The serendipitous passage of the moon directly between the sun and the Earth on August 21 has brought eclipse mania to the U.S. Over the past month, we’ve seen countless visualizations of the phenomenon, from interactive websites to 3D fly-throughs. The last time a full eclipse was visible from East to West Coast, it was 1918–and the newspapers of the day applied their own visualization techniques to explain the cosmic event to readers.
I dug through the archives of the Library of Congress and found many examples of how newspapers depicted eclipses at the turn of the last century. The dataviz of the early 1900s lacks the affordances of today’s interactive, animated graphics, but it also offers a glimpse at how science journalism and visualization have rapidly evolved over the past century. The illustrations also highlight the magic and mystique surrounding this rare astronomical event.
Perhaps the most graphically sophisticated example I found is from the Washington Timeson October 27, 1918–the last eclipse that crossed the entire continental U.S. The graphic takes up the entire top half of the page, with an illustration of the darkened moon’s profile ringed by the sun’s barely visible light, which acts as a circular frame for the article’s title: “What Science Discovered from the Great Eclipse.” Below the headline is a fantastic drawing by Edison Pettit of what the sun’s corona looks like during an eclipse, based on photographs taken in Colorado.The editors of the paper deliberately chose a drawing because, “prints from original negatives unfortunately fail utterly to convey to us any idea of the magnificence of the coronal structure.” The author of the story, Isabel M. Lewis from the United States Naval Observatory, wrote vividly of the eclipse–if this doesn’t make you want to see one, nothing will:
“It must be left to the painter to convey to the mind the superb coloring, the contrasting effect of the blood-red prominences, that were so conspicuous in this eclipse, with the grayish tinged disk of the occulting moon, the orange-tinged chromosphere and the pearly light of the coronal streamers interlaced to form the petals of some flowers gorgeous beyond description or curved into a series of gothic arches enveloping the most conspicuous prominences and towering to a height of more than two hundred thousand miles above the surface of the earth.”
When you see the photographs of eclipses printed from this era, it’s no wonder why the Washington Times chose a drawing. In Richmond, Virginia’s Times Dispatch from 1905, there are two blurry photos that do little to convey the eclipse’s unique emotional power or its scientific value.
The same article was also printed in the Washington Times newspaper with the same blurry photos in 1905. But the rest of the page relies on much more fanciful graphics to convey the power of an eclipse. It quite literally features a drawing of a dragon attacking the sun. The subhead of the story reads:
“Ancient Astronomers Led Strenuous Lives–Chinese Believed Eclipses Due to Swallowing of the Sun by Dragons, and It Was Up to the Men of Science to Predict the Catastrophe–Two of Them Got Drunk and Overlooked the Coming Event, for Which Frightful Crime They Were Promptly Executed.”
In contrast, the New York Herald was much more measured with its graphical approach in 1875, showing scientific diagrams laying out how the phenomena occurs. The Omaha Daily Bee from 1905 has a full-page illustration showing the sun, the moon, the Earth, and the beam of shadow caused by the eclipse.
Itching to see the eclipse now that you’ve seen these fabulous old-timey graphics? Just don’t forget your glasses.