Inside the Collection

Historical Solar Eclipse Images

Photograph of total Solar Eclipse
Photograph of total Solar Eclipse. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-40).

While we wait eagerly to hear whether our colleagues from Sydney Observatory managed to catch a glimpse of yesterday’s total solar eclipse in the US – and quietly seethe with jealousy that we couldn’t be there ourselves (or is that just me?) – it seemed like the perfect opportunity to dig these amazing photographs out of our collection.

The photos were taken or owned by James Short, who was in charge of the astrographic telescope (that is, a telescope designed to take photographs of the sky) at Sydney Observatory’s Red Hill Branch from 1899 through to 1931. The collection of photos includes images of two solar eclipse expeditions – one to Tahiti for a total eclipse that occurred in January 1908, and a second to Goondiwindi in Queensland for the famous 1922 total eclipse (during which Australian astronomers on a separate expedition to Wallal, Western Australia, succeeding in confirmed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity).

Observers photographing the eclipse during the 1908 Tahiti expedition
Observers photographing the eclipse during the 1908 Tahiti expedition. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-21).
Photograph from the Tahiti eclipse expedition
Photograph from the Tahiti eclipse expedition. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-25).
A hand-coloured photograph taken during the Tahiti eclipse expedition
A hand-coloured photograph taken during the Tahiti eclipse expedition. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-26).

It’s fascinating to see the setup of cameras and other equipment for the Tahitian expedition, and the construction of an entire temporary observatory at Goondiwindi for the 1922 event. The photographs provide a unique window into technology (and fashion) of the time, and demonstrate the huge amount of preparation that went into observing and capturing these events, something that will be familiar to any modern-day eclipse chasers. Meanwhile, the images of the eclipses themselves are undeniably stunning.

Construction of the temporary observatory and astrograph at Goondiwindi
Construction of the temporary observatory and astrograph at Goondiwindi, Queensland. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-11).
Completion of the building at Goondiwindi.
Completion of the building at Goondiwindi. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-13).
The temporary oservatory at Goondiwindi
The temporary oservatory at Goondiwindi from which the 1922 eclipse was observed. Image: photographer unknown (possibly James Short), from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection (2005/124/1-15).

For Aussie observers who couldn’t be in the US for the eclipse this time around, we won’t have to wait too much longer for one to come our way! There will be eight total solar eclipses in Australia over the next century – with the path of totality for the first of these in 2028 passing directly over Sydney! There’s a fantastic map here showing when and where to catch all of the upcoming eclipses. And in the meantime, we can continue enjoying the images from yesterday’s eclipse as they come flooding in.

Written by Sarah Reeves.

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