Long before the “Stores Are Running Out of Glasses Eclipse” of 2017, there was the Great American Eclipse of 1834.
It was the first total eclipse in the U.S. that was studied, charted and written about extensively. America was a young country and a neophyte in the science world. There were no science institutions, except for the brand new Naval Observatory. There was no Smithsonian.
The skies grew so dark in Macon on Nov. 30, 1834, it was as if someone had reached over and switched off the lights in the middle of the day.
Only Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb until 1878. That same year, he traveled to the Continental Divide to witness a spectacular total eclipse.
Monday afternoon’s eclipse is being hailed as one of those once-in-a-lifetime events, the first to traverse the country from coast to coast in 99 years.
Macon and other parts of Middle Georgia are fortunate to be in its path, although we are more on a side street than the main highway. The partial eclipse will register here at 95.4 percent.
The eclipse of 183 years ago was a total blackout. Phil Groce, our resident expert on moon, stars and faraway galaxies, has studied it with a passion. It went down the center of the plate in Macon.
A visiting expedition team from Princeton and a famous astronomer from Paris came to the city to witness it. Poetic accounts of the event appeared in the Macon and Milledgeville newspapers, and later were reprinted in papers in Chicago, New York and Boston.
People didn’t get wall-to-wall news coverage back in those days. But they were not in the dark … no pun intended.
Phil believes most people knew about it in advance, even in the rural South, because of the churches. The eclipse was on a Sunday. He has researched and found documentation in the recorded minutes of churches in Alabama and Georgia.
He is in his 25th year as founder of the Macon-based HPS (Helping Planetariums Succeed). He designs, builds and provides support for dozens of planetariums cross the country, including the Museum of Art and Sciences on Forsyth Road.
Since Macon won’t have the best seats in the house for the eclipse, Phil will travel to Lake Barkley, Kentucky, with about a dozen friends and family members. He booked reservations for the trip four years ago. It will be the fifth “total” eclipse he has witnessed in his lifetime.
“Celestial events are milestones in my life, so I stop everything I’m doing and plan for them,” he said. “They’re all significant to me. They’re like children.”
Phil himself was one of seven children, the son of a race horse trainer in Louisiana. One Christmas, he asked for a telescope. You can imagine his disappointment when he found a microscope under the tree.
His destiny was changed forever in 1958, when he was 8 years old. He received a copy of the “Golden Book of Astronomy.”
He has been lifting his eyes toward the stars ever since.
“I used to go to bed and pray, ‘Dear God, let me live long enough see the return of Haley’s Comet,’ ” Phil said.
Haley has been making the rounds in the solar system every 75 years or so since 240 B.C.
Phil took a group to Venezuela to see the comet’s return in 1986. If he lives to be 111, he can catch it the next time in 2061.
He witnessed his first total eclipse in 1970 in Perry, Florida, with some other college physics and astronomy students. Although the weather didn’t fully cooperate, the experience was awesome, if not surreal.
“A cold front stalled, and we couldn’t find the sun,” he said. “If you think it gets dark during an eclipse when it’s clear, it gets really dark when it’s cloudy.
“It was pitch black. All the animals were confused. It was a short night. The guineas flew up in the trees. The chickens went up in the roost. The cows and horses lay down in the field. Frogs started croaking, and the temperature dropped about 15 degrees. I watched flowers close.”
Two years later, he drove 25 hours to Nova Scotia. His other total eclipse trips were to North Dakota (1979) and California (1984).
“In Nova Scotia, I got to see the shadow of the moon coming at me,” he said. “It was a wall of blackness at 1,700 mph. It was amazing.”
Monday’s eclipse will be extra special. However, it’s not just the moon blocking the sun in the middle of the afternoon that makes it fascinating.
The sky isn’t the only star of the show.
“What happens around you is much more interesting,” Phil said. “The shadows become sharp. You will never see a landscape like that again.”
He said he has been in situations where people have been “emotionally overwhelmed” by this spectacle of nature.
“I have described it as like being in a car accident,” Phil said. “It’s something you don’t anticipate. It’s the scariest moment of your life, and you realize that, no matter what you do, you can’t stop it from happening and that’s a pretty frightening thing. I have been in a serious accident, and an eclipse is a slow-motion version of that.
“When you see the moon slowly taking a bite out of the sun and you realize there’s nothing you can do about it, and you are not in control, a power of helplessness washes over you.”
A self-professed “eclipsophile,” Phil gave a presentation to a crowd of more than 100 folks at the Washington Library on Aug 12. In April, he gave a lecture to about 1,000 students at Georgia Tech.
“The administration didn’t like it when I said the eclipse is on Aug. 21, which is also the first day of classes at Georgia Tech,” he said. “I told the students if I were them I would blow off the first day of class and invite their professors. It went viral.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.