When the world stopped: capturing the 1925 solar eclipse

Hartford Courant eclipse article

Headlines and artist’s image from Hartford Courant article, January 23, 1925.

The year 1925 started out with a bang for residents of the Nutmeg State: on the morning of January 24 a total solar eclipse would pass directly over Connecticut. Observatory directors across the country made plans well in advance to send parties of astronomers to observing locations with the most promising views. Area newspapers like the Hartford Courant, the Middletown Press, and even the New York Times hooked into the waxing excitement and perhaps contributed to the hullabaloo, too.

Solar eclipse plates. Courtesy of Van Vleck Observatory

Solar eclipse plates produced at Van Vleck Observatory (January 24, 1925). On display in the Van Vleck Observatory Library. Photo by the author.

On January 23, the day before the eclipse, the Courant released an article explaining the preparations in order. Hundreds of students and professors from Massachusetts universities were rolling into Connecticut by charter train. Public transportation in state, however, would cease. Trolleys would not be running. All businesses and commercial life was at a halt. The New York Stock Exchange even delayed opening until 10:15am—well after the scheduled ending of the eclipse. Crowds flocked to New Haven and Middletown, where the Yale Student Observatory and Van Vleck Observatory telescopes were in position to capture the event on film—and glass plates, naturally. Yale and Wesleyan’s observatories were two of just a handful of professional observatories in the northeast in the 1920s, so they eagerly played host to “eclipse parties” open to onlookers and “up-lookers” from around New England.

Solar eclipse plate. Courtesy of Van Vleck Observatory.

Photograph of 1925 solar eclipse from Van Vleck Observatory (January 24, 1925). On display in the Van Vleck Observatory Library. Photo by the author.

The total eclipse of the sun lasted about two minutes. Life resumed and the world moved on—literally and figuratively. The astronomers at Van Vleck had some great photos and some great data, too. Newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Popular Astronomy published images of the eclipse made with the Van Vleck telescope. The observatory’s director, Frederick Slocum, even wrote up a report for Popular Astronomy on the eclipse and so the “Greatest Show on Earth,” as the Courant called it, became accessible to readers across the country.

As for the lunar eclipse two weeks later? Well no one really made much fuss about that. The Stock Exchange opened at its regularly scheduled time, and the folks at Van Vleck seem to have returned to their workaday routines.