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January 24, 1925

Seven observatories in its line of totality—at Toronto, Buffalo, Cornell, Vassar, Wesleyan, Yale and Nantucket—collaborated to record the first total eclipse of the sun since 1823 visible in New York and New England—the last until 2144. Vassar’s observatory was near the central line of the 100-mile wide shadow that swept from Minnesota to Rhode Island between 9:02 and 9:15 in the morning.

Extensive preparations for the event began a year earlier when the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Association, at Vassar, was devoted almost entirely to the eclipse. In preparation for the event, “four students in the mathematical class” at Vassar prepared “improved” tables of the moon, critical data for timing and tracking the eclipse. Telescopes at Vassar and Yale were fitted with special color screens and cameras, and dedicated long distance telephone lines and telephone and telegraph operators contributed by AT&T connected five of the participating observatories.

Scheduled for the morning of the event, the first round of final examinations was rescheduled, and, with Alumnae House filled nearly to capacity, the alumnae association announced that the “portion of the hill north of the house now used for parking space will be reserved for the use of the guests of the House, and special arrangements are beng made…to facilitate the viewing of the phenomenon. A charge of $1.00 per person will be asked for the use of this section. All other space surrounding the House is at the service of the college without charge.” The executive committee of the board of trustees authorized a work stoppage on campus—“except that necessary for safety”—to be announced by “three blasts…by the fire whistle…in order to allow the employees time to see the total eclipse.”

On campus, loud speakers from Bell Telephone provided information from observers in the Observatory. Designated clocks were synchronized by a special radio operator from the Variable Star Association and an array of smaller telescopes with particular responsibilities were deployed at campus sites. Observations were made from the Observatory, Richmond Hill, Sunrise Hill and the top of the library tower.

Among the distinguished visitors who came to Vassar to view the eclipse was Japanese Prince Oyama, the son of Stematz Yamakawa ’82. Others included the reknowned Harvard stellar classifier Annie Jump Cannon and atomic theorist Dr. Irving Langumuir, who was among a group of distinguished scientists that, The Miscellany News reported, “viewed the eclipse from the dahlia farm and reported that this was a remarkably good place from which to see it.”

In The Miscellany News for February 7 Caroline Furness ’91, professor of astronomy and director of the Observatory, wrote “an account of what went on in the Observatory, where lay the real heart of the scientific work of the event…. The signal for totality was to be given by Mrs. Harriet Parsons Hall, A. B. Vassar, Ph. D. Chicago, who was seated at a low table at the south window of the Observatory office, where she could easily look out and watch the progress of the eclipse with her field glasses. On the table in front of her was placed the telephone mouthpiece which carried her words all along the line of observatories and the microphone which was connected with the loud speakers placed at various spots on the campus. The signal for the totality was the word ‘dash’…. At a quarter before eight the principal actors of this part of the eclipse pageant were already in the office of the Observatory, the telephone and telegraph operators, Mrs. Hall and myself.

“At 8, three of us went on the roof with smoked glass to see if the eclipse was really coming off. Yes, there it was, almost on time the little black dent on th edge of the sun, showing plainly. All was going on according to predicition. Into the house again…. It gradually grew darker, the unnecessary people left the room, from the last window I could see groups of people walking toward the east field where many of our students were stationed. The two operators moved their tables so that they, too, could look out the window…. Finally at 8:50 the wires were cleared and there was silence, only the ticking of the sidereal clock and the whirring of the chronograph could be heard.”

After the Harvard director, Dr. Harlow Shapely, had signed off in Buffalo and Professor S. L. Boothroyd announced “Ithaca says goodbye,” Furness reported, “our operator began his clicks, while it grew quiet and dark. Mrs. Hall called out ‘It is coming soon.’ The fascination of the scene had held me up to this time…but when she called ‘Stop’ I came to myself, sprang from my station, seized a pair of field glasses, dashed to the southeast window in time to see the wavering shadow bands, heard the word ‘Stop.’ Then silence came, then ‘Dash’ and ‘Poughkeepsie says goodbye,’ and the corona was there. It was a wonderful moment, worth all the work put into it, and all the years of waiting to see it.” The duration of totality of the eclipse in Poughkeepsie was 1 minute and 57.5 seconds. Eight photographs were taken during the eclipse and its immediate aftermath. “Those of the cornoa,” she wrote, “show it to be very beautiful.”

Concluding her account, Professor Furness paid tribute to her predecessor as professor of astronomy and director of the Observatory, the late Mary Watson Whitney ’68, “whose bequest left to the College for research work at the Observatory made it possible for us to provide the apparatus and the help necessary to carry out our rather ambitious plans. This is Vassar’s third eclipse campaign. The first was led by Professor Mitchell in 1869 who went to Burlington, Iowa, with a party of eight Vassar graduates, one of whom was Mary Whitney. Two of our small telescopes now at the Observatory were made for that expedition. In 1900 Professor Whitney took a small party consisting of herself and myself to Wadesboro, N. C., and her telescope again made the trip. In 1925 the eclipse came to Vassar, and our party consisted of the whole College. I wonder when the next Vassar eclipse party will come off, and in what part of the world it will be stationed. Who can tell?”

The Miscellany News

The Years