Viewing the Solar Eclipse—in 1937

By Melissa Sagen

“Like a hungry small boy sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, an astronomer at a total eclipse of the sun is there to get all he can while he has the chance. The boy is determined to stuff himself with as much turkey as possible while it lasts, and the astronomer is eager to gather in all the knowledge of the sun that he can during the brief few minutes of favorable conditions created by the eclipse.”—S.A. Mitchell, Scientific Leader of the NGS/US Navy Eclipse Expedition

In 1937 a National Geographic Society/United States Navy expedition consisting of 13 scientists and officers and 13 sailor assistants headed to Canton Island in the South Pacific (read more).

The eclipse on June 8 of that year would create a shadow approximately 150 miles wide and follow a path of 8,800 miles from northeast Australia to Peru. At the center of this path, the moon blocked the sun for seven minutes and four seconds. The men traveled 6,500 miles to the far western end of the path to view the eclipse, which lasted 213 seconds at their location.

National Geographic staff photographer Richard H. Stewart was able to record motion pictures of the eclipse. NBC announcer George Hicks described the eclipse to the American radio audience. Coming years before Pearl Harbor and the entry of the U.S. into the Pacific theater of World War II, this expedition was the first radio series to be broadcast from a desert island.

For more information about this expedition, read “Nature’s Most Dramatic Spectacle” by S.A. Mitchell and “Eclipse Adventures on a Desert Isle” by Capt. J.F. Hellweg, USN (National Geographic Magazine, September, 1937) and our recent recap: “The Solar Eclipse That Sparked a WWII Scandal.”

  • Kathleen

    My father was assistant to the photographer on this expedition.

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