File this under "it seemed like a good idea at the time." The first transcontinental eclipse in 53 years looked like the ideal opportunity to prove a radical theory from a young theoretical physicist whose revolutionary ideas were turning academia upside down.
But it didn't turn out that way.
American scientists were giddy with excitement in early 1918. The first solar eclipse to cross the United States since 1865 was scheduled to occur on Saturday, June 8, and they wanted to make the most of it.
Just a few years earlier in 1915, Albert Einstein had unveiled his general theory of relativity. It had the potential to replace Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation, the unchallenged big dog in the science world for 228 years. But Einstein's brilliant idea had to be proven accurate first.
I'll keep this simple (because my lousy science grades in high school prohibit me from plunging in too deep). In layman's terms, Einstein predicted starlight would make the teeniest, tiniest bend in the vicinity of large mass. Yet that theory posed a serious challenge: how could it be verified?
Then somebody looked at the calendar, saw the solar eclipse of 1918 coming and said, "Eureka!" It looked like problem solved. If starlight was bent by the sun during the eclipse, that would mean Einstein was right.
With most of Europe embroiled in a messy world war raging on its continent, American scientists pounced on the chance to be the first to confirm Einstein's theory.
They persuaded Congress to open Uncle Sam's purse strings and part with $3,500 (about $55,000 in today's dollars) to fund a Naval Observatory team to study the eclipse in Baker City, Ore. That location provided the best chance for good visibility, plus the sun's angle and duration of darkness were excellent there.
A Canadian-born astronomer named Samuel Alfred Mitchell was a key member of the group. He was Mr. Eclipse in the U.S. Starting in 1900, he witnessed the first of ten solar eclipses and was a leading authority on the phenomenon. The team wanted to gather valuable scientific information, such as how much the temperature dropped during totality, how an eclipse impacted the atmosphere and other things.
Proving Einstein's theory would be icing on the cake.
The first members arrived in Baker City in April. Six weeks seems like a lot of advance preparation, but when you remember totality only lasted about two minutes there, they had to get everything right. There would be no second chance.
The team was ready when Saturday, June 8 arrived. There was just one problem, and it was a big one: The one thing they couldn't control turned against them.
As the eclipse neared totality, clouds came and blocked the sun.
Although they cleared slightly, a thin layer still covered the sun the entire time. (Five minutes after totality ended, the sky was completely blue.) The view of the eclipse was obscured just enough to make the experiment impossible. The American team had lost its chance!
Instead, confirmation came the next year from a team led by British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. It verified the theory from a remote island off the coast of west Africa during the May 29, 1919 eclipse. (To be doubly safe, Eddington dispatched a second team to Sobral, Brazil. He wasn't going to let clouds block out his claim to fame.)
The data he collected settled it: Einstein was right.
And the rest, as they say, was history.
Here's wishing sunny skies for your eclipse viewing plans next week.
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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