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Journey to the eclipse

125 years ago, MIT Technology Review documented a total solar eclipse; it’s happening again in 2024.

February 28, 2024
Photograph of corona by Harrison W. Smith at 10 seconds’ exposure from The Technology Review, July 1900.

In 1900, the recently completed Hotel Fitzpatrick in Washington, Georgia, stood out for its grand Queen Anne architecture, but even more for its technology—it offered electricity, an elevator, and a telephone. When Alfred E. Burton, MIT’s first dean (1902–1921), chronicled his expedition to Washington to record a total solar eclipse for Technology Review, he noted the modern amenities and warm Southern welcome the hotel provided. It was a town, he wrote, characterized by “great magnolia-trees in full bloom, gardens running over with rose-bushes, shaded walks and drives leading to stately old mansions surrounded by colonnades reaching to the eaves.” 

Much has changed in science and society since 1900, but the thrill of a total solar eclipse has not.

“It’s a full-body experience,” says Kelly Korreck, NASA’s program manager for the 2024 solar eclipse, which will sweep through the US on April 8. “The light gets weird, the wind starts to pick up, and the temperature starts to drop. Having spent so much of my life imaging the sun with coronagraphs—trying to do what the moon does naturally—it is breathtaking.”

To document 1900’s breathtaking experience, Burton’s team traveled from Boston by steamship and train with a science fair’s worth of instruments. They worried that “smashers” hired by feuding Gilded Age tycoons to sabotage competing rail lines would damage their cargo. It was a time of rugged scientific exploration, when the planet was not yet draped in grids, webbed by satellites, or supercharged by a virtual world. Monitoring an eclipse typically meant camping in the wilderness for weeks, toting tons of equipment on the backs of animals. Burton’s own expedition was more civilized. Besides the modern accommodations, his team set up in a nearby cotton field. 

Today, NASA operates a fleet of 27 spacecraft to study the sun. NASA even sent a probe to scoop up plasma and touch the sun’s surface, where the temperature registers 10,300 °F. With all that technology, however, total solar eclipses still offer rare insight. Uniquely in our solar system, Earth’s moon is just the right size and distance from the planet to fully cover the sun’s face and only its face, briefly exposing the roots of coronal discharges and solar winds for observation and measurement. “Even our best instruments have a hard time getting down to the connection at the surface,” says Korreck.

Back on May 28, 1900, after weeks of preparation, Burton was enthralled by the eclipse, which lasted 85 seconds. Everyone set down their smoked-glass viewers to look directly at the extinguished sun. “At first there seemed to be but two broad streams of light,” he wrote, “extending from a jet black disk, all against a background of dark blue sky.” 

Nearly 125 years later, the Fitzpatrick still welcomes visitors to Washington. Drop into town on April 8, 2024, with a pair of eclipse glasses and you might witness a partial eclipse. It may not have the chilling, mystical effect that comes with the sun going totally dark (for that you would have to be somewhere between Dallas and Cleveland), but it is still a spectacular reminder of the cosmological phenomena that govern everything. 

Bill Gourgey is a science writer based in Washington, DC. He also writes fiction and teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins.

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