Museum Blog

The Great American Eclipse of 1918

On August 21, 2017, millions of Americans will view the total solar eclipse as its shadow sweeps across the country at midday.  It is predicted that as many as 100-million people will view the 2017 eclipse, setting an all-time record. Twelve million Americans live within the swath of “totality” which stretches in an arc across the nation from South Carolina to Oregon.  It is not the first time in recorded history that Kansans prepared to view this solar phenomenon.

The summer of 1918 found America embroiled in the First World War in Europe, and the war had touched every family in America.  Making matters worse, an influenza pandemic began brewing in America and quickly spread worldwide.  Within months, millions of Americans were infected with the flu, and an estimated 675,000 died from the respiratory disease. It was a grim time in American history.

The_Topeka_Daily_Capital_Sun__Jun_2__1918_illus

The Topeka Daily Capital newspaper of June 2, 1918 reported on the upcoming June 8, 1918 total eclipse of the sun.

However, in the summer of 1918 a total solar eclipse was scheduled to sweep across the United States, diverting the headlines of newspapers from stories of the war and the flu epidemic.  A total solar eclipse was scheduled to occur on June 8, 1918. Solar eclipses are not a rare event; at least one occurs somewhere on earth every year. However, it is very rare when one is visible over North America. In fact, it is an event that is witnessed in Kansas about once every century. Kansas residents were generally excited with the prospect of seeing the eclipse, and newspaper articles warned readers that there would not be another opportunity to view a total eclipse in the state until 2017.

In 1918, Americans who resided within the 50-mile swath of the eclipse’s shadow were excited at the prospect of seeing the sun obscured by the moon; but even in areas where the eclipse was only partial, there was considerable anticipation of the event. Newspapers across the country published maps showing the path of the eclipse’s shadow along with a timetable of the event as it spread across the continent from west to east. The 1918 eclipse’s band of totality spanned the country with land sightings beginning near Seattle Washington and spreading across the continent to Orlando, Florida before passing into the Atlantic Ocean; however, the eclipse’s shadow only crossed Kansas in the southwest corner of the state.

The_Walnut_Valley_Times_Sat__Jun_8__1918_illust

The Walnut Valley Times of Eldorado, Kansas used an illustration to explain the solar eclipse to its readers in the June 8, 1918 edition.

The Smithsonian Institute established a research observatory at Lakin, Kansas, centered in the band of totality of the eclipse, while many other universities and research scientists established viewing sites along the path of darkness. Excitement in the scientific community was considerable. Professor E. B. Stouffer of the astronomy department at the University of Kansas led the University’s scientific efforts to study the eclipse, telling the press that he planned to photograph the corona in an effort to prove or disprove the existence of theoretical planets located between Mercury and the sun. Other scientific studies of the eclipse hoped to verify Einstein’s theory of relativity and modify Newton’s laws of gravitation.

Newspaper articles of the day warned people to avoid damaging their eyes by viewing the eclipse without the aid of “smoked glass” or “multiple layers of exposed photographic film” to protect the eye’s retina from burning. Newspapers across the southwest part of the state predicted that “hundreds of viewers” would descend on their towns to view the eclipse. Professor Stouffer was quoted in the Wichita Daily Eagle of June 8th instructing viewers of the eclipse in the proper techniques to view the sun. “The eclipse can best be seen—to get a view of the eclipse itself—by the use of a bit of smoked glass and the unaided eye. A telescope would be a hindrance, for it would enable one to only see a part of the eclipse at a time.”  Stouffer planned to photograph stars which become visible during periods of total eclipse, and then compare those images with those taken from the same location at other times to assess the effect of gravitation on light waves.  Professor Stouffer remarked on the scientific importance of a total eclipse, noting, “There is no scientific value in a partial eclipse. It is only at these rare intervals of a total eclipse that scientists are interested. Then, they will go half way around the world to make their observations.”  Insofar as Lawrence, Kansas would only experience a 92% eclipse, Professor Stouffer packed his scientific equipment and camera and traveled to Guthrie, Oklahoma, which was located in the center point of the eclipse’s shadow.

The_Hutchinson_News_Sat__Jun_1__1918_illus

The Hutchinson News described the solar eclipse as “the big event” in its June 1, 1918 edition.

The eclipse was scheduled to occur in Kansas at 5:25 pm, and it arrived on schedule. In the southwest portion of the state where the sun’s light was completely obscured, residents noticed their chickens returning to their coops to roost, dairy cattle returned to the barns for the night, and birds roosted in the trees as darkness enveloped the landscape for just over two minutes. Thousands of Kansans held blackened glass to their eyes as they observed the solar event. Two minutes after the darkness fell, light began to reappear around the edge of the sun and daylight reappeared once again, just in time for sunset.

In Guthrie, Oklahoma Professor Stouffer prepared his camera for the two minutes for which all scientists had waited. Then, just moments before the moon began to shadow the sun, a heavy bank of clouds moved in front of the sun, obscuring the Professor’s view and eliminating all possibility of taking any photographs.

Despite the warnings which appeared in the press cautioning against viewing the eclipse without “smoked glass” covering one’s eyes, some cases of blindness from viewing the eclipse occurred. The Alma Signal reported a case of eclipse blindness in its July 11, 1918 edition, “H. L. Colburn, a farmer living near Stockton, was plowing while the eclipse was in order and repeatedly looked at the glaring sun.  He soon noticed that his vision had become affected and the following morning he was almost blind. Since that time he has been under the care of an oculist, wearing darkened glasses continuously.”

To view these images in a gallery format or as a full-screen image, click on any of the images below.

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