In 1869, Indiana University professor Theophilus Wylie hosted a viewing party for a total solar eclipse on Aug. 7. The party at the Wylie House — the home built by his cousin Andrew Wylie, IU’s first president — included guests whose names now adorn campus buildings and Bloomington landmarks.
Bloomington has not been in the path of totality for a solar eclipse since Wylie, mathematics and astronomy professor Daniel Kirkwood and Greek professor Elisha Ballantine gathered on the rooftop of the Wylie House that year. That will change on April 8, 2024, when the next total eclipse occurs — the last until 2153.
It’s only fitting that IU’s long and continued history of interest in solar eclipses began with Wylie and Kirkwood. Wylie, who was a professor of natural science, was one of the first people to teach science at the university. He was also one of the first Bloomington residents to use a camera or own a telescope. Kirkwood, who is the namesake of IU Bloomington’s Kirkwood Observatory, was an influential American astronomer known for his theoretical work on the orbits and trajectories of comets, asteroids and meteors.
“The light of the sun reappeared as a point of dazzling brilliancy on the right limb of the sun,” Wylie wrote in his diary on Aug. 7, 1869. “The birds flitted about alarmed. The cocks crowed. Noticed a bat flying about. The whole landscape had an unearthly, unnatural aspect.”
Because the eclipse on July 29, 1878, would only be partially visible from Bloomington, Wylie traveled to the path of totality in Boulder, Colorado. Even though the corona was much brighter than the one he’d observed from the rooftop of the Wylie House, Wylie wrote that this eclipse “did not impress me as much as the eclipse of August 1869 — as the darkness was not near so great.”
Kirkwood also paid close attention to the 1878 eclipse and was a key voice in debunking a theory that stemmed from the viewing of the eclipse. Two major astronomers claimed they observed a planet closer to the sun than Mercury during the eclipse — what scientists call an intramercurial planet. The planet remained a popular theory for decades and was even given a name: Vulcan. But Kirkwood was an early skeptic — even before the phenomenon was attributed to Mercury’s proximity to the sun’s massive gravity and explained away by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The next generation of IU astronomers, including John A. Miller and Wilbur A. Cogshall, traveled to Spain in 1905 to try to capture detailed photographs of the solar corona, the outer layers of the sun that become visible during a total eclipse. They used an innovative new motorized telescope that moved with the sun to reduce blurring.
The 1905 expedition team, which included three IU students, spent nearly one month setting up the observation station in Spain before the total eclipse on Aug. 30. Miller and Cogshall led another eclipse expedition together again to Brandon, Colorado, for the total solar eclipse on June 8, 1918.
An IU delegation including Cogshall traveled to Conway, New Hampshire, to observe a total solar eclipse on Aug. 31, 1932, that left a lasting impression on one student: Frank Edmondson. The aspiring astronomer went on to obtain a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard University and return to IU as professor. He made his mark on the study of asteroids — the same field as Kirkwood — and endowed the Daniel Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at IU after his retirement in the 1980s.
A sign dated Aug. 31, 1932, that reads “Indiana Univ. Eclipse Station,” was rescued from the basement of the Kirkwood Observatory by the current Kirkwood professor, Catherine Pilachowski, and currently hangs in her office.
In 2017, IU campuses across the state hosted viewing parties for a solar eclipse that was partially visible from most parts of Indiana. In 2024, the university is planning to host several events in honor of being in the path of totality that may inspire the next generation of IU astronomers.
This story contains information from the IU Bicentennial Blog post, “IU and Solar Eclipses: A Historical Note” by James H. Capshew and “IU Eclipse History” by Sarah Jozina Reynolds.