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RMC Solar Eclipse Exhibition 2024: Item descriptions

This temporary guide offers item descriptions for the exhibition "Solar Eclipses Across the World: from Fear to Knowledge" in the RMC Rotunda that runs from March 22 to July 2024

Display case 1

Item #1

Nicolaus Copernicus, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI, 1543
[Six Proposals Concerning the Dynamics of the Heavenly Orbs]

History of Science QB41 C78 D2 1543+

In the Middle Ages the Earth was considered the center of the universe. The Moon, the Sun, the planets, and the fixed stars all orbited our planet. From an observational standpoint this made sense if you didn’t look too carefully and if you didn’t pay attention to the flaws in the “official” systems of astronomy based on the works by Aristotle (Greece, 384-322 BCE) and Ptolemy (Egypt, 2nd cent. BCE).

Nicolaus Copernicus (Poland, 1473-1543) would change all that over his lifetime. In his young years he studied at the University of Krakow, where he received an excellent foundation in mathematics and mathematical astronomy. This gave him the ability to critically explore and evaluate the flaws of the geocentric system and to dare consider alternatives. By 1497, while continuing his studies in Bologna (Italy), he is known to have observed the occultation of the star Aldebaran by the Moon to explore a peculiarity in the theory of Ptolemy. Eventually this led him, some time before 1514, to postulate the first version of his heliocentric system, which he committed to paper in the Commentariolus (“little commentary”), and which he shared only with a few good friends and colleagues. Rumors about his revolutionary theory started spreading among educated people all over Europe, but Copernicus waited until 1543, the year of his death, to publish the final version of his heliocentric system in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI.

The page on display in the exhibition, showing the Sun at the center, and Earth orbiting the Sun along with the five other known planets, aptly illustrates the truly daring new proposition it would have been to demote the Earth from centerstage. More demotions would follow for centuries to come, both regarding our place in the universe, and our relationship to other forms of life on our planet.

Under pressure from the Catholic church, some copies of the book show "corrections" like the ones shown in the image below. By adding "De hypothesi" to "triplici motu telluris demonstratione" the chapter title reads "a hypothesis about the triple motion of the Earth demonstrated". Cornell's copy of De Revolutionibus does not contain any of these modifications.  The inside cover does contain an inscription, though, by A.D. White.


Item #2

Robert Hall, The Story of the Sun, 1897
"Darkness during total eclipse of 28th February, 1851"
History of Science, QB521 B3 1897

A landscape looks spectacularly different once the direct illumination by the Sun is blocked by the Moon. All shadows are gone and only far in the distance, where the eclipse is not yet or no longer total, can direct sunlight be seen illuminating the landscape.


Item #3

Nizamaddin ibn Muhamad an-Nisapuri, Tawḍīḥ al-Tadhkirah, [Elucidation of Ṭūsī's Memento on Astronomy], 1311

Archives #8832 Bd. Ms. 1 ++

This book was composed by a 14th century scholar based in modern day Iran. As a mathematician, astronomer, jurist, theologian, and poet he benefitted from his teacher, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, who had himself been a student of the more famous polygraph Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-74). Al-Tusi had created very accurate tables of planetary motion and a sophisticated planetary model. This diagram shows the alignment of the Sun, Moon, and Earth during an eclipse. The book also contains a spectacular map of the Nile River, below.


Item #4

Yi Yu. 天經或問前集  [Series of Questions about Astronomy]. Tokyo: Kobayashi Shinbē, 1730.

History of Science QB42 .Y68 1730

This 1730 Japanese edition of the work is significant, as the original Chinese edition (1675) is lost. In ancient China, it was believed that solar eclipses occur when a huge tengu (or, sometimes, a dragon, or a “sky dog”) devours the Sun. Indeed, still today, the Chinese term for “solar eclipse” is "Ri Shi" (日蝕), composed of , "to eat up," and , “the Sun”. Lunar eclipses were thought to be caused by a toad eating the Moon! Historically, people were terrified when a solar eclipse occurred. They would shout and use gongs and drums and bang on pots to make a loud sound, forcing the "Tian Gou" to spit out the Sun. There is an old story about how Emperor Chung K’ang (BCE 2159–2146) learned of an eclipse when he heard the noise of people in the streets trying to scare away the “sky dog” that was eating the Sun; he was upset and ordered that his astronomers be executed for failing to predict the eclipse. From then on, eclipses were recorded; the oldest written records were on oxen shoulder blades and tortoise shells. Under the influence of the Jesuit missionaries working at the imperial court in Beijing between 1601 and 1805, the study of eclipses progressively aligned with European mainstream astronomy, though the diagrams on view here show the persistence of the geocentric model. The upper right diagram on the left page depicts a solar eclipse: , the Earth, is at the center, with the Moon, , casting a shadow on it. The vertical texts printed just outside the Moon’s orbit read, 朔时月行在日天之下。掩日之光。谓之食: “On the first day of every month in the lunar year the Moon moves under the sky and Sun and covers the light of the Sun. This is called a solar eclipse."

In ancient China, solar eclipses were classed as 'frightful' and 'abnormal'. They were thought to be caused by a dragon that tried to devour the daytime star


Item #5

Jakob Balde. De eclipsi solari anno MDCLIV die XII Augusti [The solar eclipse of 1654 on the 12th of August]. Munich: Lucae Straub, 1662.

History of Science PA8463 .B2 D4 1662 no.1 tiny

German poet Jakob Balde (1604-1668) uses satire to poke fun at people’s irrational fears of solar eclipses. The text reads “Wow, The Masked Sun is Playing Tricks on Us! The Solar Eclipse of August 12, 1654, Seen Through the Lens of Satire." The text on the following page reads “On the solar eclipse of August 12, 1654, which was observed in Europe by many, using a telescope, and is now examined again and thoroughly. All done with the approval of authorities.” The distressed “scholar” gracing the bottom of the page bears a strong resemblance to other notable scholars, including those found in an engraving inside Galileo Galilei’s famous 1632 work Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo ("Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems") comparing the geocentric and heliocentric systems.

Other illustrations in the book are equally entertaining.

Page from De eclipsi solari anno MDCLIV die XII Augusti

Display case 2

Item #6

Ptolemy of Alexandria, Almagest[um], 1515 reprint

History of Science QB41.P97 A4 1515 ++

A Roman citizen with Greek ancestry, Claudius Ptolemaios (Πτολεμαῖος, Egypt, 100-170 CE) was the first mathematician and astronomer to design precise tables indicating, not only when an eclipse would appear, but also whether they would be visible from Alexandria (Egypt). Unlike the well-respected astronomers of ancient Babylon, Ptolemy knew about the lunar parallax, which affects the geocentric latitude of the Moon; and about the apparent diameters of both the Sun and the Moon in relation to their distance from the center of the Earth. 

The “Tables” were used to calculate the past and future positions of planets and stars, and (more specifically) to predict the date, length ("principium" means "beginning", "finis" means "end") and intensity of eclipses. Reading Ptolemy's tables would require some astronomical knowledge. However, as Jayant Shah pointed out in a 2018 article about the accuracy of the Almagest in predicting solar eclipses, "all a calendar maker would need are [Ptolemy's tables] tables, and he would not have to know the algorithms that created them." Shah also underlines that, "The actual eclipses [were] too few to properly analyze prediction errors." By contrast, Brahe and Kepler (in the 17th century) would have a historical "database" to draw from.

Nevertheless, Ptolemy's predictions were still admired in the 16th century, and the Almagest was reprinted several times by Renaissance humanists.  On display in our exhibition is the first complete Latin edition of the Almagest, published in 1515 by Petrus Liechtenstein (fl. 1497-1528), a member of the German community in Venice. What he printed was the work of Gerardus of Cremona's 12th century translation of the Almagest (originally written in Greek) from Arabic (since the Almagest was preserved in Arabic manuscripts) into Latin.




Item #7

Johannes Kepler. Tabulae Rudolphinae [The Rudolphine Tables]. Ulm: J. Saurii, 1627.

History of Science QB26 .K4 ++

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), considered a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution, is best known for his three Laws of Planetary Motion, which are still taught to this day. Even in his student years, Kepler favored the new Copernican heliocentric system of planetary motion over the classic geocentric Ptolemaic one. He first made a living as a landscape mathematician and calendar maker in Graz (Austria). His amazing ability to predict the position of planets impressed the famous astronomer and astrologer Tycho Brahe, who asked him to be his assistant at the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague (now in the Czech Republic). Upon Brahe’s sudden death in 1601, Kepler succeeded him as the Imperial Mathematician. This marked the beginning of the most productive phase of his life, in which he continued Brahe’s work on the Tabulae Rudolphinae, which would take another 26 years to complete. The work was finished in 1621, but the publication was delayed until 1627 by wars and peasant revolts, and also by lengthy negotiations with Brahe’s heirs, the Imperial Treasury, and printers.

The book, on display here, contains the accurately measured positions of more than 1,000 stars, tables aiding the computation of the positions of the Sun , Moon ☽, and planets in the sky, and a very up-to-date world map, which even shows the then-recently discovered coast of Australia.

While the tables proper (in the latter part of the book) contain all kinds of astronomical data (including data needed to predict solar eclipses), Kepler also provides the reader with his methods of calculation and examples of them. Both are needed to predict future eclipses and to validate the existence of past eclipses.  Chapters 31 and 32 specifically concern eclipses. The latter, titled “Methodus eclipses computandi” (“A method for calculating eclipses”), details the computational method itself, with a range of examples. On the page shown here, Kepler uses the example of two past eclipses that validate his method: one observed in Poland in 1415 (header: “Exemplum Eclipsis Solaris ad certum Locum computandae”), and the other in Austria as well as Uraniborg, Brahe’s observatory in Denmark, in 1598 (header: “Exemplum Aliud”).

With these tables in hand it was also possible to accurately predict two other rare events: the transits of Mercury (1631) and Venus (1639) in front of the solar disk. Sadly, Kepler died in 1630, one full year before the transit of Mercury occurred.

In 1654, Erhard Weigel (Germany), using Kepler’s tables, was able to forecast the path of the solar eclipse on August 12 that year, producing the first-ever eclipse map. The predicted path of totality was only a few hundred miles off from the actual path as computed using modern methods!


Item #8

Erhard Weigel. ...De magna solis eclipsi, d. 2. Aug. proxime futura… [On the Approaching Total Solar Eclipse, August 2...]. Jena: Georgii Sengenwaldi, 1654.

Medical Diss. QB631 .W41 pt.2

As eclipses were predicted more and more accurately, publishers saw a marketing opportunity: for example, this pamphlet was published eleven days before the much-anticipated eclipse of August 12, 1654. It even included a map of Europe, showing where the eclipse would be total.


Item #9

Johann Peil. Tabula processum seu ordinem ultimi divini et criminalis judicii exhibens  [Description of the Different Phases of the Criminal Trial and Last Judgement by God]

Rare Books BT880 .P45 T33 1625

This copy of a very rare treatise on the Apocalypse and Judgment Day was once kept in the library of the Spencer-Churchill family in Blenheim Castle in England. It is the first book ever printed in Cleves (northwestern Germany), and is illustrated with dramatic plates by Gillis van Scheyndel, including this frightening scene showing a fanciful solar and lunar eclipse (obscuratio solis et lunae!), as well as meteorites and fire rain all at the same time: the end of the world.


Item #10

Wolfgang Bachmeyer. Gründliche und außführliche astronomische Beschreibung der bevorstehender Sonnen-Finsternuss, welche auff nächstkommenden 12. Augusti bey uns zu ersehen seyn wird [Thorough and Detailed Astronomical Description of the Upcoming Solar Eclipse, Which Will Be Visible Around Here Next August 12th]. Nördlingen: Friderich Schultes, 1654.

History of Science QB542 .B12

In an effort to assuage fears and anxieties, the illustrator added a benevolent smile on the face of the Sun! 


Vertical display case

Item #11

Gustav A. Goehner, Series of Instantaneous Telescopic Views of the solar eclipse of July 29, 1878.

History of Science, QB541 G64 1878

This publication contains 15 telescopic images of “America’s First Great Eclipse” of July 29, 1878 taken by the photographer Gustav A. Goehner. This eclipse, which closely tracked the length of the Rocky Mountains, attracted astronomers and tourists alike.


Item #12

Ezra Cornell. Diary kept in Ithaca, NY. August 7, 1869.

Ezra Cornell Papers, #1-1-1, box 38, folder 25

Ezra Cornell’s diary entry on a partial lunar eclipse indicates a curiosity about celestial objects. The notes and pencil drawings show thoughtful scientific observation. In 1847, well before the founding of Cornell University, Ezra wrote a letter to his then-teenage son Alonzo mentioning his sky gazing, including seeing mountains on the moon and Jupiter’s satellites. He added, “I have a fine lot of telescopes.”


Item #13

Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Oil painting made during the January 24, 1925 solar eclipse.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes Papers, #2662, box 107, folder 1


Item #14

Photograph showing Louis Agassiz Fuertes making the eclipse painting, 1925.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes Papers, #2662, box 25, folder 6

Fuertes was born in Ithaca, the son of Estevan Fuertes, a noted astronomer and civil engineering professor at Cornell. The younger Fuertes would become a member of the Cornell Class of 1897, where his artistic abilities were seen in Cornell publications, like the yearbook. While he is most known for his prolific and accomplished career as an illustrator in the field of ornithology, his subjects spanned far more than birds, extending to other wildlife and, in this case, the eclipse. Fuertes’ artistic work has been revered for its beauty and accurate depiction of nature. We are fortunate to have a photograph of Fuertes as he completed the painting.


Item #15

G. F. Morgan. Cornell Calendar for 1926.

Cornell University Calendar Collection, #48-1-241, box 2

G. F. Morgan, photographer and proprietor of the University Photo and Gift Shop, produced Cornell themed calendars for a number of years. The 1926 edition featured two spectacular eclipse images, which were specifically mentioned as a selling point in newspaper advertisements for the calendar. Morgan conducted tests for photographing the sun, including time-lapse images and camera settings, in the weeks leading up to the eclipse. His perfected technique resulted in 19 separate 1/100th of a second exposures taken 7.5 minutes apart and a lengthy 10 second exposure at totality. Original prints of Morgan’s eclipse photographs would go on display in the University Library and in downtown Ithaca. The calendar cost $1.50, about $25.00 today.

Students watching the eclipse from the roof of Lincoln Hall (Cornell Graphic).



Item #16

The Illustrated London News. London: The Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd., November 22, 1919.

Oversize AP4 .I295 ++

Stories like this one helped to propel Albert Einstein (1879-1955) to celebrity status. Just two weeks earlier, on November 6, 1919, Frank Watson Dyson and Arthur Eddington had confirmed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1915) by obtaining precise measurements of the positions of background stars visible during the solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, and comparing these to their reference positions measured a few months later when the sun was in a different part of the sky. The observations confirmed that spacetime is indeed curved around a massive object like the Sun, causing the light from background stars to be deflected and their positions in the sky to appear further from the center of the massive object than they are in actuality.

In the most extreme cases, this lensing effect can result in an Einstein Ring, when the foreground object is so massive that it bends the light of an object (far) behind it into a ring centered around the foreground lens.


Item #17

Norman Lockyer. The Spectroscope and its applications. London: Macmillan and Co., 1873.

History of Science QC451 .L79

The invention of the spectroscope in the mid-1800s made it possible to identify the spectral fingerprints of chemical elements both on Earth and in celestial objects. In 1868, Jules Janssen discovered a new element, helium, while pointing his spectroscope at the edge of the solar disk during the eclipse of August 19. A few weeks later Norman Lockyer made the same discovery, independently, by aiming his spectroscope at the sun on an ordinary October day. Both observations reached the Académie des Sciences in Paris on the very same day. Janssen and Lockyer soon after agreed to share the credit for the discovery and remained friends for life. The presence of helium on Earth was proven only a quarter century later.

In 1869 Lockyer would found the general science journal Nature.


Item #18

Harper’s Weekly. New York: Harper’s Magazine Co., August 22, 1878.

AP2 .H292 ++

The total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, offered scientists and tourists in the western USA the opportunity to observe an eclipse from high-altitude locations in the Rocky Mountains. For astronomers, the high altitude meant exceptionally transparent skies and an excellent opportunity to continue the hunt for the elusive planet Vulcan. This planet, first proposed in the 1850s to explain the faster-than-expected orbital precession of Mercury as computed using Newton’s Law of Gravity, had to reside within the orbit of Mercury and would therefore only be visible during a total solar eclipse.

Despite several unverified sightings, the planet was never found, and its existence was no longer needed after Albert Einstein updated Newton’s Law of Gravity with his General Theory of Relativity in 1915.


Item #19

Three photographs featuring Zou Yixin in Hokkaido, Japan, as part of the Chinese team observing the eclipse of June 19, 1936.

Esashi, Hokkaido Eclipse Photographs, #8843

Female astronomers’ contributions to the field have long been marginalized, in both the Western and the non-Western world. In the field of solar physics, for instance, the British astronomer Elizabeth Brown, who specialized in sunspots and solar eclipses, and who was a proud Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in Reading, England, was refused membership in the Royal Astronomical Society in 1892.

The photographs on display here feature Zou Yixin (邹仪新, 1911-1997), “the first female Chinese astronomer” and a professor at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. In 1934, Zou Yixin spent a year as an intern at a Japanese  Observatory. In 1936, she returned to Japan as part of the Chinese team observing the total solar eclipse of June 19, 1936.

From 1948 to 1951, Yixin was the first Chinese scientist to perform research at the Greenwich Observatory (UK).  From 1956-1958 she also conducted research in the Soviet Union. Upon her return home she served as the director of the Tianjin Latitude Station of the Purple Mountain Observatory, was a researcher at the Beijing Observatory, and became director of the Chinese Astronomical Society. Chairman Mao Zedong hosted a banquet for Zou Yixin in 1956.

Chairman Mao Zedong and Zou Yixin at a banquet

From: 《中大教工》 2011 vol. 3


Item #20

Etienne Trouvelot. Detail from “Total eclipse of the sun” [facsimile]. The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1882.

History of Science arZ603 + portfolio

This drawing of the eclipsed sun by Etienne Trouvelot (1827-1895) was based on his telescopic observations of the solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. Note the red filaments (prominences) visible on the left side of the eclipsed solar disk. These arcs of plasma (ionized gas) may form in as little as a day, stretch out over many thousands of miles, and persist for several weeks to months. Their red color reveals the presence of hydrogen, the element accounting for 74% of the mass of the Sun.