Come Monday, people in a big chunk of the country will be staring at the sky. Eclipse mania grips a broad swath of the nation as folks from the Pacific Northwest down to Dixie will see astronomy's most spectacular show of all: a total solar eclipse.
If this sounds like a big deal, it is. The last time a total eclipse went from coast-to-coast was 99 years ago. Scientists took unusual steps then to record exactly how it looked.
A lot was happening in the spring of 1918. The United States was entering its second year of World War I. The hellish Spanish Flu pandemic, the deadliest health crisis in U.S. history, was sweeping through the country. And nature picked that moment for the first major cross-continental eclipse since 1865 (though smaller ones in 1878 and 1900 were less impressive).
It was just as big a deal in 1918 as it is in 2017. Its path was extremely close to that of next week's eclipse. Daytime darkness arrived from the Pacific on Saturday afternoon June 8. It buzzed a tiny corner of Washington State and slid all the way down to Florida.
The scientific community wanted to make the most of the rare phenomenon. Congress shelled out $3,500 (around $55,000 in today's dollars) to fund a U.S. Naval Observatory team to study the eclipse in Baker City, Ore. That location had the best chance for good visibility, plus the sun's angle and duration of darkness were excellent there.
The team not only wanted to record scientific aspects of the event (when it started, how long it lasted, atmospheric conditions during the darkness and so forth), but also to document exactly how the eclipse looked to the naked eye. In short, they wanted to share with the world exactly what they saw.
But how should they do it? Photography had been around for decades by then. But black and white just couldn't capture the breathtaking moment when the sun's corona appeared. Color photography was still largely experimental and grossly expensive too.
So, they invited an artist to memorialize the moment in oil. Seriously. They commissioned a painting! But, how do you capture on canvas something that only lasts about two minutes?
Artist Howard Russell Butler pondered that question all spring. He got an art degree from Princeton, drew technical illustrations in New York (where he hung out with Thomas Edison), then earned a law degree from Columbia. He also founded the American Fine Arts Society, designed a Fifth Avenue mansion, and while painting Andrew Carnegie's portrait persuaded the famous philanthropist to fund the creation of a lake near Princeton's campus.
But he had never tried to document in oils something that lasted less than two minutes. So, Butler revived a skill he'd developed years earlier. During the eclipse's totality, he frantically scribbled notes describing the changing colors in minute detail.
He needed that skill, too, because the weather wasn't on Butler's side. When the big moment arrived, clouds blocked the sun. Though they cleared slightly, a thin layer still covered it the entire time. (Five minutes after totality ended, the sky was completely clear. Go figure.)
Back in his studio, Butler recreated what he'd seen. The finished product is hardly breathtaking. It shows a black orb with six bits of orange peeping out of the edge. Still, this was a step forward. It was now possible for people to see what an eclipse actually looked like in color.
It was a good thing, too, because the 1918 eclipse was a big disappointment. Clouds covered much of its path, and most Americans were denied seeing its splendor.
Here's hoping the weather will be better on Monday. I'll be watching from the little town of Lexington, Mo., craning my neck as I gaze upward (with protective glasses of course), hoping to see what my grandparents missed the last time around.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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