Skip to main content

Looking back at looking up: solar eclipses and Northwestern history

Written by guest contributor and journalism major, Madeline Fox, Class of 2017

Dearborn Observatory in the 1920s.

In just a few days, people all over the United States will see the sun go dark as the “Great American Eclipse” cuts a path from the West Coast to the East. The local and national news is full of articles on everything from where to see the eclipse, what scientists will be testing during the minutes the sky goes dark, how teachers in the path of totality are incorporating the eclipse into their curricula and, of course, what will happen when thousands of people descend upon cities and towns along the path of totality.

But here at Northwestern Archives, as is our wont, we’re looking at the future by digging into the past. The last total eclipse we could see from the continental U.S. was in 1979, and the last total eclipse to span, like this coming one, the continental U.S. and no other nation, was just shy of 100 years ago.

Even outside those notable American eclipses, though, Northwestern and its faculty have been fascinated with the few minutes of darkness produced when the moon passes between the sun and the giant space rock we call home.

Prof. Phillip Fox was the director of Northwestern’s Dearborn Observatory from 1909-1929.

1923: Northwestern Professors Oliver J. Lee and Phillip Fox joined an expedition organized by the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory to watch the Sept. 10, 1923 total eclipse as it was visible from Santa Catalina Island, California. The following year, a film of their expedition was shown to an astronomy class on NU’s campus. An article in the Daily Northwestern raved about how the “movie stars” Fox and Oliver “smiled and spoke and proved themselves to be regular fellows” – this wasn’t something NU students were always able to see from their movie stars in the era before “talkies.”

1925: Two years after the Catalina expedition, Fox again threw himself into preparations for a solar eclipse, but this one kept him a bit closer to home. Though the June 24, 1925 solar eclipse wasn’t total over the Chicago area, Northwestern’s 42 general astronomy students prepared to view the eclipse anyway, setting up a main

The Daily Northwestern, January 9, 1925

The Daily Northwestern, January 21, 1925

observation point on the lakefront and fitting Dearborn Observatory’s telescope with a prism and spectroscope that would allow the budding astronomers to view the solar atmosphere during the eclipse.

1932: Prof. Oliver J. Lee, then director of the Dearborn Observatory, set up a station in Fryeburg, Maine to conduct an experiment about relativity during the August 31, 1932 eclipse. As the leader of a Northwestern exhibition in the path of totality, he sent up four balloons and three airplanes to ascertain the effect of the ecliptic darkness on the

Prof. Oliver Lee was the director of Northwestern’s Dearborn Observatory from 1931 until his retirement in 1947.

temperature and atmospheric pressure at specific altitudes, according to the Chicago Tribune. He lectured about their experiment at NU the following November.

1994: Professors organizing a viewing of the May 10, 1994 annular solar eclipse ran into a problem we’re already seeing again in the run-up to Monday’s eclipse – more demand for the glasses needed to safely see the eclipse than they had supply. An article in the next day’s Daily noted that the supply of eclipse glasses at the viewing in front of NU’s Technological Institute ran out within 20 minutes. The remainder of the roughly 150 people who attended were able to see the eclipse by using mylar film, the main component of the eclipse glasses, that was being distributed by graduate students, or by looking at a nearby wall, where organizers had projected the eclipse using a reflector telescope. Those not at the Tech viewing party got creative in order to see it without damaging their eyes – according to the Daily, freshman Maiysha Branch used a CD, covering the hole in the middle.

An article in The Daily Northwestern from May 11, 1994 describes how Northwestern students and faculty watched that year’s solar eclipse

2017: CIERA, Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, isn’t holding any on-campus events for the August 21 eclipse, as its astronomers are mostly traveling to the path of totality. However, they offer a field guide for viewing the eclipse. People who are staying close to campus can attend watch parties at the Evanston Public Library main branch or a little further south at Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Make sure you’re coming prepared with eclipse glasses or with one of these viewers you can make at home!

To look back – at this or any other aspect of Northwestern University’s history – look to the Northwestern University Archives.