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Solar eclipses in history

Even though solar eclipses were historically viewed as omens that bring about death and destruction, people in many ancient civilizations tried their best to understand and predict them.

Eclipse History
Historically, solar eclipses were seen as omens
©iStockphoto.com/wynnter

March 20, 2015, Total solar eclipse: Can you see it?

Surviving records have shown that the Babylonians and the ancient Chinese were able to predict solar eclipses as early as 2500 BC.

Fun fact: The word eclipse, comes from ekleipsis, the ancient Greek word for being abandoned.

Mythology & superstitions of solar eclipses

The emperor's future

In China, solar eclipses were thought to be associated with the health and success of the Emperor and not predicting one meant putting him in danger. Legend has it that 2 astrologers, Hsi and Ho, were executed for failing to predict a solar eclipse. Historians and astronomers believe that the eclipse that they failed to forecast occurred on October 22, 2134 B.C.E, making it the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded in human history.

Substitute kings

Clay tablets found at ancient archealogical sites show that the Babylonians not only recorded eclipses – the earliest known Babylonian record is of the eclipse that took place on May 3, 1375 B.C.E – but also were fairly accurate in predicting them. They were the first people to use the Saros cycle to predict eclipses. The Saros cycle relates to the lunar cycle and is about 6,585.3 days (18 years, 11 days and 8 hours) long.

Like the ancient Chinese, the Babylonians believed that solar eclipses were bad omens for kings and rulers, and predicting solar eclipses meant that they could seat substitute kings during solar eclipses with the hope that these temporary kings would face the anger of the Gods, instead of the real king.

What are the different types of solar eclipses?

Eclipses as peacemakers

According to Greek historian Herodotus, a solar eclipse in 585 B.C.E stopped the war between the Lydians and Medes, who saw the dark skies as a sign to make peace with each other.

Greek astronomer Hipparchus used a solar eclipse to determine that the Moon was about 268,000 miles (429,000 km) away from the Earth. This is only about 11% more than what today’s scientists accept as the average distance between the Moon and the Earth.

Solar eclipses in modern times

Although early eclipse pioneers, including Chinese astronomer Liu Hsiang, Greek philosopher Plutarch and Byzantine historian Leo Diaconus tried to describe and explain solar eclipses and their features, it was not until 1605 that astronomer Johannes Kepler made a scientific observation of a total solar eclipse.

More than a century later, Edmund Halley of the Halley's comet fame, predicted the timing and path of total solar eclipse that took place on May 3, 1715. His calculations were only 4 minutes and about 18 miles (30 kms) off from the actual timing and path of the eclipse.

Meteor showers associated with Halley's comet: Eta Aquarids and Orionids

Notable solar eclipses in history

The scientific fascination with solar eclipses has led to some very important scientific discoveries about the nature of the Sun, Moon and our solar system.

DateTypeImportance
632 C.EJanuary 27AnnularVisible in Medina, the eclipse coincided with the death of Prophet Mohammad's son Ibrahim. The prophet saw this as a sign from God for his followers to pray to him.
1133 C.EAugust 2TotalKing Henry's Eclipse: King Henry I died shortly after the eclipse, prompting the spread ofthe superstition that eclipses are bad omens for rulers.
1836May 15AnnularEnglish astronomer Francis Baily first discovered and described Baily's beads – a phenomenon that occurs in the seconds before and after totality in a total solar eclipse and annularity in an annular solar eclipse.
1851July 28TotalThe first photograph of the Sun's corona was taken by a Prussian photographer called Berkowski.
2009July 21/22TotalLongest total solar eclipse of the 21st century. Totality lasted for 6 mins and 39 secs.

When is the next solar eclipse in your city?

Discovery of helium

A solar eclipse is responsible for the discovery of Helium. The second lightest and the second most abundant element known to humans was discovered independently by French astronomer Jules Janssen and British scientist Norman Lockye during the total solar eclipse of August 16, 1868. Because of this, it is named after the Greek word for the sun - Helios.

Proving Einstein right

The total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, was used by British astronomer and mathematician, Sir Arthur Eddington to test Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. By taking pictures of stars near the Sun during totality, Eddington was able to show that gravity can bend light.

Topics: Astronomy, Eclipses, Moon, Earth, Sun

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All about solar eclipses

  1. Types of solar and lunar eclipses
  2. What are solar eclipses?
  3. Total solar eclipses
  4. Partial solar eclipses
  5. Annular solar eclipses
  6. Solar eclipses in history
  7. Solar eclipse myths and superstitions
  8. Eye safety during solar eclipses
  9. Make a pinhole projector

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