From the Archives: Color Footage of a Total Solar Eclipse

by AMNH on

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Eighty years ago, a Museum expedition to the Peruvian Andes captured some of the first color footage of a total solar eclipse. (Watch an excerpt from “The Peruvian Eclipse Expedition,” filmed during the Hayden Planetarium-Grace Peruvian Eclipse Expedition of 1937 and featuring some of that footage, below).


In 1937, Hayden Planetarium Curator Clyde Fisher and some dozen fellow sky-gazers traveled to Peru to be in the path of the Moon’s shadow on June 8th and to record their scientific observations. It promised to be a spectacular sight, as the Sun would be near the horizon—about half an hour from setting—adding the glory of a sunset to the uncanny coloring of an eclipse sky.


Five people dressed in winter clothing stand beneath a large telescope.
Eclipse camera and members of the Grace Peruvian Eclipse Expedition, including artist D. Owen Stephens on the far left.

The expedition personnel were divided into five groups, each positioned at a distinct location in case cloudy skies obscured a particular viewing spot. 


Person stands at the of a mountain looking into a very large telescope.
Expedition member Dana K. Bailey at an eclipse camera stationed in the Andes.

Team members observed the eclipse from 14,600 feet (4,450 meters), or nearly 3 miles, above sea level in the Andes, but Major Albert Stevens might have laid claim to the most unique view—he photographed the eclipse from a plane at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). 


A 1930s plane flies past a snowy mountain.
A plane similar to the one used by Major Stevens as his eclipse station at 25,000 feet.

This was a higher elevation than had ever been attempted for eclipse photography, and the resulting images changed astronomers’ conception of the Sun’s corona. 


Tip of the left wing of an airplane flying through the sky with the solar eclipse in view just beyond it.
Eclipse from 25,000 feet, as photographed by Maj. Albert Stevens.
© AMNH/A. Stevens

D. Owen Stephens, a trained astronomer turned painter, also accompanied the expedition to capture the eclipse in a way that cameras of the period could not. 


Mountainous landscape with the sun overhead obscured by the moon.
“Second Contact and Shadow,” an oil painting by D. Owen Stephens.
© AMNH/D. Stephens

A 1937 press release said, “He can see the extents of the outer corona that are too faint to be captured by the plate, at the same time that he views the inner corona and the prominences. … [N]othing except the eye of the artist and his hand can reproduce this most beautiful of sights and most significant of astronomical phenomena.” 


Rays of the sun are just visible behind the moon in a darkened sky.
Eclipse of the sun at the beginning of totality.