Solar Eclipse in 1880

Originally published at: Solar Eclipse in 1880 | Boing Boing


I see a total eclipse every night, when the Earth blocks out the Sun.


This text bugged me:

Although attributed by @GettyMuseum to Carleton Watkins, some scholars doubt this to be the case.

I don’t know where the objection comes from. The photographer was accompanied by professors from the University of California. He also took other pictures that day from the same location.

The confusion may be whether this was the 11 Jan 1880 eclipse, or the 01 Jan 1889 eclipse because of a pencil annotation on the photo plate. The path of totality of the 1889 eclipse went much farther north. The 1880 eclipse went right over the Lucia mountain range.


In 1880 Lick Observatory was under construction by the Lick Trust and was not turned over to the University of California until its completion. Solar observations on Mt. Hamilton began before then and continued for decades as the Lick astronomers mounted expeditions to eclipses. This print could be from a plate in the vaults there, for other Carleton images are from plates at Lick. A similarly confusing solar eclipse image is found among Ansel Adams prints with pencil giving a date when no eclipse happened and a place that does not exist. The Adams print exists because he was with the 1930 Lick expedition as part of his decades long relationship with the Lick astronomers. Adams took that image himself, but he could use the Lick darkrooms when he was visiting Lick astronomers for parties and other occasions. The observatory assigned a staff member to accompany him to ensure Adams had the supplies he needed.


… I’m not sure that photograph is real

I don’t see how the moon could be darker than the rest of the sky — Earth’s atmosphere, after all, is closer to the camera than the moon is

The moon is behind “the sky,” so it should at minimum be the same color and brightness :confused:

This picture is taken on a silver plate. A long-ish exposure is needed. There is plenty of light bleeding in from the penumbral region to illluminate the surroundings and expose the image. The moon in the umbral region has no light.

The picture is taken from a mountaintop with the sun low in the sky but above the maritime clouds. The clouds are very effective at reflecting or scattering any incident light. Overall the image is overexposed but the photographer literally only had one shot because of the time it would take to change plates.

The plate is in the Getty museum collection with hand-written pencil annotations.


… I’m talking about the light above the horizon

The moon’s dark side is behind the atmosphere, so it should be the same color as the rest of the sky

Here’s a picture from the 2017 eclipse.

The umbral region is much darker than the sky.

You can see a bit of earthshine on the moon’s face.



I’m intrigued by the small white line running diagonally across the bottom. The other scratchy blemishes are not so perfectly straight, and there wouldn’t have been airplanes ruining long exposures back then. I would imagine a bird wouldn’t have been so perfectly straight either. Trivial thought though compared to the majesty of the photo.

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… I guess what I’d expect would be more like this

The moon looks dark, but it’s an optical illusion

We can use a paint program to verify there are other bits of the sky that are darker :thinking:

The areas of the atmosphere outside of the disc of the sun/moon are in the penumbral region and are getting some amount of direct illumination from the sun and they scatter it somewhat. The area within the eclipse is purely the umbral region and is receiving no direct illimination from the sun, just whatever scatters from from the penumbral regions and earthshine.

In the black and white picture, a long-ish exposure, that penumbral light is enough to overexpose the plate.

Many eclipse pictures are post-processed to hell and are made up of stacks of perhaps dozens of pictures. Even the example I grabbbed earlier was post-processed. Digital cameras can also tweak the picture. Its hard to tell whats going on just from a single picture


… the umbra is typically like 100 miles across

I dunno about this theory of a “tube of dark air” between the moon and my eyeball :telescope:

they look like they go over top of the tree. i know nothing about photography. to me it looks like maybe the photograph itself got creased

eta: they also occur in the photograph from earlier the same day


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not only that, but silverplates are very sensitive to blue wavelenghts, and as shadows scatter into red (and the moons actual color is a light greyish brown with some orange), it seems kinda obvious to me why the sky is not as dark as the disk.

its just a scratch or folding mark (guess its a print); goes straight over the trees (click for full resolution):

no, it doesnt; its even today with the gear at hand not trivial at all to get good shots of a total solar eclipse. its actually quite the achievement to get such a good shot at the time with extremly bulky cameras, somewhat not that perfect lenses and glassplates as your “film”. its not “poor” quality at all.

look again;



its entirely possible that this is a pushed “short” exposure (and a big lens, fully open aperture, ectera);


Life can be stranger than fiction, but reality is utterly mundane.

Exactly! 1880 was quite a while before panchromatic emulsions were available.

To those not familiar with this, the long and the short of it is that some colours come out as false dark gray colours when non-panchromatic emulsions are used.

In the b/w photograph, the orange circle looks a lot darker than it actually is, and the blue circle looks a lot lighter.

(This is why that old photograph of your great-grandfather looks like he just came back from a competitive tanning event.)


and the sky is basically white; great example.

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And why blue-eyed people look like they have zombie eyes in those old pictures.



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