Have no fear that the half-century old headline on this Life magazine will tempt me down the wrong editorial path. I shall rise above this – way above it – in tribute to this week’s total solar eclipse. I once owned this 20 July 1963 issue of Life, for it depicted students in Maywood, Illinois safely looking at the sun through their homemade cameras obscura. Thirty miles away in Elgin, I was doing exactly the same thing (admittedly at a slightly more mature age), with my head stuck in a toilet roll box.
The magic of the Earth suddenly darkening and quieting down has stayed with me to this day.
So last weekend Elizabeth and I flew to St Louis and very early Monday morning set out for the historic town of Saint Genevieve, Missouri (we were originally going to go to Festus until a geologist friend warned us about the abandoned uranium dump there – Herculaneum was also in the path of totality and whilst not buried in ash like its namesake it did not appeal.) We lucked into the right choice, for the Saint Genevieve townsfolk were charmingly excited by all the attention and were absolutely marvelous in their organisation and hospitality. Sara had selflessly closed her ice cream shop to volunteer at the parking lot for the shuttle bus that took us to their Community Center, high above the town. Carefully delineated by lime in the grass, all 4000 spaces in this park had been sold out long ago. But the organisers very graciously accommodated us anyway. Scattered and growing clouds provided a frisson of excitement and fear, but as the critical time approached the gods relented and cleared the skies. Suddenly there was a wave of unfamiliar sights and feelings, all against the backdrop of a 360 degree sunset. It went beyond imagination.
And I may have become a late-life Umbraphile.
Not surprisingly, the precocious Henry Talbot had been intrigued by eclipses from a very young age. In this 8 December 1816 letter, Henry wrote to his lifelong friend, Walter (later Sir Walter) Calverley Trevelyan, describing and illustrating the “Appearance of the Solar Eclipse on Tuesday November 19th 1816 – at the time of the greatest obscuration, about 20 min. after Nine in the Morning – Seen at Castleford N. Lat.”
Talbot’s Correspondence is filled with references to both solar and lunar eclipses. Indeed, more than a hundred letters contain such observations and I have tried to be judicious in what I hope is not too lengthy a selection from these below. When 1839 came around, Talbot’s favourite uncle, William Thomas Horner Fox Strangways immediately began brainstorming about applications for the new art and suggested that Henry “might make a Solar eclipse draw itself at different stages of occultation.”
Photographing the eclipse with photogenic drawing or even the calotype would have been a challenge, but there was a very clear opportunity for Talbot to photograph a solar eclipse on 28 July 1851. He had just invented a high speed negative process that he wanted to call the Amphitype, remembered today as the basis of his famous flash photograph of a printed paper on a rapidly spinning disk. Sir John Herschel had previously employed this term for a failed process and generously encouraged his friend to “use the name of Amphitype by all means for your beautiful invention … for the Solar Eclipse such a process will be invaluable.”
I was surprised in Saint Genevieve as totality set in when dozens if not hundreds of people started taking flash pictures of the veiled sun (perhaps in vain hopes of discovering what is really on the dark side of the moon?). The best advice was to not waste time on a worthless selfie but rather to immerse oneself in the experience – several people around me sadly stared into their mobile phone screens during totality.
Even in 1851, Talbot had stressed the value of ‘being in the moment’ and not being distracted by photography. Responding to suggestions from the Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy, “The idea of making a photogenic representation of the next total eclipse had occurred to me, not without some misgivings as to its practicability – The image would be obtained I think in a few seconds, but the excitement of the observer as the critical moment approached would be such that I think if he attempted to make many observations of different kinds he would probably fail in all of them. To succeed he must devote his attention to this point alone, thereby losing the rare opportunity of studying the rose coloured eminences with all his attention during the brief period of their visibility. I am in doubt whether one large camera should be employed or a row of small ones fixed on one frame and all opened & shut simultaneously by a single mechanism The turning of a single handle for instance. A single large picture would be more valuable; on the other hand it might fail, whereas out of a series of small pictures surely some one or other would be successful.”
Airy persisted, and the next day wrote back that “it is totally impossible for one person to make true systematic sets of observations: although he may make one set tolerably systematic, and may indulge in hasty looks at others. Could you not contemplate this course for yourself? Organize a brigade of Talbotypists or Daguerréotypistes, and distribute to Christiania (North), Gottenborg (Central), Grimstadt, Cirnbrishamn, or Helsingborg, (South) … as to the course to be pursued with a number of cameras, I should be disposed rather to open them in succession than at once. But so many practical considerations must enter into this determination that I entirely submit it to you.” It is difficult for me to imagine Talbot organising a brigade of photographers.
Talbot went to the Continent to view this eclipse and immediately afterwards wrote to Jean-Baptiste Biot describing the experience. Translated from the French, he said that “the future of science led me to undertake a journey to Germany in order to observe there the total eclipse of the sun of July 28th … Upon my arrival in Berlin, I learned that excellent observers had already made their way to Danzig, to Frauenburg and to Königsberg. In order to be of some use, it was therefore necessary to choose another location … The small town of Marienburg seemed to me to be very well situated for the observations … I was armed with a good achromatic telescope of 3 feet … Before the eclipse I examined the spots of the sun … I observed the commencement of the eclipse in a perfectly pure sky.” Just as totality was being achieved, “a large cloud concealed it from my view. I was in despair over this setback, and believing that there was nothing more to see, I left my telescope to contemplate the obscurity which surrounded all objects – I immediately saw that the very pure sky over by the South East, which had earlier been of the finest blue, had changed to an orangey yellow, such as one can often see ½ an hour after sunset – but never during the day – The darkness which covered everything, and which was further increased by the clouds, was not that of the night, nor that of the crepuscule – but rather that of the most stormy weather at sun set – a livid shade spread everywhere. I had been watching this spectacle for perhaps a minute when a brilliant white light burst through the clouds. I initially thought that it was the sun returning before the calculated time – I did not waste a single second before looking through the telescope – It was the luminous corona – The cloud had passed – It was quite a thing to see.”
Later in 1851, in publishing his rotating disk experiment in The Athenaeum, Talbot touched on his experience with the eclipse, explaining that shortly after the demonstration “I went on the Continent in order to observe the total solar eclipse of the 28th of July. This most interesting phenomenon I had the pleasure of witnessing at the little town of Marienburg, in the northeastern corner of Prussia … Among other things, I was enabled to make a satisfactory estimate of the degree of darkness during the total obscuration; which proved to be equal to that which existed one hour after sunset the same evening, the weather being during that evening peculiarly serene, so as to allow of a just comparison.This Continental journey having effectually interrupted my photographic labours.”
Henry Talbot had given up photographing by the end of the 1840s, instead concentrating on his experiments in photogravure and his his Cuneiform and other historical studies. In 1871, Charles Piazzi Smyth marveled that “when I saw recently & almost simultaneously of a paper on spectrum analysis by you before the R. Soc. Edin., & also a paper on an Assyrian eclipse before the Society of Biblical Archæology in London,–I was lost in wonder.” The following year, Talbot renewed his correspondence with Airy, thanking him “for your letter concerning the eclipse …some time ago I found on the Assyrian tablets in the British Museum mention of two solar eclipses – As I noticed that they were both in the midsummer month and in the same king’s reign, I conjectured that they might be two accounts of the same eclipse, and I therefore called the attention of the Biblico-Archæological Society to the importance of establishing if possible the date of the event.”
On 25 August 1877, Talbot’s half-sister Caroline wrote about a lunar eclipse, “It was very amiable of you to give me due notice of the Eclipse … we all saw it to perfection … we watched the shadow coming over the moon from the very beginning. What a very curious colour the moon becomes! No wonder the ancients fancied such a phenomenon portended disasters & bloodshed.” Perhaps they were right, for three weeks later on 17 September, Henry passed away.
Last week I made an appeal to both the Calotype Society and the Daguerreotype Society for images of the eclipse to include in this blog. None have come forward except for the redoubtable Jerry Spagnoli. In our conversation, he confessed that in advance he had been “prepared to say this was the most daguerreotyped eclipse ever given the number of people in the path that can make a dag.” So I think that it is fitting to end this ramble with his unusual result.
As Jerry publicly explained, “I went down to South Carolina to see the eclipse. When I was planning the trip I considered photographing it or daguerreotyping it in a serious way but I decided I would just go and enjoy it, but then I started to feel guilty. So I decided to not make a big deal about it, but I needed to produce a daguerreotype. I prepared some Becquerel plates for a Kodak 3A that I have. It shoots 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 format and is very compact. This is one of the plates. I prepared the plates in NY, shot 30 hours later and developed 2 hours after exposure (For any daguerreotypists out there who are curious).
It was a great event. They should do it more often!”
Visual self-portraits by Talbot are extremely rare, but you may have noticed in the above letter (tucked in on the right below his description of the eclipse) Henry has depicted how he looked whilst drawing the image of the sun. It appears that he is sitting at a desk, pens in hand, tracing an impressively-sized projection of the solar phenomena. Pinhole in the roof? Or is that 45 degree mirror below in a camera obscura? It seems likely that he would have depicted the lens if that was the case. Thoughts?
The next total solar eclipse will be visible in South America and the Pacific on 2 July 2019. If you are unable to travel there, the 8 April 2024 one will cross the US, ranging from San Antonio, Texas, to Caribou, Maine, providing nearly 4 1/2 minutes of totality. Hopefully I’ll see you there!
Larry J Schaaf
• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at firstname.lastname@example.org • WHFT’s 8 December 1816 to Trevelyan is part of the Robinson Library Trevelyan Family Papers in the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne Robinson Library, WCT 237. Talbot’s rare drawing (one of his finest) was damaged when Trevelyan opened the wax seal. • WHFT published his experience in ‘Observations on the Total Eclipse of the Sun on July 28, 1851. Marienburg, Prussia’, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, v. 21 part 1, 1851–1852, pp. 107–113. • WHFT, ‘On an Ancient Eclipse’, Transactions of the Society for Biblical Archaeology, v. 1 part 1, January 1872, pp. 13–19. • Alan Johanson & Desiree McGowan identify the 1869 eclipse as special because of the availability of letterpress printing and the evolution of photography – you can read their summary here.