When was our last big solar eclipse?

It’s actually not a simple question to answer. 

There are lots of different ways to describe and categorize an eclipse, by path and degree, and repeated claims about once-in-a-lifetime events, heard more than once in a lifetime, can make you skeptical.

Knoxville has never been directly in the path of a total solar eclipse, but we’ve had some relatively near misses. The one this Monday is apparently the closest in well over a century, and as long ago as 1918, Knoxvillians who knew about eclipses were anticipating the one in 2017.

In both the local and national press, we’ve been hearing a lot about one on Feb. 26, 1979, but it was cloudy that day, and the Path of Totality (such an ominous phrase) was several hundred miles to the north, anyway.

Less-often mentioned this year, for reasons I don’t understand, is an event on March 7, 1970, which was maybe Knoxville's biggest eclipse sensation in memory. The Path of Totality was on the east coast, in the Carolinas, but Knoxville was affected, reportedly experiencing a 90 percent occlusion. It was a Saturday afternoon, about 1:30, so most folks were out of work and school, anyway, and watched it from their back yards. 

After weeks of buildup, it was disappointing to some folks, described as “rather mediocre” in the News-Sentinel. That Saturday afternoon’s event was, many said, as if it just got cloudy for a few minutes. 

One of the biggest eclipse events of that century was just over 99 years ago, on June 8, 1918, when the Path crossed just to the south of Tennessee. News of it competed for space in the paper with stories of war in Europe, and casualties of locals, and may have seemed more significant for that reason. Hundreds of Knoxvillians climbed to their roofs to watch the event, which promised to last almost two hours, starting at 5:33. Scientists recommended that people look at it only through smoked glass—or through “old photographic film.” 

On the top of the seven-floor Henson Building on the north end of Market Square, U.S. meteorologist J.F. Voorhees set up a 12-foot telescope, equipped with an array of smoked-glass filters, to take photographs of it. He said he got about a dozen. I don’t know whether they were ever published, or whether they still exist.

That one was interesting to scientists like Voorhees. The skies darkened and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees. But overall, it was disappointing to the general public. The Journal reported that “the darkness was not as general as had been anticipated by the general public.” 

Still, the paper reported, an event of that magnitude “will not take place in this country for the next 99 years.” 

In 1918, they were already looking forward to the next big one, in 2017.