and to further test general relativity. Here, a German camp prepares an astrograph—a telescope specially designed for astrophotography—to record the eclipse, which occurred during a reported “three minutes and twenty seconds of clear weather.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTMAN ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES

Wearing protective dark glasses, a group of nurses observes the solar eclipse of June 29, 1927, in Lancashire, England, only a few miles from the path of totality.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FOX PHOTOS, GETTY IMAGES

A man uses a small telescope to observe the 1927 solar eclipse from Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FOX PHOTOS, GETTY IMAGES

A crowd of people waving film eye protectors views the 1927 solar eclipse from the grounds of Stonyhurst College in England.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FOX PHOTOS, GETTY IMAGES

From London’s perspective, the 1927 total solar eclipse was only partially visible. Here, a schoolteacher instructs his students to view the sun through a sandwich of two dense photographic negatives, a method that unfortunately offers less protection than needed.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRBY, TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY, GETTY IMAGES

Berliners view a partial solar eclipse in the Treptow Great Telescope on June 19, 1936, just over a month before the city's historic Summer Olympics would take place on the other side of town.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGNO, GETTY IMAGES

A partial solar eclipse is visible beyond the spires of Saint Margaret's Church in Eastcheap, London, in 1936.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HARRY TODD, FOX PHOTOS, GETTY IMAGES

The solar eclipse of July 9, 1945, was only partially visible from London, where this picture was taken. Though the moon’s penumbra stretched across the Northern Hemisphere from Spain to eastern Russia, the path of totality remained mostly in the Arctic Circle.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SSPL, GETTY IMAGES

A group of women observes the February 25, 1961, solar eclipse through smoked glasses from the steps of Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris, France. As one of the highest points in the city, the basilica was a popular eclipse-viewing spot.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT DELVAC, UPI, GETTY IMAGES

A group of fifth-grade students in Maywood, Illinois, view the July 20, 1963, eclipse with “sun scopes.” By piercing a three-millimeter hole in cardboard boxes to create crude pinhole cameras, the students could watch an inverted image of the eclipse cross the inside of the box without harming their eyes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANCIS MILLER, THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION, GETTY IMAGES

A multiple-exposure shot shows the full moon being obscured by Earth's shadow as it rises above the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 1968.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES

The solar eclipse of March 7, 1970, was visible across North and Central America. This multiple-exposure image from Wallops Island, Virgina, shows the sun disappearing during the brief moments of totality.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEYSTONE-FRANCE, GAMMA-KEYSTONE, GETTY IMAGES

A mother and daughter watch an image of a partial solar eclipse via a public telescope provided by the Gates Planetarium in Denver, Colorado, on October 13, 1977.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DUANE HOWELL, THE DENVER POST, GETTY IMAGES

Header Image: In 1896, 165 amateur and professional astronomers from around the world embarked on a month-long expedition to Vadsø, Norway, to observe a total solar eclipse that would take place on August 9. Here, Joseph Lunt (far right) of the British Astronomical Association adjusts a specially designed camera that took four people to operate. PHOTOGRAPH BY ALINARI, GETTY IMAGES

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit