The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Astronomers Often Go Awry: The 1901 Sumatra Eclipse Expedition

Astronomers travel far and wide to see solar eclipses but sometimes their best laid plans don’t work out..

Secretary Charles G. Abbot, by Unknown, 1897, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-12606.As Robert Burns wrote in 1785,  “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.”  This can also happen to astronomers traveling around the globe to study a solar eclipse. After the controversy over claims from the 1900 North Carolina eclipse, Charles Greeley Abbot of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) set out for the island of Sumatra  for a total solar eclipse on May 18, 1901, to record more data with his bolometer to hopefully bolster SAO’s conclusions. Abbot traveled with an assistant, Paul Draper, and equipment to San Francisco where the joined the US Naval Observatory (USNO) observing team and several other scientists on the UST Sheridan to the Philippines. William J. Humphreys and Heber D. Curtis of the University of Virginia, Samuel A. Mitchell of Columbia University, Edward Emerson Barnard of Yerkes Observatory, Dr. N. B. Gilbert of Hobart College, and SAO’s Charles G. Abbot and Paul Draper, joined the USNO team of Professor A. N. Skinner, W. W. Dinwiddie, L. E. Jewell, William S. Eichelberger, Frank B. Littell, and George H. Peters. It was young Abbot’s first crossing of the equator so, as tradition required, he was dunked in an improvised pool aboard ship by King Neptune. At Manila, the party boarded the USS Avala to Padang on the West Coast of Sumatra.

Sumatra Eclipse Expedition, by Unknown, 1901, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-12603.Astronomers from around the world had gathered in the region to photograph and study the event, from England, France, and Russia. The Dutch colonial government had studied weather records and determined the location with the best prospect of good weather was Solok, further inland on the railroad line. The astronomers were given the use of an abandoned fort and immediately began setting up their equipment and testing it. The facilities were excellent, with ample space and an outbuilding to use as a dark room to develop their photographic plates. The Naval Observatory hedged their bets by setting up in three different locations, while other observing teams settled in on small islands nearby. The busy astronomers had little time to explore the region, but did capture images of the peaked houses typical of the area. Clouds and rain arrived nearly every day making the group increasingly nervous but there were more clear skies and sun in May than there had been in April.

Map of expedition sites in Sumatra, 1901

They awoke on the morning of the eclipse, much to their joy, to a clear sky and they busily got to work setting up for the exciting day with totality expected about noon. But at 10 a.m. clouds began to roll in and grew worse as the day went on.  Photographs were taken through a variety of instruments but the results overall were not very useful.  It was so cloudy that Abbot did not even use the bolometer he had carried so far away – the clouds prevented the delicate instrument from recording any meaningful data. The day was so cloudy that the area never grew dark and the carefully prepared lanterns were not even needed. The local light from human habitation bounced off the cloud cover and kept the area lit despite the lack of sunlight from the sky, so they could not even observe the effects on local wildlife or experience totality themselves. Professor Samuel A. Mitchell of Columbia University had more success at Sawah-Loento to the east and William J. Humphreys of the University of Virginia had clear skies at Fort de Kock. But none of these stations had a bolometer so Abbot returned home without the measurements he and his director, Samuel P. Langley, sought.  The USNO report concluded that observing teams should always split up to multiple locations to ensure their studies could be completed during an eclipse. 

Lake Singkarak, Sumatra, 1901, by C. G. AbbotNative Dwelling, Sumatra, 1901, by C. G. Abbot

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