Solar Eclipse Tips From John Quincy Adams

Sage advice from an early American eclipse chaser.

John Quincy Adams loved astronomy, and he was a huge fan of solar eclipses – from predicting and observing them to writing weird sonnets in their honor. In preparation for the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017, here are a few do’s and don’ts from JQA.

1. DO be prepared for disappointment.

Long before details of upcoming eclipses were just a few clicks away, people like John Quincy Adams used math and science to figure out when they would happen.

In November 1786 after spending days calculating when an upcoming event would be viewable, he wrote, “Finished my elements for an eclipse, and finally found it would be here before Sunrise, and consequently not visible.” He didn’t seem to take it well, adding, “Unwell, so that I could not do much all day.”

We know the when and the where of this eclipse, but weather is less predictable. So hope for the best but prepare for the worst, as there’s a chance clouds might rain on your parade.

2. Do NOT look directly at the sun.

Five years after his depressing eclipse-miss, Adams got another chance. I don’t know if he was trying to make up for what he missed, but he seemed determined to see the hell out of this one, and it nearly cost him his eyesight.

In April 1791, he charged up Beacon Hill to get a good look at a solar eclipse and wrote, “Hurt my eyes much by observing this same Eclipse without a glass.” Five months later he was still complaining that he was “almost blind,” and his eyes never fully recovered.

The brightness of the sun is nothing to mess with. Witnessing another solar eclipse in 1806 (this time with special protective glasses), Adams wrote from experience, “never since my existence have I seen any thing like the brightness of the first beam, which he shot forth upon his return—The naked eye could not bear it for an instant.”

Then he pondered, “I know not the philosophical reason why the first rays of reviving splendor should be so much more dazzling than the last beams of expiring glory, but such was the fact.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say it has something to do with your pupils adjusting to the darkness of totality, but maybe the sun is just excited to see you again.

3. DO revel in the details.

After viewing that 1806 eclipse, Adams wrote a letter to his wife Louisa rich in detail about the sights, sounds, and feelings of the eeriness of totality – the temperature dropped 11 degrees, the fowls roosted, cows mooed, the moon “appeared like a patch of court-plaister upon the face of Heaven” and took on a “deep crimson colour” before the sun emerged.

Forget your camera and live in the moment with your primal senses. And record your experiences for posterity, even if you’re not the letter-writing or journaling type. Anything counts.

4. DO be inspired.

In 1846 in Washington, Adams observed his final solar eclipse on a public screen projected through a camera lucida. (No risk of further eye damage there.) The Baltimore Sun reported he was “very much interested in what was going on,” and he must have been because he went right home and wrote a sonnet to the sun.

It starts out “Celestial source of life and light on earth! What envious rival intercepts thy rays?” and kind of goes downhill from there, never quite paying off its promising premise that the moon is a jealous floozy.

It’s no Homer, but then again Adams wasn’t fully blind.

Take a lesson from JQA and don’t be afraid to get in touch with your creative side. Let this once-in-a-lifetime event be a hard reboot for your soul.

We could all probably benefit from a couple of quiet minutes where everyone stands together in awe of nature’s beauty, and the only confused tweets are coming from the roosting birds.


John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel
The Diary of John Quincy Adams



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