The Total Solar Eclipse of January 24, 1925


Eclipse corona, January 24, 1925.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On January 24, 1925, Geneva was in the path of a total solar eclipse for the first time since the 18th century. It began at 8:00 in the morning, just 30 minutes after sunrise, with the period of totality beginning at 9:05, and lasting only two minutes.

There were two challenges to a winter morning eclipse: how low in the sky the sun would be, and the possibility of bad weather.  The Geneva Daily Times wrote, "If the weather man pours out his wrath or even scatters fleecy clouds throughout the southeastern sky, the disappointment of millions of real and potential scientists will be keen indeed."


Geneva Daily Times, January 2, 1925.

The local newspapers educated their readers on the science behind the eclipse and provided instructions on how to make smoked glass for safe viewing.

Cameras were now affordable for the average person, and local stores advertised their wares in advance of the big event. Dorchester & Rose on Exchange Street proclaimed in their ad, "The chance will never come again to you to photograph the Eclipse, so take advantage of the opportunity. If you haven't a Kodak secure one now."

Radios, too, were promoted as a previous eclipse in 1923 had affected radio waves in California.

The public was encouraged to record their observations and send them in to Scientific American magazine.


Geneva Daily Times, January 21, 1925.

Hobart College made plans to use the Smith Observatory on Castle Street, and had invited some colleagues from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station to join them. However, they soon received word from a party of scientists from the University of Michigan who had picked Geneva to make their observations.


Smith Observatory on Castle Street.

The party was led by William J. Hussey, professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan and the director of the Detroit Observatory. However, the impetus for the trip came from Henry S. Hulbert, a judge, philanthropist, and amateur astronomer. Judge Hubert had developed the idea to use an observation balloon to take photographs of a solar eclipse in order to negate any possible clouds. He and his partner Francis C. McMath had then brought the idea to Hussey. Hulbert had also co-sponsored the trip with the Aircraft Development Corporation of Detroit.


Geneva Daily Times, January 22, 1925.

The party chose Geneva because it was in the path of totality, had the Smith Observatory, and Marion L. Burton, the president of the University of Michigan, had recently been in Geneva when he was awarded an honory degree during the Hobart Centennial Commencement exercises.

Hobart cancelled its plans and pledged to support them in any way that they could. President Bartlett wrote, "Delighted to know you have chosen Geneva for your observations. Hobart offers you every facility we have and any help you may desire at observatory or campus for balloon ascension."

The Party from Michigan

William J. Hussey

Professor of astronomy and director of the Detroit Observatory.

Hussey had previously been a professor at Stanford University and director of the Lick Observatory just outside San Jose, California.

H. L. Collian

Hussey's assistant.

Henry S. Hulbert

Prominent judge and philanthropist in Wayne County, Michigan and life-long amateur astronomer.

Francis C. McMath

Civil engineer and amateur astronomer.

In 1929, he and Hulbert constructed the McMath-Hulbert Solar Observatory in Lake Angelus, Michigan.

His son, Robert, would become a solar astronomer and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and an adviser to the National Science Foundation.

William P. Harris, Jr.

Zoologist at the University of Michigan. He had worked in taking nighttime photographs of mammals.

Harris was in charge of taking the photographs of the eclipse.

Ralph H. Upson

An accomplished aviator trained in piloting airships, balloons, and planes. He had won the International Balloon Race in 1913, and was awarded the Wright Brothers Medal. He later taught aerodynamics at the University of Michigan.

Upson would be in charge of flying the balloon.

Lt. Raffe Emerson, Naval Reserve

Upson's assistant.

Mr. Johnson

Assistant to Upson and Emerson.


Geneva Daily Times, January 23, 1925.

The Michiganders arrived at 11:41 the morning before the eclipse. They settled in at the Hotel Seneca before heading to campus for a luncheon with President Bartlett.

Emerson and Johnson went to the Empire Gas and Electric Company in Border City, just east of Geneva to scout the location for the balloon ascension. Emerson told reporters that it was well-protected and situated and had the proper pipes and valves for inflating the balloon. The depth of the cloud bank would determine how high he would fly, but he claimed was prepared to go to 20,000 feet if necessary. The party members were equipped with clothes to handle temperatures as low as -60 degrees, and the balloon contained a pneumatic boat capable of carrying ten people in case of an emergency water landing.


Empire Gas and Electric Company, undated.

Image courtesy of Historic Geneva.

The plan was for one or two members of the party to head to the Smith Observatory, Joining them would be Walter H. Durfee, Hobart professor of mathematics, and a group of students.

The visiting scientists prepared the balloon in the afternoon with the assistance of several Hobart students. Another group of students then stood guard overnight as it slowly inflated.

The Hobart Herald wrote, "Of course all the above observations and witness of the eclipse itself are dependent on the weather conditions, so smoke your glasses, ye students and faculty, and supplicate the gods of the elements for a clear day."

SCAN1575 - Copy.JPG

Geneva Daily Times, January 24, 1925.

When the sun rose the morning of the eclipse, it was a mostly clear day. For the first half hour of the eclipse, the sun was completely visible as the shadow of the moon inched across it. The Geneva Daily Times wrote, "From open spaces on the ground, from windows and from tops of buildings people watched the spectacle through their bits of smoked glass."

Fifteen minutes before totality, the sun entered a dark bank of clouds. "Then the clouds became thicker and thicker until they blotted out the sun entirely." By the time the clouds cleared, the moment of totality had long ended.


Geneva Daily Times, January 24, 1925.

Note: Smith Observatory was commonly called Brooks Observatory in the past.

At the Smith Observatory, Professor Walter Durfee and Anna Brooks, daughter of William Brooks, were in charge of the observations. They had a group of Hobart students to assist them. All of the visiting scholars elected to remain with the balloon at the coal field.

Durfee was interested in measuring the shadow bands cast on the Earth by the eclipse and had staked out an area behind the observatory. The clouds eliminated any chance of successful measurements and the observatory was equally useless. According to the newspaper, all of the students had cameras, but unfortunately none of their photographs made it into the archives.


Smith Observatory, undated.


Geneva Daily Times, January 24, 1925.

At the powerplant, hopes were high that the balloon would successfully lift the visiting scientists above the clouds. A group of 25 Hobart students arrived in the early hours of the morning to assist with preparations and as the sun rose, several hundred Genevans arrived to witness the event.

However, a breeze coming off of Seneca soon grew into a 35mph wind. The buffetted balloon strained against the 16 ropes held by Hobart students. The Geneva Daily Times wrote that, "It was only by superhuman efforts that the balloon was kept on the ground at all."


Hobart students and Michigan scientists struggle with the balloon, 1925.

Upson would not take the party up and offered to go up alone. There were high-tension electrical wires north of the balloon and Upson was worried that the wind would drive the balloon into them if they attempted an ascent. The rest of the party would not agree to Upson risking his life.

Finally, the wind tore a hole in the balloon, allowing the gas to escape.

The Geneva Daily Times wrote, "The great gas bag fluttered to the ground and with it crumpled the carefully laid plans of Professor Hussey and his associates in the venture."


Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Geneva Daily Times, January 24, 1925.

In other parts of the country, including the major cities on the east coast, the eclipse was a success, with a clear view for all. Those in Geneva, however, would need to wait until April 8, 2024 for another chance.

The Geneva Daily Times summed it up thusly:

"Science had accurately estimated its appearance and duration, but because of that long, low-lying bank of grey clouds to the east the climax of the spectacle had been ruined for Genevans, and science could do not a thing to remedy it. Thus is Nature wonderful, and powerful, and, sometimes, - disappointing."


President Calvin and Grace Coolidge watch the eclipse at the White House.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Total Solar Eclipse of January 24, 1925