The World Reacts to the Great Solar Eclipse of 1918

The solar eclipse that will occur in a few hours will be seen from the Pacific coast of the United States to the Atlantic. The last time that happened was on June 8, 1918.

On average, the sun was obscured for 2 minutes and 23 seconds, and completely visible again within 5 minutes.

Even then, looking directly at the eclipse was known to damage the eyes, so those who went out to view the phenomenon took smoked glass with them, to watch without damaging their eyesight.

Headline from The Atlanta Constitution

Since ancient times, superstitious people have associated a solar eclipse with violence and bloodshed. The 1918 eclipse occurred near the end of the Great War, and many were watching the Western Front superstitiously. The Detroit Free Press wrote, “In the foreign quarters of the city, women ceased their household work as daylight became obscured, dropped to their knees and prayed.”

The Los Angeles Times marveled at the interest the public showed in the eclipse

The Leavenworth Times reported that a “peculiar yellow tinge” appeared across the landscape when the eclipse started. They advised readers to keep their smoked glass used for eclipse viewing, since they could use it again in 1936.

The Leavenworth paper noted that the chickens in the area refused to roost, whereas the other papers noted that the chickens did roost. Every newspaper I looked at made a point of reporting on how the chickens reacted.

The Tennessean also noted the effects of light and shadow. “The birds sought their nests… and a gloom as deep as the night enveloped the land.” Electric lights were turned on in Nashville, and even the streetcars were burning their headlights.

Solar eclipses had only been studied for about 70 years, one scientist told the Vancouver Daily World. Prior to that, many people regarded them as purely supernatural occurrences.

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette headline

 

It’s amusing to pick up on the faint note of hostility in the way reporters wrote about astronomy predictions. I sympathize with them: too much precision kills the magic!

“Astronomers have figured the thing down to such a fine point that they can predict years beforehand when the next solar eclipse will occur,”  The Leavenworth Times said.

The Vancouver Daily World headline indicates the Canadian reporters were more charitable toward astronomers than their U.S. counterparts

 

The Arizona Daily Star was distinctly smug in an article entitled “SAVANTS FOILED AT DENVER”. Scientists had flocked to Denver, where the sun was to be completely obscured. The Daily Star reported gleefully that due to heavy cloud cover, astronomers “found their elaborate preparations went for naught.”

In another example of this, the Greensboro Daily News of North Carolina reported, “Ultimately twilight, fast followed by a deeper darkness, swept over a strip of the northwest 50 miles wide when the solar eclipse occurred, foretold by men who have reduced the movements of astral bodies down to an exact science.”

The San Francisco Chronicle was the only paper that took photos of excited people watching the eclipse.

Something tells me tomorrow’s papers are going to be more precise and less poetic in their descriptions, and may even omit to report on the behavior of local chickens.

Let’s hope I’ve underestimated them!


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