Art and Science: Drawing the Total Solar Eclipse of 1860
by Christina Badal
The total solar eclipse on July 18, 1860 was the first to be so thoroughly observed and recorded by the scientific community. It occurred at a time when the world was experiencing an amazing revolution of fundamental scientific and technological discoveries and inventions across disciplines, including the lightbulb, the periodic table, the first color photograph, dynamite, and the telephone. At the same time, many of the techniques for measuring, recording, and documenting these processes were also being pioneered.
The range of drawings produced by scientists observing the 1860 solar eclipse speak to the still-evolving methodology of scientific observation, particularly for astronomical events. Among other observers was the English polymath Francis Galton—known for his work in everything from weather mapping to eugenics.
Another notable feature about this eclipse was the peculiar eruption recorded in the lower right portion of the solar corona. Based on comparison with modern coronal observations, it is quite likely that this large flare represents the first record of a coronal mass ejection (CME) in progress.
Today CMEs are known to represent one of the more energetic manifestations of solar activity, with up to 10 billion tons of material being ejected into interplanetary space at speeds reaching up to 1000 kilometer per second. CMEs returned to the headlines recently when NASA revealed that the most powerful solar flare ever recorded narrowly missed Earth.