Total Eclipse of the Sun

Today’s post comes from Riley Lindheimer from the National Archives Public and Media Communications Office. 

On August 21, the continental United States will experience the first total solar eclipse in 38 years, a celestial phenomenon that has inspired awe in viewers around the world for centuries.

Lacreek 1979 timelapse
Time lapsed photographs of the February 26 total solar eclipse from the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge annual report, 1979. (National Archives Identifier: 25496903)

In anticipation of the event, the National Archives is sharing eclipse-related documents and photographs from our holdings on our social media channels. 

Although partial solar eclipses occur more frequently, total solar eclipses require the perfect alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth.

Observers in the “path of totality,” a narrow path of visibility, will experience a period of temporary darkness while the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, blocking the sun and its corona.

The phenomenon takes place over the course of about three hours, with observers in the path only able to view the eclipse for a couple minutes in any given location. This fleeting window adds to the excitement and novelty of the total solar eclipse, so that people will travel miles to be in the path of totality. Eclipse gazers of the past explain how during those few minutes in the moon’s shadow, the sky turns so dark that constellations can be seen and owls hoot.

The last total solar eclipse in the continental United States occurred on February 26, 1979, with the path of totality only falling in the Pacific Northwest region from Oregon, to Washington State, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota.

Des Lacs 1979
Photographs of the February 26 total solar eclipse from the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge annual report, 1979. (National Archives Identifier: 25495579)

Photographers, astronomers, and everyday people wished for unseasonably clear weather so that they could have the opportunity to join the long history of eclipse watchers.

On that day in 1979, National Wildlife Refuge workers in North and South Dakota were able to catch a glimpse of this beautiful natural occurrence.

In their annual reports, workers identified the solar eclipse as an “item of interest,” including pictures of photographers who attempted to document the event , creating time lapses that captured the solar corona.

An entry in the annual report of the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge in Martin, South Dakota, described how the refuge manager was able to safely photograph the eclipse through a welding mask.

With the growing interest of the public, solar eclipses have become huge events for towns within the path of totality. NASA and other organizations have worked to promote safe viewing practices for solar eclipses, which have become increasingly important with the next total solar eclipse quickly approaching.

Ikels from the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine using projection to safely view a solar eclipse in 1984. (National Archives Identifier 6387647)

To safely view this month’s eclipse or any future eclipses, here are some tips from the NASA website:

1: Only look directly at the sun during the short time frame when the sun is completely blocked during the solar eclipse, and only if you are within the path of totality.

2: If you are not within the path of totality but still want to view the sun directly, make sure to use special-purpose solar filters that are made by a limited number of manufacturers

3: To view an eclipse indirectly, you can use the technique called pinhole projection using a device, paper, or even your own fingers!

Photograph of the July 11 solar eclipse from the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge annual report, 1991. (National Archives Identifier: 25627996)

On August 21, experienced astronomers and novice eclipse enthusiasts across the country will be able to witness the historic event.

The National Archives in Washington, DC, although not fully in the path of totality, will be encouraging our visitors to use solar viewers and telescopes borrowed from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to safely view the eclipse from our Constitution Avenue steps.

If you will not be in the DC area but are close to the path of totality throughout the United States, we encourage you to find a local viewing event in your area. You will not want to miss it!

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