Total Eclipse

Dave Tutelman  --  August 17, 2017

This is written as the whole country is preparing for a rare event, a coast-to-coast total solar eclipse. A total eclipse is rare enough that lots of writers are referring to it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since I've already had that experience, I guess I'm not invited to this one, not in this lifetime.

Yes, I have seen a total solar eclipse. The picture at the left is a montage of four photos of it that I took. (Click on it for a higher-resolution version.) It was in July of 1963, and I traveled from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, Maine to experience totality. Maine and Alaska were the only states on the track of totality that time. (I just had to check to make sure Alaska was a state at the time. Yes. Statehood in 1959.) Here is a map showing percent of eclipse in the northeastern US.

At the time, I was a graduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Dick Fow, another grad student, and I wanted to see it and were willing to travel 600 miles to do so -- 300 miles each way. The plan was to take my car, a '55 Chevy, and drive to Cambridge, well up into central Maine, which was on the centerline of totality. The eclipse was late afternoon on a Saturday -- very convenient. We could drive up in the morning, watch the eclipse, camp somewhere overnight, and drive back the next day.

Dick knew a couple of girls who wanted to experience it as well. He had been dating Betsy (she was at Harvard for summer school, IIRC), and Betsy brought along a friend. (Donna? Debbie? Don't really remember. Cute, but kind of standoffish and not very interesting.) Lots of room in the Chevy; no problem.


I was an enthusiastic amateur photographer with a decided technical bent. (In fact, I had been offered a research assistantship with Harold "Doc" Edgerton, the inventor of the strobe flash. But that's a story for another time.) So it's no surprise that I wanted to photograph the eclipse while I watched it. But my camera was a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, without benefit of interchangeable lenses. No telephoto available, and without one the sun is only a dot in the picture. I had to improvise. I visited my local Radio Shack. (I don't think they were a national chain then; the one right across the Charles River was the only Radio Shack I had ever heard of at the time.) I bought a Micronta monocular; that's like one side of a pair of binoculars, a compact telescope. I modified a filter adapter for the Rollei, so it would securely hold the monocular to the camera lens. But the viewing lens is not the same as the taking lens; that's why it's called a twin-lens relflex and not an SLR. The viewfinder did not show what the film would see through the monocular. So I had to find out how to aim and focus the camera, so the monocular attachment was pointed where I wanted it and projecting a sharp image on the film.

During the week before the eclipse, I was busily scurrying around taking telephoto pictures. My first roll of film assumed that the adapter was sufficiently well-aligned so an image centered in the viewfinder was also centered in the picture. Turned out to be close but not quite. Fortunately, the viewfinder has ruled lines to divide the image into a 5x5 grid. The center of the monocular image was about a half a grid above the center of the viewfinder. I took a second roll to make sure of that. It worked! I had also assumed that focusing the monocular on the target would result in an in-focus image. That worked pretty well.

The whole thing would have been very easy in today's digital world. Take a test picture, examine the digital image (even transfer it to a computer for large-screen examination), then change something in response and take another test shot. In fact, most of today's cameras would make it even easier -- and test-free; the viewfinder is looking through the same lens as the picture you take.

But 1963 was not in the digital era; photography was done on rolls of film. So I would run a roll (12 pictures) through the Rolleiflex, develop and examine the film, then shoot another test roll to confirm what the first roll told me. Luckily, there was a well-equipped darkroom in the graduate dorm; even so, only one test a day was feasible. So I had to plan what the 12 images were in order to perform the most effective tests each day -- with no feedback/results to guide me until the next roll -- the next day. Tedious, but in the end it worked.

Another piece of preparation was the "eclipse glasses". This month, every third news story is about eclipse glasses. Which ones are safe to view with? Which ones are fake? When not to use them? What to do if you don't have them? And so on...

Well, I don't remember there being eclipse glasses in 1963. If they existed, they were not the subject of great hype and discussion. We were indeed told not to look directly at the sun, and that sunglasses wouldn't help. The conventional wisdom was that the best thing was to look through exposed film. (That's not an option today, because film is almost nonexistent.) So I took a roll of cheap film -- or maybe it was outdated film, though I did a lot of photography so I don't know how a roll would get out of date in my possession. I opened it up in broad daylight to fully expose it, then took it into the darkroom to develop it. A roll of 120 film can be cut up into 5 pieces big enough for eclipse viewing. That's one for each member of our party, plus a spare.

I'm sure our "eclipse glasses" would not meet OSHA standards today, but they were relatively high-end in 1963.

The day of the eclipse

Saturday morning, the weather forecast was gloomy for eclipse viewing. Every radio and TV station in Boston was saying there was a 50-50 chance of seeing the eclipse. Clouds and then rain was coming sometime during the day.

Fortunately, Dick was studying for a PhD in meteorology, so we had our own private specialty forecast. We walked to the meteorology department and up to the top-floor lab and map room. Dick gathered  together the latest maps coming in off the wire machines. (I think that's what they called them. Think of a giant economy size Fax machine.) He spent a half hour poring over the maps, and waved me off every time I asked what he was doing. Finally, he looked up and said, "Yup! 50-50 chance."

We decided to give it a go anyway. So did the girls. It turned out all the forecasts were spot-on; the answer was indeed 50-50. I'll get back to that. We piled in the car and headed north. We made good time on the Maine Turnpike. (Now it's called Interstate 95. I don't think it was back then; the interstate highway system was brand new.) 

About 2pm we were in Cambridge... Maine, that is. Good news: it was still sunny, though we could see clouds gathering on the horizon. We picked a spot at the top of the hill in their public park, set up my camera and tripod, made sure we all had eye protection, and had a picnic lunch. As you might imagine, the park at Cambridge was seeing its greatest population ever, probably by a factor of ten. And those people were starting to buzz about a circular bite being taken out of the disk of the sun. The eclipse was starting, but it would be a good hour or so before totality. That was supposed to happen late afternoon, perhaps 4 or 5 o'clock.

As we watched the eclipse progress, the thick clouds approached. It was going to be a close thing whether we would see totality. We enjoyed watching as more and more of the sun got covered by the moon. About ten minutes before totality, several things happened:
  • We noticed it was suddenly considerably darker than daytime, really twilight.
  • The sounds of nature changed to night sounds, most notably crickets.
  • Three banks of clouds approached the sun from different directions. The sun was in a triangle of clear sky, and that triangle was shrinking.
Finally, totality came! Suddenly, it was dark as night. I am told you can see stars during an eclipse, but we were lucky there was a hole in the clouds big enough for us to see the sun; there was no room for stars. In fact, the first bank of clouds got to the edge of the sun's disk just as totality started. That is very plain from this picture, where the lower left of the corona is obscured by the cloud. You may not be able to see the cloud directly, but it is very apparent where it was.

I was scurrying around trying to get my planned pictures on a 12-shot roll of film. No time to change film; totality was less than two minutes. I had to get in all my shots, including the immediate beginning and ending of totality, the last disk of the sun showing and the first disk reappearing. In spite of being busy, I was able to enjoy the entire thing: darkness in daytime, confused animals and insects, people ooh-ing and aah-ing -- though I had no time to actually share impressions with people during totality.

Immediately after the sun reappeared, it disappeared again as the triangle between the clouds shrank to nothing. We didn't see the sun again for three days. The 50-50 prediction was dead on; we saw almost exactly 50% of the eclipse -- fortunately slightly on the high side.

After the eclipse

Our adventure was hardly over. We needed to find a camp site to stay overnight. From our research, we had decided that the most likely place for an available campsite was Moosehead Lake north of Greenville. So we drove further north to the State Park headquarters in Greenville. Because it was summer vacation time, plus the weekend of an eclipse visible only in Maine, most of the campsites were taken. They assigned us one at Third Roach Pond, a long drive from Greenville mostly over gravel roads. We got there before it was really dark, and set out our sleeping bags. We were lucky it hadn't rained yet, because along with the clouds there was also a prediction of rain. But we got a pretty good night's sleep.

We were awakened by drizzle about 6am. Because rain had been predicted, we broke camp as quickly as possible and got into the car to drive home. We had 300 miles to go, all of it likely in sloppy weather. The perils implied by the weather were brought home to us quickly. Well before we even got back to Greenville, we skidded on a turn in the gravel road. We were lucky; our skid was a 180, but we were able to drive out of it and back onto the road.

By the time we got to Greenville, the rain was coming down in earnest. By Skowhegan it was pouring, and I was exhausted from coping with it. Betsy seemed to be the only one game enough to spell me at the wheel, and she did. For the rest of the trip home, Betsy and I were in the front seat coping with getting us home, alternating as driver and navigator. Dick and Betsy's friend were in the back seat. Not sure what they were doing, but they seemed to be getting along really well. In the meantime, Betsy and I were learning more about one another, and liking what we learned. For several weeks afterwards I was going out with Betsy, and Dick with her friend. Nothing long-term for any of us, but I enjoyed Betsy's company while it lasted.

So there you have it: the Great Eclipse Adventure of 1963, and why I'm not invited to this one.

Last changed - 8/17/17