The Born Losers

The Born Losers

The earliest recorded solar eclipse occurred on October 22, 2137 B.C., as documented in the Chinese classic Shu Ching. The ancient Chinese believed that the sun was constantly under attack by dragons that took large bites from it. The confirmation of this, to which they might point to verify their claim, would be a partial eclipse with a missing bite. Most emperors appointed at least one court astronomer whose sole duty was to predict an eclipse. Because the emperor was forewarned, the soldiers could rescue the sun by shooting arrows into the sky. The dragon was always killed or driven off. Nobody could dispute this, because within a short time the sun began to shine again.

Predicting eclipses was not as easy as it might seem, because astronomy was quite a dangerous profession in those days. The emperor invariably decreed that if the court astronomers were negligent (or incorrect) in their predictions they would suffer instant death!

A little over 4,000 years ago, during the reign of Chung K'ang of the Hsai Dynasty, the emperor appointed two men, those names were not recorded, to the post of court astronomer. The two men were quite successful for a while; in fact, whenever they felt it was necessary to prove their prediction prowess, they would announce an impending eclipse. The emperor's warriors, thereby alerted, would fire arrows into the sky and beat gongs and drums and thus frighten away or kill the dragon. The sun was always rescued, and the eclipse was avoided. On one fateful occasion, however, the two astronomers missed a guess and failed to predict an eclipse. Although the warriors were able to "rescue" the sun and it returned shortly, the astronomers were executed for their oversight.

All was not lost, since they left behind the first actual record of an eclipse. No one thought to ask them to turn over their secret formulas showing how they were able to predict eclipses. Possibly their failure rendered their methods too unreliable to preserve.

Through the years a heavenly eclipse, particularly of the sun, has held intense fascination for professional and amateur astronomers. Many would go to great lengths to witness and study such events. Some of the results, had they not been so frustrating to the scientists involved, would have been more appropriate in the comedy category.

Many astronomers were absolutely fanatical about the subject. Foremost was a Scottish scientist who lived during the days of sailing ships. In trying to observe six separate eclipses, he actually chalked up a sailing record of 75,000 miles to gain the best vantage points for observation. Despite all his efforts, he observed only one, the other five being obscured by cloud coverings. As a consolation it could be said that he had had the opportunity to see the world, if he had bothered to look.

His experiences were perhaps no less frustrating than those of Pierre Janssen, a French astronomer who was absolutely determined to photograph a solar eclipse of 1871.

His was a difficult situation, because he was in Paris while it was under siege during the Franco—Prussian War. He secured a hot air balloon and, risking heavy German rifle fire, rose above the city. The Germans were so startled by the sight of the balloon that not a shot was fired, and Pierre escaped unharmed. Without losing time, and after undergoing considerable hardship, he traveled by whatever means possible to his observation site. He finally reached the path of the eclipse on the East African coast well in time to observe it, but the event was obscured by rain!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth