The Eclipse as Heavenly Sign, Scientific Phenomenon & Artistic Inspiration

In the year 1900, then Davidson College professor and future college president Henry Louis Smith traveled with fellow astronomers to Winnsboro, South Carolina, to observe a total solar eclipse. More than a century later, Davidson faculty and students will tread the same ground, with the same goal.

Excitement around the Aug. 21 Great American Eclipse harkens back to days when amateur and professional scientists indulged their curiosity by banding together to seek out cosmological events all over the world. Eclipses proved particularly fascinating.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common for American universities to assemble expeditions to study the sun and other physical phenomena during eclipses, said Kristen Thompson, assistant professor of physics.

Only two observing stations from eclipse expeditions of the previous era are in the path of totality this time around-Winnsboro is one.

"More than 12,000,000 people live in the path of totality–that's like nearly 20 Woodstocks happening around the country at once," Thompson said.

Traffic woes are expected, as people travel from all over the United States to points along the path, the narrow corridor where the new moon lines up perfectly between the Earth and the sun. Those outside of the path of totality will experience the eclipse at anywhere from 20 to 99 percent.

Observers in the Charlotte region will witness 97 percent totality. Here, the peak of the eclipse will resemble dusk, whereas in Winnsboro, stars and planets will emerge in the darkness, the temperature will drop and confused birds will chirp their nighttime songs.

The college community should anticipate a memorable first day of classes. Thompson, who will be in Winnsboro for the event, has organized a watch party and activities for faculty, staff and students on Chambers Lawn. Learn more about plans for the 2017 Great American Eclipse.

In anticipation of this once-in-a-lifetime event, we asked Davidson experts to weigh in on the historical, cultural, scientific and artistic significance of eclipses. Enjoy the video, and follow Davidson College social media for more on the day of the event.


  • August 7, 2017